Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Water Shortage Predicted in Five Years

24. April 2005 • Scott Trudeau
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The Ann Arbor News reports that the City estimates they will no longer be able to supply water demand by 2010.

There are a few options for the city:

  • It could store more water in Barton Pond by building a bigger dam. Skadsen said that could damage the surrounding ecology.
  • The city could purchase water from the city of Detroit. But Skadsen said both cities use differing chemical treatments on the water and if they blended, it wouldn’t be high quality water.
  • It could build more wells. That’s the most likely option. The city would like 10 million to 20 million more gallons a day of groundwater.


A Washtenaw County Circuit Court judge is considering whether Pall Life Sciences [,responsible for polluting one of the City’s wells with 1,4 dioxane,] should be held financially responsible for some, if not all, of the city’s expenses in finding an alternative well.

> Ann Arbor News: Ann Arbor predicts water shortage
> Ann Arbor News: Cleanup of 1,4 dioxane pollution continues

  1. Or, the city couldban turf-grass. Or at least provide major incentives for xeriscaping. There’s got to be some demand-side tactics we can implement.
       —Brandon    Apr. 24 '05 - 08:39PM    #
  2. There was talk of a rain barrel program at one point a couple years ago. Not likely at this point. Could offer property tax rebates for them, though, which would also address water quality and flooding issues. Low-flush toilets are much more functional than in the past—they might be good candidates for rebates too.

    If we reduce demand now, citywide, and commit to keeping it down, we’ll be in a much better position to handle an emergency like an upstream spill of some kind (as Matt Naud discussed in the article.) Allowing the perpetuation of inefficent water use in new and existing buildings is irresponsible.

    Likewise, there’s absolutely no reason we should be spending millions on infrastructure to ensure green lawns. They go dormant when it’s dry and green up again when it rains, which also provides a nice break from mowing during the ozone-impact days of summer.

    Actually, I’d like the city to go all-out comprehensive on this kind of thing and pass a sustainability millage to do homestead and business audits/retrofits/bulk purchases/DIY workshops for energy/water-efficient landscaping to building envelope insulation to efficient lighting to appliances to solar DHW, etc. Set up a revolving loan fund and do all the necessary hand holding, work with local banks on additional financing, and strengthen the local economy.

    I’ve got more details if anyone’s interested.
       —Steve Bean    Apr. 25 '05 - 01:50AM    #
  3. “Or, the city couldban turf-grass. Or at least provide major incentives for xeriscaping. There’s got to be some demand-side tactics we can implement.’

    And brewers laughed when Scott and I spend some pretty serious $$ to reduce our water usage. I can’t tell you how many phone calls we got when California brewers called begging for help when the energy costs went through the roof a few years ago.

    BTW the average brewery uses 10 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of beer. We use only 1.9, and that includes our distillery.
       —Todd Leopold    Apr. 25 '05 - 01:51PM    #
  4. Steve, totally interested. You might even be able to round yourself up some planner or SNRE students to help figure out the policy details as a master’s project. This may involve you having some sort of official body to serve as the students’ client, but I know that Bob Dascola has been talking with Drain Commissioner Bobrin recently, so maybe that could be an avenue to investigate…
       —Murph    Apr. 25 '05 - 03:02PM    #
  5. Hey Steve,

    Do you have any tips on acquiring cheap rain barrels? Or just cheap barrels, generally? We could use a barrel or two on our roof-patio this summer for watering plants. (I think I’ll call the ReUse Center to see if they see this sort of thing often or have suggestions).
       —Scott    Apr. 25 '05 - 03:33PM    #
  6. Waterloo, Canada, appears to have an aggressive rain barrel program.
       —allen claxton    Apr. 25 '05 - 03:50PM    #
  7. Scott, I’ll look in my email archives. I think I have a message from Vince Caruso about how he and his wife Rita retrofitted some old 55-gallon drums for rain barrels. They found them fairly cheap as I remember. I don’t remember if they got them from the ReUse Center or not.

    Part of the reason the rain barrel program here didn’t take off, I think, is because the effect it would have had on runoff was thought to be insignificant. Using them primarily to help reduce water use is a different matter, though. It may still be insignificant if people continue to grow lawns and want them green from April through November. (I actually saw several sprinklers out a week ago.) On the other hand, if our climate gets hotter and drier, they may become very significant.

