A Tale of Two Water Systems

California’s population growth enables it to build top-of-the-line infrastructure—something that isn’t possible for Rust Belt cities.

Bob Riha Jr / Reuters

SAN JOSE, Calif.—This growing region needs more water, and it’s spending hundreds of millions to get it. A $72 million plant opened here in 2014 to turn wastewater into drinking water, and the Santa Clara Valley Water District is planning to build five more plants to purify water in the region

Water is scarce and expensive in California, and facilities like this one, the Silicon Valley Advanced Water Purification Plant, use some of the most advanced technology in the world to make sure Silicon Valley’s booming population will have water when it turns on the tap.

This water-purification plant, and other multi-million-dollar projects around the state, including a recycled-water plant in Orange County and a $1 billion desalination plant north of San Diego, present a sharp contrast to the resources available in the middle of the country. There, unlike here, freshwater is abundant. The Great Lakes are the largest supply of fresh water on Earth. But cities such as Detroit and Flint—whose populations are declining—have nevertheless struggled to provide their citizens with safe and affordable drinking water. That’s because the infrastructure that gets that water to homes is expensive, and the cities are increasingly unable to afford it as more people move out and the tax base dwindles and there are fewer customers to bill.

It’s the reverse of this that makes it possible for California to build this hugely expensive infrastructure. As California grows,  it has more people to shoulder the cost of expensive water-treatment facilities, even if it doesn’t have much water. For citizens, these opposite dynamics have enormous consequences: The average water bill in Flint as of January 2015 was $864.32 a year, according to a report from the advocacy group Food & Water Watch. The average annual water bill in the state of California? Around $385.50, if the system is publicly owned, and $452.25, if the system is privately owned, according to the report.

The $1 billion water desalination plant near San Diego (Earnie Grafton / Reuters)

The contrast between San Jose and Flint illuminates a truism about regional inequality in America: The cities that are struggling the most also have the least resources to deal with their problems.

“It’s almost like a death spiral—as a city gets smaller and smaller, the costs remain fixed, and the remaining people have to share in those costs,” said David Sedlak, who directs the Institute for Environmental Science and Engineering at the University of California Berkeley. In Silicon Valley, by contrast, “The area is thriving and tax revenues are up and there are a lot of people, which makes it easier to build public-infrastructure projects.”

A growing population also means that governments can count on having more customers in the future to carry the costs. To build the Silicon Valley Advanced Water Purification Plant in San Jose, for example, the district spread the cost out over 20 to 30 years, Pam John, the North Water treatment Operations Manager told me. They could do that because the area is almost certainly going to continue to grow: The population of Santa Clara County is projected to expand by 36 percent by 2040, which would make it the fastest-growing county in the Bay Area.

What’s more, companies are contributing to ensure that they’ll have access to water if they continue to expand. Apple is pitching in $4.8 million on a $17.5 million project to expand Santa Clara County’s recycled-water pipeline, for example.

But the municipalities of the Rust Belt are shrinking. The population of Flint was 141,000 in 1990; it’s now around 99,000. Detroit’s population fell to 688,000 from more than 1 million in 1990. Toledo, which faced a water crisis of its own in 2014, lost 50,000 people, or 15 percent of its population, in that time period.

As populations shrink, the costs of providing water and other infrastructure services don’t go down. Water districts have to pay for pipes in the ground, the people who work for the utility, the bonds they bought years ago to build the system, the plants that clean water and prepare it for taps.

“Part of the problem is that so many of the costs are fixed,” said Jan Beecher, the director of the Institute of Public Utilities at Michigan State University. “You’ve got this infrastructure, and it could very well be oversized relative to needs, and you just don’t have the level of sales to provide the revenues to operate the system.”

In Flint, for instance, the water district’s customer base dropped from 46,000 to 31,000 in the course of a decade. Expenses continued to grow over that decade, though, in part because of bad financial management. Old infrastructure didn’t help either: While Flint typically used 12.5 million gallons of water a day, because of water breaks, its daily use soon reached 20 million gallons of water a day, the city told me. Expenses exceeded revenues for every year between 2006 and 2013.

