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Water Conservation is Triage Only

Posted on: July 14th, 2022
by David Ganje

When a government experiences a water source emergency, rules covering water conservation by water users is triage.  I readily concede triage is necessary.  ‘Triage’ in the subject at hand is the management of a scare commodity among those who need it.  Balancing community water needs to levels of available service in an emergency is important.  Managing the allocation of water use at a time when users have reduced access does not however address the cause of the problem.   A water conservation ordinance specifying various levels of water use by residents cannot fix the source of a water use emergency.

A municipal well operated by the city of Spearfish has been out of operation for over a month.   Using cubic feet of water per second based on all city water use permits, the shut-down well is almost 18% of the city’s total water draw if the  wells were all  drawing at capacity at the same time.  The shut-down well is one of the larger city wells.  The breakdown of the well was initially diagnosed as a mechanical problem.  At this time this Spearfish deep-water well and related infrastructure has not yet been examined by outside well experts.  Media reports and city records do not speak to other related issues.  The current diagnosis is described as a structural problem (this may mean the pump, the well structure itself or intakes).  Other comments concerned the costs for the anticipated well repair.  It is important for government to provide and budget for well maintenance and repair, but that is only a part of resource management. The record contains no discussion about a review of municipal water supply reliability under the current city water system.

Two common problems with potable water supply are 1.) securing the source of water and 2.) accessing the source of water.  Contingency plans for well failure which include voluntary and mandatory water use restrictions are normal.  Most systems have such user rules.  Unfortunately, most water use contingency plans are limited to addressing how much water can be used after a problem has been discovered.  Nevertheless when an unanticipated failure leads to a water shortage of a necessary resource more is called for.  A government contingency plan which deals with the current effects of well failure, but which neglects provisions dealing with possible causes of the problem is an incomplete plan.

A water resource contingency plan should include provisions for short term replacement of water sources.  A contingency plan should also describe in detail a process for securing long term alternative water sources – bureaucrats call this ‘supply augmentation’.   Operational problems should also be considered in a written plan.  There are lots of these:  water main break, contamination, suspected tampering, storage failure and water system depressurization.  Has the city analyzed the area observation wells for the Madison aquifer in which the well is drilled?  Has the city considered any fluctuations or declines in groundwater levels?   Does the city have a long-term efficiency target for its municipal well system?

Water use conservation is not a fix-all. If the city is incorrect about the mechanical issue, what next?  In the case of an actual water crisis a water conservation program would only be effective for a brief time and would do nothing to address proper resource management and planning.

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