    However, the fact that rain barrels don’t currently offer a significant benefit (assuming that’s the case) in our unsustainable system is irrelevant. We need to move toward a sustainable system and find appropriate components that work (i.e., provide significant benefits) within that system.
       —Steve Bean    Apr. 25 '05 - 04:58PM    #
  8. I hadn’t realized just how cheap water is. Calculating out the rates, it’s $0.0013 / gallon for the first 5250 gallons per quarter, and the “top tier” rate is still just $0.0039 / gallon.

    Um, Steve, I can see a mechanism for funding your sustainability projects that’s much more directly tied to the desired results than a millage would be. I could support, say, a ten-fold increase in water rates, stepped up over the next ten years, with the revenues rolled into water conservation/control measures (water-efficient fixtures, leak audits, rain barrels, green roofs, permeable driveways, rain gardens). Target first either the households currently paying the highest-tier rates or the households in the most stressed sewer/storm drain districts. (Since it’s not just the water supply side of the infrastructure that’s going to be stressed as demand rises, but the waste processing side as well.)
       —Murph    Apr. 25 '05 - 05:00PM    #
  9. Steve, there is some mechanism for recognizing rain barrels; the storm drain fee on property has different rates per area for “permeable”, “impermeable” and “mitigated impermeable” portions of a lot. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to figure out what “mitigated” encompasses, and how big a rain barrel has to be for a given building footprint to qualify. (I’ve never, you know, called up the drain commissioner and asked . . .)
       —Murph    Apr. 25 '05 - 05:15PM    #
  10. Whoa, Murph! We pay 100-125 dollars a quarter (not too bad for 6 people) for water, of which there is almost no waste (only showers, toilets, sink [I know there’s some waste built in to those activities, but we’re fairly conscientious]). 1000 dollars a quarter for water more or less necessary for sanitary living seems unreasonable, UNLESS it doesn’t reflect the cost of drawing and treating the water.

    What about a formula for households allocating a certain amount of water a quarter at a reasonable rate, then steep graduations up for every 100 or so gallons thereafter?
       —Dale    Apr. 25 '05 - 05:45PM    #
  11. Yeah. I want a rain barrel or two just because we don’t have a hose on our roof nor an easy way to run one out a window. It’d be nice to have a big barrel to dip the watering pot in to right there next to all the plants…

    It seems with all this talk about stress on the Allen’s Creek floodway, this kind of thing would be a two-fer: reduce water use (perhaps very minor savings) but also reduce stress on the drainage system, which Murph alludes to.
       —Scott    Apr. 25 '05 - 05:45PM    #
  12. Murph, I’m not focusing on water, but rather energy, with the water system, among others, being a secondary component (in part, given that the WWTP is the city’s largest energy user.) It would also get into food, other purchasing (avoiding toxics, favoring recyclables), etc. Like I wrote, “all-out comprehensive”.

    The best situation might be if we had developed a municipal energy utililty (which may still make sense.) A millage makes sense, too, I think. Everyone should be able to benefit from at least a short list of improvements. We’d recommend starting with those that offered the most bang for the buck (best payback and/or environmental improvement) and then reinvest the savings in the next item(s) on the prioritized list.
       —Steve Bean    Apr. 25 '05 - 05:47PM    #
  13. Steve,

    I know that Kerry Sheldon at Wash. County works full time on making buildings in Wash. more energy and materials efficient….finding ROI on efficient equipment, low interest loans on said equipment, etc.
       —Todd Leopold    Apr. 25 '05 - 05:57PM    #
  14. Dale, the rate structure was just recently revised along those lines, though maybe not to the extent that will make a difference for most homeowners who water their yards. The problem is that there’s too much difference in annual usage between a one- or two-person household and a five- or six-person one. Maybe it would be possible and worthwhile to base it on household size, but I doubt it.

    As I mentioned earlier, I think we need to move toward a sustainable system (with energy use as the focus) and then this problem will take care of itself. For example, move away from noisy, polluting, non-renewable fuel burning power mowers and large lawns become considerably less desireable. Encourage people to grow their own food and rain barrels become an asset. The list goes on.
       —Steve Bean    Apr. 25 '05 - 06:02PM    #
  15. Todd, thanks, I’ve talked with Kerry about implementing this program through the county. She got busy with her current program (which I think is great… and not sufficient) and couldn’t really push for this at that point. (I hope I’m not misrepresenting her. We haven’t talked in a while.)