That’s why the city decided to stop buying water from Detroit and tried to treat water from the Flint River, a process that turned out to be a terrible idea. More than 8,000 children were exposed to lead and 43 people experienced elevated blood-lead levels, according to the state.

“It was really a combination of bad management and bad economics,” Eric Scorsone, an economist at Michigan State University, told me when I wrote about Flint’s water crisis last June.

A National Guard member helps distribute water in Flint. (Rebecca Cook / Reuters)

Flint might be an extreme example, exacerbated as it was by disastrous mismanagement, but the underlying problems the city is facing are common in shrinking Rust Belt areas.

In Indianapolis and Milwaukee, outdated sewer systems frequently overflow and pollute waterways; in Pennsylvania, overloaded and clogged filters force water districts to ask people to boil their tap water; in Detroit, a dwindling customer base has shot rates sky-high. The cost to improve some of these systems runs in the billions.

“You find this issue of, ‘How much can people pay in a city where there’s not a vital economy?’ coming up over and over,” Sedlak said.

A potential solution has recently emerged in the U.S. Senate: A bill introduced by Michigan Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, both Democrats, would authorize the federal Drinking Water State Revolving Fund to make up to $100 million in subsidized loans or grants for infrastructure improvements to any state that receives an emergency declaration because of a public-health threat due to contaminants in a public drinking-water system. President Obama declared a federal emergency in Flint in January.

While many cash-strapped Rust Belt cities have tried to dodge or ignore the problems of costly infrastructure, in part because they don’t know how to pay for them, California was left with a different choice. If it didn’t invest in its water systems, its residents might not have anything to drink, and the companies that make its economy strong and help grow its population might locate elsewhere. It wasn’t a choice, then, between charging more or charging less; California faced a choice of having water or not. The leadership in the state has confronted the problem head-on, Sedlak said.

“What’s special in California is that there’s an administration that gets it, that realizes that water security is essential to the state’s economic future, and that’s doing everything it can to help water districts plan ahead,” Sedlak said.

In fact, the water-purification plant in San Jose was constructed in part to show the public just how safe it is to recycle waste water. John, the plant manager, took me through the multiple steps that it takes to turn sewer water into drinking water, pointing out clearly-marked signs that told the story of how the water was being cleaned. The process begins with microfiltration, in which treated wastewater is forced through tiny pores; next, the water goes through reverse osmosis, which pushes water molecules through membrane sheets that help filter out bacteria and salt; finally, the water is sent through chambers that emit ultraviolet light to kill any remaining viruses (that technology is often used by backpackers, who put an ultraviolet wand in a water bottle filled with river water, to kill any bacteria there).

In October, the plant had an open house, inviting the community to come in and see how engineers made drinking water safe. It also offers monthly tours. People in the region are starting to come around to drinking recycled sewage, even if the idea seems off-putting at first, John said. That’s in part because the district has made clear that it’s responsible for keeping water clean, and that it is using state-of-the-art technology to do so.

It’s possible that less-wealthy districts could take a page from San Jose as they seek a way to continue to provide safe and affordable water to residents, even as their populations shrink, Sedlak says.

In his book, Water 4.0, Sedlak suggests that some areas should abandon centralized water systems all together. With the help of a technology called a membrane bioreactor, homes and apartment buildings could someday have wastewater-treatment plants (like the one in San Jose) in their basements. Perhaps people can conserve enough water that they can survive on just stormwater and recycled water from local sources alone. And perhaps municipalities across the country that are struggling with wastewater contaminating their drinking water can find ways to treat wastewater and stormwater where it falls, and use it to create new parks and green spaces.

Often, utilities in shrinking areas such as Flint need more customers and more water use to continue to get enough money to operate, Sedlak says. They use that money to build on centuries-old infrastructure, hoping someday their population will grow again to support it. But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. If they embrace conservation and small-scale infrastructure rather than the huge projects of the past, they might just figure out how to survive.