Urban Waters: Tap and Bottled

[“A schematic of the (Portland water) system that shows the sources of water, storage facilities, treatment facilities, major transmission and distribution lines, pump stations, interconnections with other municipal supply systems, and the existing and planned future service area” From Portland’s Water Management and Conservation Plan.]

The city water diagram above may, or may not be of interest to people outside of Portland.  A close inspection of the diagram does reveal a certain beauty of graphic efficiency – the workings of the entire city water system that emulates the engineered efficiency of the physical infrastructures it depicts.  Like the well-known user maps for the London Underground, the diagram forgoes spatial accuracy for systemic and operational clarity.  It reads like a master irrigation diagram for the city, which it essentially is.

I just finished reading the second edition of Elizabeth Royte’s Bottlemania, (first edition released in 2008).  There’s plenty of reviews of the book out there, but from a design/infrastructure perspective, its worth pointing out that it provides one of the most balanced and in-depth accounts of the two different systems for supplying urban drinking water: municipal water systems (tap) and the corporate production of bottled water.

As mega infrastructures, the two systems work quite differently.  City tap water requires the use or acquisition of large bodies of water (lakes, created reservoirs, rivers and aquifers).  This borrowed water (borrowed in that it usually occurs outside the city), is then siphoned into the city and stored in a series of storage cells in some arrangement similar to the diagram above.  As Royte points out, only three major cities in the US own their urban watersheds: Portland (OR), Seattle and San Fransisco.  Ownership implies that these cities can fully protect and control these drinking watersheds.  These same three cities plus Boston and NYC are the only cities that currently don’t have to filter their water (Portland is currently fighting to maintain this right).

Cities vary greatly in how far and to what engineered effort they must go to import their water, or how far down they need to drill to get to an aquifer (borrowed water sources and its networked challenges is well documented in the opening chapter by Barry Lerhman on Owens Lake in Varnelis’s Infrastructural City).  Royte’s detailed description and analysis of the infrastructure of NYC’s water supply (evidently the secret behind the bagels) and other urban water systems is fascinating and exposes the political, economic and ecological challenges of operating and maintaining these systems.

[Portland’s well-preserved Bull Run Watershed in the Cascade Mountains east of the city (depicted in the top right corner of the city water diagram).]

[San Francisco watershed, which also takes water from the Cascades]

Bottled water, on the other hand, takes both the borrowing and storage of water to entirely different scales of operation.  With privatized bottled water, the borrowing of water goes global rather than regional – pumping water from one location (from a spring or the same sources as tap water) and delivering it to somewhere else – often to entirely different continents.  Inversely, the system of large reservoirs used for the storage of tap water is reconfigured as single-serve plastic receptacles:

[Two million plastic bottles – the amount of plastic bottles consumed in the US every five minutes (2007).  By artist Chris Jordan, from the series Running the Numbers]

[Image Detail]

As Royte points out, both systems have their problems.  Bottled water creates huge amounts of plastic waste and pollution, privatizes water supplies, and in the specific case study she examines with Nestle Waters, is often environmentally and economically exploitative of the regions where they mine their water from.   In contrast, municipal water infrastructures are dated, under-funded and in serious need of upgrades and repairs.  Clean Water Action reports that Scientists estimate 7 million Americans are sickened by contaminated tap water every year, and nearly 40% of our rivers fail to meet current clean water standards.  The Obama administration did set aside $7.4 billion in the 2009 stimulus package for drinking water infrastructure and wastewater utilities, but this amount is not enought to cover the $22 billion a year shortfall the EPA estimates it takes to maintain urban water systems.

What the two delivery systems have in common are varying amounts of an ever-expanding range of pollutants that occur in our water, and neither process removes all of them.  Contrary to all the advertising, neither water supply is pure and as Royte emphasizes, all water is recycled.  Water is the unavoidable interface through which our bodies physically internalize the landscape.  Water is that fluid material that mixes with and picks up just about everything that it comes into contact with – the ultimate connective vector in the landscape and a prime indicator of what the landscape is composed of.

Bottlemania describes the pollutants that occur in our drinking water derived from both delivery systems, the water purification process itself, agriculture and other productive enterprises.  Some of these pollutants are regulated by the EPA, which specifies maximum allowable levels.  But many pollutants are not regulated because there are more pollutants out there than the EPA can legislatively keep track of and industries are constantly introducing new foreign substances to the environment (the EPA has an inventory of regulated contaminants and a list of currently unregulated contaminants available here).  It seems we are all unavoidably part of a massive ongoing environmental toxicology experiment that is bound to have undesired effects…yet another wicked design problem.

What to do?  Better legislation? Part of the solution will entail how we can better design the interfaces between productive enterprises and the larger environment and vastly improving or supplanting the operations of productive systems themselves.  In the afterward to the second edition of Bottlemania, Royte also suggests something similar to the bottom line many of us have come to: where possible, lets look at designing less engineered, more holistic systems and creating localized, biotic restorative hydrologies.


  1. Just a quick note. It should be Barry not Berry Lehrman.

    Also, with regards to this comment about which 3 cities own there urban watershed. I wasn’t clear why NYC wasn’t included. Is it because their watershed is rural not urban in location (the Catskills?).
    I ask because my understanding was that the city does in fact control and has strict conservation requirements on their watershed in the Catskills which is the reason why they are exempted (for now) from filtering/processing the water to EPA standards.. Cause it already meets them.

    Is this not correct?

  2. Thanks for pointing out the spelling error. There were a few typos in this post that I have hopefully fixed.

    NYC watershed: I think its a situation of partial ownership. According to Bottlemania, NYC has the largest drinking watershed and related infrastructure of any U.S. city (an interesting landscape tradeoff for NYCs famed density). My understanding (based on the reading) is that the city owns parts of this system and is always trying to strategically purchase more of it. But the sheer size and private property adjacencies surrounding the reservoirs make this a bit of a challenge. And because there is development around the watershed (much more than Portland’s and San Franscisco’s watersheds) its hard to completely ‘own’ the entire surrounding drainage area. Royte doesn’t go into a lot of detail on this but she does point out that the city’s Department of Environmental Protection spends a lot of money developing pollution control plans and paying property taxes to watershed towns ($100 million a year). Its an interesting question that I would like to know more about.

  3. namhenderson · ·

    thanks for the response. I do remember reading that they are still actively trying to purchase lands in the watershed. So i guess that in an of itself shows that they don’t own it all yet…..

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