    I also approached the Ecology Center with this, but it’s largely a matter of staffing for them. (Again, it’s been a while.) At this point, I think that getting the city to pass a millage and put out an RFP is the best approach. I would like to see it expand to county-wide eventually, though.

    To finish my thought on the prioritized list of things to implement, some simply wouldn’t have a direct payback to the implementer. That’s where millage funds and matching funds from the state and feds (he writes as if he lived in another time or country), or just low-interest loans come in. The benefits in those cases are societal and they’re worthwhile, but our economic system doesn’t properly account for them. In other words, I’m referring to externalities.
       —Steve Bean    Apr. 25 '05 - 06:16PM    #
  16. Steve, I think you may be a little more optimistic on some of these things than I. If you go to somebody and say, “Hey, if you get rid of your noisy, polluting, non-renewable fuel burning power mower, then you’ll be able to replace your lawn with these awesome rain gardens and native prairie grasses – except for the part you’re growing food on!”, you may find they don’t see the benefit in getting rid of their mower.

    Yes, I picked the most annoying possible response to your examples, but my sentiment stands: increasing the water fee and tying it to water-related sustainability measures will provide two very direct mechanisms for change. A millage has no inherant mechanism for change (unless, maybe, we make it just a millage on land and not on buildings within the City of Ann Arbor, and just a tax on buildings and not on land in the Townships), and if your strategy is to change behaviors in order to change impacts, I’m generally skeptical.
       —Murph    Apr. 25 '05 - 06:33PM    #
  17. Dale, presumably you asked the landlord (or previous tenants) how much utilities generally ran before you moved in. If water prices threatened to skyrocket, you’d most likely inform your landlord that some super-efficient utilities had better appear in the house, or else he ought to start looking for new tenants. You’d also be awfully vigilant for running toilets, etc.

    Yes, there’s a certain floor beyond which you can’t go (though greywater recycling and stormwater capture can push that down pretty far), and it’s probably true that the rate tiers should be based on household size (ooooh, or on maximum allowable household size under zoning! that would take care of those rotten anti-commune laws nicely, as all of the families requested upzoning of their homes in order to get better water rates…), but I still think that the rates could stand to be a lot higher than they are now. Maybe 10x is overreaching.

    Maybe we could get getDowntown on board with this: “Since you’re already showering at the Y to avoid paying for water at home, wouldn’t this be a great time to start commuting by bicycle?”
       —Murph    Apr. 25 '05 - 06:49PM    #
  18. “but I still think that the rates could stand to be a lot higher than they are now.”

    Amen. But water is like gas in the US….low prices are a sacred cow. Our entire business model is based on the increase in energy and material costs. As prices go up, our ability to produce things at a lower cost than our competitors increases, and the ROI on our efficient equipment continues to rise in our favor….

    I’ve long held the belief that the only time that Americans can clearly understand a concept is if you reach in their wallet and take money out.

    My brother’s favorite quote, dripping with sarcasm, “Oh, you mean my money.”
       —Todd Leopold    Apr. 25 '05 - 07:08PM    #
  19. Murph,

    All it takes is 50%+1 to pass the millage. Then the other 49% or fewer will have the option of either taking advantage of the opportunity to replace their lawn and/or power mower for a subsidized push mower or rain garden, or else just keep polluting while their neighbors uses the taxes they (the holdouts) paid to benefit the community to do it.

    Yes, water rates should be structured so as to provide such incentives, too. Gas prices will be rising faster (finally!) and people will be looking for help. Rather than let them fumble around individually, I’m proposing we do the research for them and make it easier.

    It’s also not just about behavior, but also “infrastructure”: insulation, appliances, paving, shade trees, plumbing, etc. Who’d turn down inexpensive insulation when natural gas prices are skyrocketing? That gets me in the door to talk to them about why recycling is important enough for them to finally make the effort that most of us already are, plus the mower argument, the locally grown food argument, the bus argument, etc.

