Water Pipes to Water Rights: Protecting Water with Newsha Ajami and Carolina Vilches
This week on What About Water?, we look at water infrastructure – from broken water pipes across America to the redistribution of water rights in Chilé – and what role governments play in fixing the systems that distribute our water. Newsha Ajami, Chief Development Officer for Research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, joins us as our first return guest of the podcast. Newsha and Jay cover the state of America’s aging water systems and innovative solutions at play from 50L Homes to on-site water reuse projects, changing views on grassy lawns, and investment in data systems as water infrastructure for the 21st century.
On the Last Word we hear from Carolina Vilches, a member of the constitutional convention in Chilé, where large industries have held huge rights to water. She was elected last May to help re-write her country’s constitution and recalibrate water distribution. Under Chilé’s new laws, she’s trying to make sure water gets official protection as a basic human right.
Newsha K. Ajami
Newsha K. Ajami, is the Chief Development Officer for Research for Earth & Environmental Sciences Area at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. A leading expert in sustainable water resource management, smart cities, and the water-energy-food nexus, she uses data science principles to study the human and policy dimensions of urban water and hydrologic systems.
Dr. Ajami served as a gubernatorial appointee to the Bay Area Regional Water Quality Control Board for two terms and is currently a mayoral appointee to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. She is a member of the National Academies Board on Water Science and Technology and serves as a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute. Dr. Ajami also serves on a number of state-level and national advisory boards. Before joining LBL she served as the founding director of the Stanford Urban Water Policy program and a senior research scholar at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Earlier in her career, she also served as a Science and Technology fellow at the California State Senate’s Natural Resources and Water Committee where she worked on various water and energy related legislation.
Dr. Ajami received her Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the UC, Irvine, an M.S. in Hydrology and Water Resources from the University of Arizona, and a B.S. in Civil Engineering from Amir Kabir University of Technology in Tehran, Iran, where she was born and raised.
Carolina Vilches is a geographer by training, who has dedicated herself to water justice in Chilé. She founded the Office of Water Affairs of Petorca and belongs to a self-described hydro-feminist collective called La Gota Negra. A longtime community activist, she was elected to Chilé’s constitutional convention in May 2021. She’s one of 155 delegates elected to write a new constitution that may, among other things, redistribute water rights to Chilean citizens.
- The US drinking water infrastructure system is made up of 2.2 million miles of underground pipes, and unfortunately, as the report’s authors said, “the system is aging and underfunded.” (Infrastructure Report Card)
- The American Society of Civil Engineers found that 6 billion gallons of clean, safe drinking water (enough to fill 9,000 swimming pools) are lost every day through leaky pipes, while a water main breaks every 2 minutes, totaling nearly 238,000 breaks per year. (Infrastructure Report Card)
- States and localities, as opposed to the federal government, are responsible for almost 96% of public spending on drinking water and wastewater facilities nationally each year. (Brookings Institute)
- Drinking water infrastructure in America is crumbling, underfunded and not managed with the best tech available. (Business Insider)
- Roughly 13 million Texans were told to boil water for safety reasons after winter storm Uri, in February 2021 (NY Times)
- Over 88% of Americans believe some type of action is needed to solve the country’s water infrastructure challenges, but only about 17% of utilities are confident they can cover the cost of existing service through rates and fees, let alone pursue needed upgrades. (Brookings Institute)
- Ten Experts to Watch on Urban Water Policy and Infrastructure
- Meet the Minds: Newsha Ajami on Innovation in the Water Sector
- Newsha Ajami Solves the Water Equation with Public Participation – Bay Area Monitor
- Website for Carolina Vilches
Newsha Ajami – Stanford University
Carolina Vilches – Periodista Furioso
We are building future cities today. Right now, every building that pops up, it’s going to last another 50, a hundred years, right? And if we don’t change the way we do this right now, if we don’t repurpose our pipes, rethink the way we do plumbing, we are actually impacting our future in a serious way.
Every day in America, around six billion gallons of clean, safe drinking water disappear. That water vanishes when water mains break, when pipes leak. That’s 9,000 Olympic size swimming pools every day. I’m Jay Famiglietti. On this episode of “What About Water?”, we look at the role governments play in fixing and maintaining water lines and systems. Pipes most of us don’t see, pipes most of us take for granted, pipes that are aging, underfunded and under pressure.
Newsha Ajami says it’s not too late to act. She’s the chief development officer for research for the Earth and Environmental Sciences Area at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. She was the founding director of Urban Water Policy at Stanford’s Water in the West Program, and she was part of the National Science Foundation initiative, “Reinventing the Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure. Newsha joins us from San Francisco. Welcome back to “What About Water?” Newsha. It’s great to have you on again.
