Tuesday, July 23, 2024
InfrastructurePublic HealthWater

Atlanta, Meet Your Twin Brother… Calgary?

Atlanta and Calgary. Two cities that are rarely grouped together. Apart from both cities’ penchant for sprawling growth– both Calgary and Metro Atlanta have doubled in population since I was born- they don’t seem to have much in common. Until recently, that is, when both cities began to be plagued by thoroughly obnoxious infrastructure failures that continue to severely limit access to potable water for their respective citizenries. Once upon a time, I might have looked at this, thrown up my hands, and said, “Welp! The West is finished!” But it’s not quite that simple. It’s mostly that we have spent the better part of a century laterally expanding the built environment without considering the inevitable costs of maintaining and eventually replacing a lot of the infrastructure that supports what we already have.

Of course, we could find plenty of other examples of cities around the world struggling with water crises right now; Mexico City comes to mind. Bogotá is experiencing the same. Catalonia is in the midst of a prolonged drought that has led to serious water restrictions in Barcelona, which already relies on RO desalination for a growing percentage of its municipal demand. These cases should be mentioned as they’re taking place on a large scale. But unlike Calgary or Atlanta, they’re not purely infrastructure issues– they’re hydrological ones.

Climate, Water, and Cities: Calgary, Alberta, the Denver of Canadian Texas, is experiencing a disruption to its water supply after the failure of a water main that carried 60% of the city’s water supply.

Atlanta

Two weeks ago, three major water main breaks in downtown Atlanta effected a boil water advisory for the entire city of half a million people. Water systems, it should be said, are more complex than we think– they rely on constant pressure to not only supply drinking water but to maintain safety. The reason is that water is treated at the treatment plant, not in the pipes themselves– so when water is stagnant in pipes for a long time, it creates problems. We saw catastrophic examples of municipal water system failures in the Flint Water Crisis in which not only lead was released into the water supply owing to the emergency manager’s decision to skip the addition of orthophosphates, which make otherwise corrosive water safe to use in lead pipes, but due to legionella contamination in the municipal water supply.

But water main breaks are not exactly uncommon. They occur as a product of any number of factors: water pressure is too low in one area and too high in another. Soil has shifted and the pipes burst because they are no longer supported by soil underneath. Temperature, of course, can burst water mains– usually from extreme cold that freezes pipes, but also potentially from extreme heat that expands joints, for example. Severe flooding also puts strain on systems, as happened in Jackson, Mississippi in 2022.

Climate, Water, and Cities: Atlanta is just now emerging from a catastrophic disruption to its municipal drinking water supply after three water mains burst in the city, effecting a boil water advisory and fouling up commerce for weeks.

Calgary

As Atlanta has mostly fixed its short-term issues, Calgary is experiencing conservation orders on water following the rupture of a major water main that supplies more than half of the city’s water. Like Atlanta, Calgary also derives its municipal water supply from nearby rivers. But Calgary is a bit different as most of the water supply is directed toward agriculture, which, along with poorly managed urban growth, is straining the water supply on multiple levels. There is, of course, a thoroughly obvious question in the Calgary case: why would a single water main be carrying 60% of the city’s water supply? Why indeed. But that’s what happens when you don’t design a resilient system, and that’s also what happens when your growth management plan is “build whatever, wherever you want, I guess.”

These problems are infrastructure ones, and they result mostly from misallocation of resources over a long time horizon. Most of it is poor maintenance. These aren’t heralding massive climate doom, but nor should they be ignored because we can see so many places around the world where they are not only problems of infrastructure, but also of poor governance (something we have a bit of here in the United States but not nearly as much as in the so-called third world).

Wrote Tom Baxter in the Saporta Report:

Atlanta’s most recent water crisis was relatively straightforward and entirely predictable. An aging water main gave out, causing a chain reaction of ruptures which tied up the city for days. Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens has called on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for an assessment, and former Mayor Shirley Franklin will be heading a blue-ribbon panel to look at the problem. Those steps are appropriate. But the pipes that burst across much of the city this month were the same pipes Franklin was worried about 20 years ago. Our problems are ruinously expensive, but at least they are straightforward. Consider Jakarta, on the other hand. As Indonesia’s coastal capital faces rising sea levels, the ground is sinking because an inadequate water system has caused the drilling of illegal wells, which have drained the aquifers underneath the city.