    There’s a big list and they get to choose from it. Or not. Or move. Or do it the next year. (This would be at least a ten-year program.) But they have to listen to me (in the form of some other person, of course) for an hour to get their chance to choose.
       —Steve Bean    Apr. 25 '05 - 07:33PM    #
  20. All, I have just read the postings on the water shortage coming in a few years from now. It will be a problem if something isn’t done to head this off. I did talk to the drain commissioner Janis Bobrin about the problems with Allen Creek and flooding. Rain barrels were talked about. The problem with them is that they cost a bunch, so if you can find a cheaper source for them, maybe more people would use them.

    The aqua duct to the west is one big mess with the Gilman’s pollution. It has been spreading too, which is really bad news. I heard that the contamination has gone down to the next lower aqua duct. So with that said, there goes the deeper wells idea for now. I wonder how many peoples health has been messed up because of drinking the contaminated water? It would be really great if there was a way to flush out the aqua duct and rid it of the problem, but that is just dreaming. I learned today that there are at least 4 or 5 wells that the city has at the airport.

    Todd, I didn’t know how much water it took to make beer until after I reading what you said and how you cut back the usage, that is really great. Maybe Sue McCormick should be talking to you and your bro about ways to cut down on water usage. What do you think about that? Let me know if you want to talk with her about ways to cut back usage and I’ll set up a lunch sometime. People should learn to conserve the water usage anyway. It will be a good education project. Rain gardens, and rain meadows will play an important part in helping to clean up Allen Creek. The project idea I like with rain meadows is doing this on a very big scale in West Park. It’s a perfect place for it. There is plenty of room on the sides of the park to grab the water and let it be cleaned naturally with the rain meadows. People have messed up the aqua duct so people will have to fix it. Another place I see with some rain meadows would be Vets park. It’s on the Allen Creek branch that runs through West Park. Anything will help, and it will take a long time to make a dent into this problem. The county has been mandated to clean up Allen Creek, so the county will have to find some more money someplace to help this clean up along.

    Steve, you have some really great idea’s and I’d like to sit down with you sometime in the very near future and talk about this. What do you say? E-mail me please and we can plan some kind of get together. Let’s all stand together to get some thing done in our community because it will take everyone of us working on this project to make a dent in the problems. Talk is cheap, and actions speak louder then words. I know we all can help because we all care about good old Ann Arbor. There’s no place like home…...
       —Bob Dascola    Apr. 26 '05 - 02:10AM    #
  21. Wow, I just found out that my new house (T minus 1 week) is a mere block from the Allen Creek Floodway, if I’m reading the map right. Impressive.

    Sounds like Dale, Scott, and I are all interested in rain barreling up and otherwise improving our respective lodgings (to whatever extent we can do so, considering landlords and all), so if anybody finds a good/cheap source for barrels, drums, cans, or other large objects that could serve as raw materials, spread the word.

    (thought.) Say, Todd, do kegs ever wear out? It would seem highly appropriate to convert retired Leopolds’ kegs into rain barrels, unless they’re already going to a good home.
       —Murph    Apr. 26 '05 - 02:32PM    #
  22. Yes, kegs do wear out, but it takes an awful long time, and we take really good care of ours.

    Good idea, though.
       —Todd Leopold    Apr. 26 '05 - 02:41PM    #
  23. we take really good care of ours.

    (sarcasm) Really? Not something I would have expected of you. :)

    It’s somewhat ironic, I suppose, that I’m scavenging for scraps from the waste stream of one of the the most efficient businesses in town. What I should be doing is dumpster diving outside Bursley and figuring out a way to cobble 50 discarded computer monitors together into rain barrels. (Since, right now, everything in the dumpsters is already serving to collect rain, it’s a very small step to intentionality…)
       —Murph    Apr. 26 '05 - 03:09PM    #
  24. Yeah, about the only usable “waste” that we generate are pallets. Those are picked up pretty quickly by amateur carpenters…..

    Other than that, we fill about one dumpster every month and a half.