It’s wonderful to be here.
Let’s get to talking about some of the problems. Last year at this time, millions of people in Texas were cut off from clean drinking water after a massive winter storm damaged water lines and pipes. Would you say that experience in Texas points to a larger problem?
Yes, for sure. I think the infrastructure we have, we built it in the 20th century and with all the understanding that we had at the time and also the climate of that time. And as we’re facing new challenges, our infrastructure is not apt to deal with these new challenges. I always say we have 20th century infrastructure, 21st century problems, and they don’t perfectly match. Infrastructure is a very hard thing to put in place if you think about. It’s very expensive.
And actually water is so much of an out of sight out of mind kind of a thing. People don’t think about it. The water comes out of their tap. If you ask them where your water is coming from, often they don’t know. If you ask them what happens for the water to get to your home, what process, they don’t know. If you ask them what they’re paying for, they don’t know. And they definitely do not know where water goes after they use it.
So why is that?
It’s very similar to all the roads and highways and other infrastructure. Every other road that we have on the ground, very similar complexity happens underground, but we don’t see it. And people often are not thinking about it. For example, on the East Coast we still have wooden pipes that are still part of the system. In the West Coast, a lot of our dams and aqueducts and infrastructure was built a long time ago. And because of groundwater overdraft that we have had, which you are very familiar with, some of these infrastructure is actually falling apart because of the subsidence that’s happening.
So we are definitely in a situation that we don’t want to be. And often utilities in order to keep their price of water down, they defer maintenance for a long time because it takes a lot of resources to invest in and maintain our system. And if you’re not taking care of it’s like a road. If you keep pothole, it keeps happening and keeps happening, eventually it will fall apart.
It’s strikes me Newsha that this is not an easy sell to the general public. When you’re trying to raise tax dollars or if you’re a politician and you… If it’s not Flint Michigan and there’s a lead problem, then if you say I’m going to replace these pipes, I’m going to replace the water main. That’s not the same thing as a new library or some big new program.
Absolutely. And also brand new things are shiny – you can cut red tape, but replacing pipes and maintaining pumps does not have that effect. So the 20th century mindset of infrastructure was, it’s everything that you built with steel and concrete. And now we are realizing actually infrastructure is a broader thing. We have to maintain our forest as a natural infrastructure. That way we make sure we have water, or we have to not put asphalt and concrete everywhere in our cities because we want to make sure water has a place to go and doesn’t end up causing flooding.
But still there’s something like… ASC, American Society of Civil Engineers tells us there’s something like over two million miles of underground pipes. It’s like an underground river system, right?
It’s like a whole network. I mean, how do we get to this point where it’s just in such bad shape?
Okay. If you are brand new system you’re building, everybody’s excited about. Replacing is much more difficult. And I think one other problem here is we never set up this system with a lot of monitoring to sort of track what’s going on. Where we are losing water, where we have little cracks that eventually would turn into breaks. I mean, there are new technologies now that the utilities can use to figure out what’s going on underground, but honestly, often it’s so expensive and burdensome to know exactly how these systems operate that it’s costly.
Another piece of that is that we have too many water utilities. We have about 50, 60,000 water utilities. And they’re not all made from the same cloth. They don’t have the same technological capacity, they don’t have the managerial capacity, financial capacity, human capacity. Bigger utilities are much better at maintaining their assets and paying attention to how it’s aging, but the smaller ones, they barely get by, so they don’t really have the resources to invest or maintain the system very well. So that’s also, that is an issue as well.
Newsha, can you help us understand, whose job is it ultimately to manage the water pipes and the water lines? Is it the feds? Is it the local government? Or is it this mishmash that you were just referring to?
I would say definitely the mishmash depending on where you are in the pipeline. Obviously federal government has a specific role. There are some dams and infrastructure that they do operate under the Army Corps of Engineers, then they provide that water to regional water agencies, then they sell it to local water agencies. So there are so many different layers. I think this mishmash that we just talked about sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t work.
And the further down you are on the pipeline, the harder it is sometimes to influence the process, because when it comes to allocating money to invest in infrastructure, sometimes we don’t know who should get the money. Should we give it to EPA? Should we give it to interior? Should we give it to USDA? Should we have other groups? Should we give it locally? Should we give it to states? And then it gets divided in so many different ways and nothing is left on the table at the end.