Preparing for the Climate Inconvenience Apocalypse

One of the biggest problems with climate change in the popular imagination is the fact that it usually eludes the popular imagination altogether because of how complex and often subtle its effects are. The portrayal by doomsayers turns off a lot of people who might otherwise be incentivized toward climate action, because the doomsayers– including silly rich people who fail to walk the walk, like bazillionaire Al Gore- make it seem like climate change is going to kill all of us tomorrow. Realistically, it’s more likely to kill a lot of people over a long time. In the meantime, though, it’s less that it’s going to kill a lot of people and more that it’s going to create a ton of inconveniences that will range from the disruptive to the potentially fatal.

I think about an experience I had during a blackout last summer here in Southwest Detroit. We were spared from the effects of a big storm, but we suffered a blackout for most of the following day, beginning in the morning. It’s never quite clear to me, even as someone who has worked in the utility world, why this would happen– perhaps a matter of reconnecting something that had been disconnected somewhere, but it’s still not clear to me why if the local feeder is intact, it would be later disconnected for multiple hours. We usually are spared from most blackouts, being close to both downtown Detroit and the critical infrastructure of the international bridge crossing (my wife’s plausible theory is that this infrastructure is made more resilient because of the supremacy of international trade of Cars And Car Parts, which can’t get shut down, no sir-ee!).

Climate, Water, and Cities: As the planet becomes hotter, threats to infrastructure become more pronounced, and steady access to safe drinking water supply becomes more vital than ever. Calgary and Atlanta are both dealing with a municipal water crisis at the moment.

Anyway, I had to leave the house, which meant crating one of our less well-behaved dogs, and he is always followed into the crate by his very much beta older brother. But it was hot, and I usually leave a fan blowing a breeze on the crate when I leave. I couldn’t do this, because no power. And I had a minor decisionmaking crisis ensued– not quite like hyperventilation or panic attack, but I genuinely freaked out for a moment over the prospects of leaving some generally helpless animals in the house while I had to run a quick errand. If it’s this bad now, for me, here, I wondered, how much worse was it for someone who had fewer choices? How much worse would it be in a few years with the attrition of more infrastructure, with more extreme heat?

…the doomsayers– including silly rich people who fail to walk the walk, like bazillionaire Al Gore- make it seem like climate change is going to kill all of us tomorrow. Realistically, it’s more likely to kill a lot of people over a long time. In the meantime, though, it’s less that it’s going to kill a lot of people and more that it’s going to create a ton of inconveniences that will range from the disruptive to the potentially fatal.

Realistically, the dogs would probably be fine. Beagle mutt Churro spends most of his night burrowed under the covers in our bed, while I can’t even sleep fully wrapped in a duvet because I get too hot. He’d probably be fine for a bit. The more furry dogs do get hot, though. They’d probably be fine, I’m sure, for an hour in the shade of a house with thick brick walls. Still, the threat of climate-related disruptions harming these creatures was jarring to me. The house was hot. I had stuff to do. It was hot outside. There was no power. I was getting all of a bar of signal on T-Mobile, The Uncarrier.

This is stressful.

At their best, these events provide a thorough inconvenience.

At their worst, it’s a potentially lethal disruption of day-to-day life.

Climate, water, and cities: Calgary and Atlanta, both two of the largest cities in North America, have both experienced catastrophic disruptions to their municipal water supplies in the past two weeks.

Let’s Maybe Fix All The Infrastructure?

Water in Calgary, water in Atlanta, water in Flint, water in Jackson– wherever. Could we fix it with more infrastructure funding?

Maybe prevent the massive disruptions, potential sickness, death, and psychological stress on millions of people? Rebuild all of our water infrastructure to make it safer, filter out PFAS so we don’t all die of horrible cancers?

Nah, infrastructure is a communist conspiracy.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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