    Our food waste is so low that we couldn’t participate in the City’s composting program…....
       —Todd Leopold    Apr. 26 '05 - 03:20PM    #
  25. From what I have heard, the constant wet/dry cycles of rain barrels cause wooden ones to warp and leak quickly. We have a 50-gallon plastic rain barrel that we use for all our outdoor household plantings like the window boxes and flowerpots (if you were watering a lawn or garden it would require a cistern or a whole system of rain barrels). The big problem with a rain barrel is that they are full when you least need water, and dry when you most need it. Even though ours is in the shade and relatively closed in on the top, if it is any less than about 3/4 full, the evaporation rate is astonishing. I would recommend a lighter color if you can get one, but I have only seen the dark ones. Rain barrels also need to be removed in the winter. Planting as many native plants as possible works the best becuase they can get by even in drought times without additional watering. The city (or someone) did help fund rain barrels a few years ago, but even so, they were $75 rather than $100+.

    Reel mowers are great, but … If you mow high (3-4 inches) which is best for the grass, the reel mowers just can’t handle it very well and end up just pushing the grass over. They also can’t mulch so you have to rake leaves and big clumps of grass. After eight years of using a reel mower, we (and it) finally broke down last year and we bought an electric. We are reluctant lawn owners, but we need something that is permeable, can be walked on, parked on, deluged with road salt, left to its own devices most of the year, and will prevent erosion. Grass (with assorted other greens such as dandelions, clover, etc. which we also grow in quantities) is the only thing we have found so far.

    I think all new city residences should be required to have low-flow showerheads, faucets, and toilets and older residences should have those things phased in if possible. Since rentals are checked, it could be something required for occupancy. I also think it makes sense to have mandatory rationing for outdoor water use, starting immediately, because it makes people more aware there is a problem.

    Large scale environmental initiatives need to have a lot of follow-up with citizens to see what their barriers are to complience. We are committed to it so will go out of our way to find the more environmental solution, but many people aren’t so making this as easy, excuse-free, and barrier-free for people is important.
       —Juliew    Apr. 26 '05 - 05:38PM    #
  26. I think at our house we’re going to be pretty unconcerned with lawn; the only functional need for the rain barrels will be (small) garden usage. Tomatoes like water.

    I also think, though, that there’s a good argument for them even if they’re not providing as much water as you want at the times you want it. Especially in denser neighborhoods, getting houses equipped with rainbarrels in volume enough to capture all the runoff from the roof and hold it for a while is a step towards alleviating flooding – this kind of requires neighborhood-wide compliance, though, to make any sort of difference, along with probably the semi-permeable driveways/sidewalks they just approved(?) . . .
       —Murph    Apr. 26 '05 - 06:45PM    #
  27. Hmmm, every house with their own system for holding runoff from the roof. Sounds suspiciously like the old cisterns to me. I don’t know if all downtown houses used to have cisterns, but just about every one in our neighborhood had them. Too bad almost all of them have been filled and taken out of service. Ours is huge and would hold a lot of water and the drain pipes are still there, but we divert the gutters to run out on the lawn. Funny how ideas come full circle.
       —Juliew    Apr. 26 '05 - 07:50PM    #
  28. Of course things are coming full circle – nobody ever said modernism was perfect!

    Well, except for the modernists.

    What else is there? Streetcars, walkable neighborhoods, front porches, buying produce directly from local farmers, passive solar heating, whole grains . . .
       —Murph    Apr. 26 '05 - 08:33PM    #
  29. All, Your all very wise to use the rain barrels for you water in the garden. With what I’ve been reading about the ground water problems you’ll be safer with the rain barrel water. I have an idea for some storage barrels, you might check with the car washes as the soap and stuff they use to wash cars comes in blue barrels and after they finished with them one could clean them out and reuse them. I have some trees out in the field that are new and in need of water during the dry time so that what I use. My neighbor mounted two on a trailer and it’s so easy to tow them out. 55 gals each is great storage too.
       —Bob Dascola    Apr. 27 '05 - 03:26PM    #
  30. sorry to poke in so late on this discussion. one of my favorite sites for many things greenish is metaefficient. and a few weeks ago they did a rather nice (good link section too) overview of rain ‘harvesting’. check out this link to it: metaefficient essay on rain harvesting
       —bob kuehne    Apr. 27 '05 - 03:37PM    #
  31. julie – funny comment on the cistern – we’re just doing some remodeling of our home on second, and discovered, (drumroll) ... a cistern under the kitchen! after unearthing it, however, it’s pretty clear that it’s unsuitable for water. apparently it’s been used as a building detritus dumping pit. oh well. back to the rain barrel for me.
       —bob kuehne    Apr. 27 '05 - 06:44PM    #