That sounds really confusing. So given that we have the mishmash and all these different agencies, we’ve got cities, we’ve got counties, we’ve got water district, et cetera, we’ve got state stuff, we’ve got federal stuff, do you think if we had to map out our underground water infrastructure pipes, we could actually do it?
Actually there have been a few universities that are looking into this, trying to gather blueprints from different utilities to create a centralized place for this kind of data, which is absolutely great. The problem is when it comes to water, 80% of water utilities or water agencies are public, 20% are private. And these public utilities, they do have all information, but they’re not very willing to share just because you never know what people can find within them.
On the East Coast, they have all the data but they can’t even share it with even researchers to use it just because there’s a lot of restriction on how… But I think if we want to manage our water better, we need to have better data and we need to have a better accounting system. That’s where water is really behind. We don’t even have individual meters on people’s homes, let alone having a good centralized place with data.
It makes that job of keeping track of doing the water accounting. Just like you would be accounting for money, accounting for water is so much more challenging. Do you have any examples where you know that climate change is intensifying problems with our water infrastructure and water mains?
Absolutely. I mean, the West Coast is the perfect example for that, because we are having a lot more heat waves and a hotter drought period. So now droughts are not only less precipitation, we are getting a lot of higher temperatures as well. And that higher temperature makes the snow melt faster, and then when the snow melts faster, the reservoirs that we have are not built to get that snow melt much earlier than they should. And that means that they have to let the water go in order to be able to manage for the next flooding or next intensified rain that they have to manage.
So on top of that, we have this new phenomenon that people might have heard of, it’s called weather whiplash. One week is cold, one week is hot, one week we get precipitation snow, one week is so hot that everything melts at the same time. So it’s kind of like going from winter to summer, winter to summer, very quickly within season. Again, our infrastructure system is not built for something like that.
So the whiplash in time, we get it here, but I don’t know that people here are really paying attention to it. And it’s so cold that they’re just happy that it’s getting warmer. But just some examples, we’ve had several weeks this winter where, and I’ll use Fahrenheit, that it’s been minus 30 Fahrenheit, and the next week it will be 30 Fahrenheit. Think about that. And it’s gone like that a few times, and I don’t know that… It’s just happening and then people are so thankful, right. But this is not normal, right?
No. Not at all. And I think that is why we are having a problem with our infrastructure because we didn’t use to have this. We used to have seasonal variability, right? We would have winter with snow. Snow would be up on the mountain waiting for the warmer season to melt, and then we would have enough water in a reservoir. But one thing that we experienced last year in California, the land was so parched because we had another very dry year the year before.
So some of the reservoirs were emptied to prepare for the snow melt to come in. Some of it directly went from snow to water vapor, and some of it just went down and gone. And a lot of utilities were actually quite impacted by that because they didn’t get enough runoff in their reservoirs.
Yeah. And it’s not the kind of thing they would be planning for.
Not at all. We also have a name now for that. It’s called sublimation. We have studied that in physics, but we have never experienced that or we didn’t use to experience this in our daily lives as much. So here’s another impact of climate change.
So let me ask you this. What happens if we don’t act?
Look, I think we need to if you want to survive at least. In the Western US, we have to. This area does not have enough water to maintain the lifestyle we want to keep. Now, we can all survive here if we change our lifestyle and think about it differently. If we really understand this is a dry region and requires a different kind of water consumption. However, this is not just a West Coast problem, East Coast has its own problems, water quality problems. The less water we use, the less water we need to treat. The less water goes in the system, the easier it is to maintain the storm pipes and waste water pipes, especially in the East Coast because they’re combined in the same place.
And also the East Coast are actually now in their own way experiencing drought in different years just because the amount of water that they get is less than it used to be. So we have to be a lot more mindful. And also it’s not just for us as individuals, at the government level we are not also thinking about water as an important element to focus on. For example, we are doing all this energy transition, but we are not thinking, what’s the water footprint of that energy transition? Do we really have enough resources to maintain something like that? So it’s kind of like we have to give water the value it needs.
Newsha, in the United States alone we have these 2.2 million miles of water pipes that we discussed earlier, and they starting to crumble. You’re seeing some good work happening in California. Tell us about that.
Sure. Yeah. I mean, I live in the city of San Francisco and we have started requiring buildings that are bigger than 200,000 square foot, and now actually we even made that more restrictive. To 100,000 square foot and higher, they have to put onsite reuse systems. Which means that they can take the water from their tap and their showers and then reuse it for flushing down toilets or watering outdoor spaces.
When San Francisco started this, everybody was thinking this is only a dense city kind of a solution, but the reality is we are seeing it more and more happening on tech campuses, on sports facilities. So that’s definitely one thing that we see. And also the fact that a lot of people in California live in semi arid areas but they like to have English gardens, which doesn’t make sense. But we see a huge transition at that end as well. A lot of people are replacing their outdoor spaces.
So the transition is slowly happening, but I would say we are building future cities today. Right now, every building that pops up, it’s going to last another 50, 100 years, right? And if we don’t change the way we do this right now, if we don’t repurpose our pipes, rethink the way we do plumbing, we are actually impacting our future in a serious way. So it would be great to see a lot more people embracing recycling at different scales. We use the same amount of water in our showers than using our toilets. Why can’t we just connect them somehow? There’s so many things we can do.
We are doing a lot of groundwater recharge projects across the state, which would maintain our groundwater systems. And replacing pipes is definitely important, so a lot of utilities are trying to tap into the infrastructure money to be able to replace their degrading pipes. And I think one thing I didn’t mention which was very important, it’s called leak prevention. A lot of leaking is happening in this pipes, and that’s the water that we are losing to an aging infrastructure that need… I mean, just preventing that can give us a lot more water, but utilities don’t have a lot of money for these maintenance systems. That’s the problem. They don’t like incremental solutions.
So who else is doing things right? We’ve talked a lot about California, but how about other states or countries? Where are you seeing innovation in water infrastructure?
Denmark. Right now in Denmark people are using between 22 and 28 gallons per person per day, which is very low. The lowest we have right now in the US is San Francisco which is about 40 gallons per person per day, so that’s cutting that in half. So one project I’m very excited about this is this 50 litter home, which is a sort of like a global coalition between a few industry leaders, academic institutions, NGOs. Their goal is to build homes that only use 50 liter per person, which is quite low if you think about it.
And their goal is basically to use and reuse water as much as they can within the building or within home. For example, using the sink water and shower water for toilets or for laundry machine and also for irrigation. So there’s so much that can be done. If you think about our sink water and shower water, they’re basically clean if we just use a little bit of soap in that process so it can be easily cleaned and repurposed, because every drop of water that we use needs to be… We use energy and resources to clean it up and bring it to us and take it away, so the less we use, the less energy needs to be used.
That’s amazing stuff and we need to be doing more, right? Reuse, reuse, reuse, recycle, recycle, recycle. That’s that’s the mantra.
I know everybody’s very enthusiastic and curious about desalination. And I think desalination is sort of your last solution in a sense that you should do everything else and then build this out just because it’s much more expensive. It’s harder to maintain. Another very cool effort that’s going on across the west and actually internationally being embraced as well is the groundwater recharge effort. Trying to kind of use natural systems as a way of storing water.
Another area that I’m super excited about is using data and information to be better at the way we manage our water systems. And there are utilities that are embracing information technology or smart meters, better tracking systems. People have apps that they can see, okay, how much water I use for what purpose. So those are also very cool innovations that’s happening across the board, which I’m excited about.
I am too. And as we are talking about all this stuff, I’m wondering, how do we pay for all of this? Who’s paying for it?
Great question. I would say right now, most of the utilities are focusing on this. I’ll start from the data piece. It’s another orphan piece of our water sort of investment process. It’s very difficult for utilities to justify investing in data gathering and data systems because it’s not called infrastructure, but the reality is data is infrastructure. And a lot of utilities are trying to see how they can incorporate that as part of their infrastructure investment. A lot of utilities are doing it themselves.
Now, the interesting part of this is if people are putting onsite reuse systems on their homes, it’s very similar to solar panels on people’s roofs. So individuals are paying for it and hopefully they make up their money by reducing their water bill. So very little of that is coming from federal governments, but definitely some of that through state revolving loans or money from EPA that goes into those loans. It’s very fragmented when it comes to who’s investing in it. Definitely not top down.
Wonder what we need to do to raise awareness about all of this. I mean, the understanding of all these different components as infrastructure, the understanding of the need for financial innovations, as you mentioned before, the need to value water much better. I mean, how do we raise awareness? How do you and I raise awareness? How are you doing it?
Look, I think, thinking about the mindlessness that we have towards water, just start from knowing where your water comes from, where it goes, right? Then it comes from how much water we are using in our homes. Do you know what’s the biggest crop that we grow in the US? Irrigated crop? Grass, right? Which is crazy. We don’t even eat it, we don’t use it, we don’t need it. It’s all about making us feel good, right? So kind of its mind blowing, right. And so it’s kind of like that’s one part of the issue.
Awareness at the individual level is extremely important because it’s not unlimited amount of water that we can take and use. Beyond that, it’s more about trying to make sure I anticipate what governments or decision makers needs in their hand when they’re making these decisions. And another piece of what I personally do, and I know you have done as well, is trying to dedicate my time to service by sitting on a lot of government or city boards to be a voice in that process and volunteer my time in that end.
Well, we certainly appreciate all that you do. It’s pretty incredible. Last question, how about ordinary people or listeners? What can they do as individuals?
Again, I think if you have outdoor spaces you should rethink how you’re using water outdoors. I know individuals right now in California, for example, are looking into using their tap water or their laundry water for their outdoor spaces. If you have a capacity a means to do that, I think that if you really want to have very lush outdoor space, that’s one thing to think about how to set up a gray water system. It can be as simple as making sure you close the tap and you’re brushing your teeth, or not keeping the water running while you’re running your garbage disposal, or taking shorter showers, or replacing your toilet, making sure you have high efficiency appliances in your home.
I know more and more of those are becoming the norm everywhere we go, but there are still a lot of old homes that they use old fixtures and appliances. So those definitely can be replaced. And also again, I think it starts from knowing where your water comes from, where it goes, and valuing it. We don’t pay for water as a resource, we pay for the services we receive and making sure that it’s valued and we know how precious it is. I think it’s extremely important. And some of these activities can really help us to bring our water use.
That’s great advice Newsha. What I just got from you was that, although you had a list of lots of opportunities, even just taking one step. It’s not expensive to kill off your lawn, it’s cheap. And there are rebates, there are programs all around North America for replacing turf. And so I hope that our listeners don’t get overwhelmed. Although there are many options for things for people to do, just take one step, or one step at a time, and we can have a huge impact.
Well, that was really a lot of fun Newsha. Thanks for joining us again. Always a pleasure. And I hope we can have you back again in another season.
Absolutely. Would love that. Thank you so much for this wonderful conversation.
Newsha Ajami is the Chief Development Officer for Research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s, Earth and Environmental Sciences Area.
Governments not only have to step up to protect water infrastructure, they have a role to play in protecting water itself. Chilé is one of the most water stressed countries in the world. Large industries there hold huge rights to water. That puts tremendous pressure on Chilé’s small scale farmers, on the people growing Chilé’s food. That’s something Carolina Vilches wants to change. She’s an elected member of Chilé’s constitutional convention, a group rewriting Chilé’s laws to redistribute water rights.
My name is Carolina Vilches Fuenzalida. I am constituent of District Six in Chilé, a country which has been devastated by extractivism and neoliberalism. This model has led into an unprecedented climate and ecological crisis. And so-called “development” is leading to the destruction and degradation of territories affecting the health of communities and putting future generations at risk.
When we talk about extractivism and the neoliberal model, we are referring to economically productive activities that exploit ecosystems. Therefore, protecting water and all its forms is essential and urgent. In Chilé, there is a market based on water where a small group of people in power profit from a common good that belongs to everyone. This is the case with mining, forestry, hydroelectric dams, animal breeding for export, and also agri-industrial monocultures, and many other activities. And the main thing they have in common is the intensive use of water and soils.
From our perspective, it is urgent and vital to protect, restore and regenerate water cycles, to redistribute water according to the needs of the people who suffer from monopolization and privatization of its vital element. It is imperative to eradicate the current water code that allows water rights holders to be owners of mechanisms of water and to change its legal nature.
That is why as an eco-constituent and as part of MODATIMA, the movement for the defense of access to water, land and environmental protection, together with a group of eco-constituents, we presented a water statute which calls for the creation of a new institutional framework. It addresses the role of the state, its responsibility to ensure the human right to water and management through watershed councils, thus proposing community management of water and participatory water networks. This is our moment. This is our project, to protect access to water for the common good. To protect water for our communities and territories.
Carolina Vilches is a Chilean community activist. Last May she was elected to help rewrite Chilé’s constitution. Under her country’s new laws, she’s trying to make sure water gets official protection.
That’s it for this episode of “What About Water?”. It’s produced by The Walrus Lab and the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan. We record and produce this podcast on Treaty Six Territory, the homeland of first nations and Métis people.
Our crew here at “What About Water?” is Mark Ferguson, Erin Stephens, Laura McFarlan, Fred Reibin, Jesse Witow, Shawn Ahmed, and Andrea Rowe. Our audio engineer is Wayne Giesbrecht and our producers are Farha Akhtar and Jen Quesnel. We’d love to hear from you. Visit whataboutwater.org.
I’m Jay Famiglietti. Thanks for listening.