Urban Water and the Era of the No-Longer Possible

By Jeffery AtikApril 5, 2014

Urban Water and the Era of the No-Longer Possible

Water 4.0 by David Sedlak

THERE ARE TWO currents flowing through the contemporary political imagination that limit us. The first is the notion of sustainability, which teaches us that what we have had in the past and what we may still desire can no longer be provided. Sustainability, like its reflection, unsustainability, is a child of environmentalism, built on an unflinching examination of what the planet might bear. The second stems from our doubts about the State. In its most virulent form, it appears as Tea Partyism: everything the State practices is incompetence or theft, or both. The State is a villain — to be attacked and starved — and if we forgo traditional state services, we will be better for it. The result is a growing paucity of public goods.

Urban water, the subject of David Sedlak’s Water 4.0, is one example of a public good facing these limits. Sedlak describes the complex infrastructure that brings clean, potable water into our cities and removes wastes and storm runoff from them. The book is filled with intriguing historical detail (about Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Rome, and the Santa Ana River); it is a saga of the water challenges and solutions that make today’s cities possible. There is chemistry in Sedlak’s story, and urban design — and lots and lots of pipes. Sedlak is fairly described as a technocrat (he is a professor of engineering at Berkeley), but his book stimulates political reflection as well. The urban water crises he presents — historical and present day — not only run up against prevailing technological possibilities; they also have engaged political debates as to how we run and pay for our cities.

Sedlak warns of an impending urban water crisis. That we are too many and that freshwater is scarce is hardly news. Our historical solutions no longer make sense, and cannot meet contemporary environmental pressures. The pumps that bring water up and over the mountains and into Los Angeles use an enormous amount of energy; the California Water Project creates a large part of the state’s carbon footprint. This is not a choice we would make today. Urban runoff creates even more environmental damage than we had imagined, and the costs of remediation are large.

We will detect the onset of this new urban water crisis through price signals; these are the alarms that indicate decreasing sustainability. The water companies incur ever-rising costs: repairing burst pipes, building more capacity and expensive new plants designed to meet increasingly stringent standards. These costs are quickly communicated to water users via rate increases. Cost is an aspect of technological choice — there may be a set of practicable approaches to the provision of water, but the technology that sustains (be it simple or complex) is the one that achieves the technical objective at the lowest cost. And sustainability, to a large degree, is a question of cost as well. We can continue our habits, be they large cars, suburban lawns, or the growing of alfalfa in the desert, but they will be more costly. And at that point, perhaps our behavior will change. It is not that we can no longer drive a Suburban; we can continue to buy them, at least for the short run. But driving a Suburban will no longer be sustainable for many household budgets. And household economies drive many political choices.

Sedlak traces the history of urban water and the steady accretion of technical demands. Our potable water (and increasingly our waste discharges) is scrubbed clean (or nearly clean) of diseases and other biohazards, dangerous metals, and nonbiodegradable manufactures. Our rising technical requirements, motivated in part by our desire to promote global sustainability, are expensive, and thus one source of unsustainability in the household economy.

Sedlak’s History of Urban Water

This past summer my son and I biked through Heitersheim near Freiburg. There we found a nicely preserved and nicely displayed Roman ruin. A modernist glass structure encases the excavated foundations of a military outpost. And under this museum canopy, we found various pools, carefully labeled. We recognized the caldarium and the frigidarium from other Roman ruins (and these names never fail to crack me up). Like many Roman ruins we have visited, these feature the skeletons of plumbing — remnants of the celebrated introduction into daily life of clean, cooling water.

The Romans invented urban water. (Sedlak calls these Roman innovations “Water 1.0,” in slightly annoying software-speak.) Indeed, urban water defines civilization in the Roman sense. Fountains, pools, aqueducts, and most especially sewers: the Romans had them all. And in the simpleminded history of Western civilization, I learned, the fall of Rome and the ensuing Dark Ages were marked by violence, illiteracy, and bad plumbing. Centuries passed before the joys of running water (and sewers) were reintroduced to the urban environment.

Inspired by T.S. Kuhn, Sedlak presents a series of “revolutions” in urban water, each precipitated by crisis. Water 1.0 as invented by the Romans enabled a huge, rich city of unprecedented density to be serviced with fresh, flowing water. The aqueducts transported water sourced in the hills above Rome into the city. The aqueducts worked by gravity, creating constant water pressure that caused water to spurt from pipes and fountains. Fresh, circulating water was provided for the taking at public fountains — and well-heeled Romans enjoyed indoor plumbing connected by direct taps (frequently illegal) onto the mains. The Romans, masters of the cloacae, used the water flowing through sewers to carry waste away from the city, into the Tiber, and out to the sea.

After the fall of Rome, we pass into what Sedlak charmingly labels “The Bucket Era.” Little more need be said. One used a bucket to carry household water from a source (often a polluted neighborhood well) — and one used a (different) bucket to collect human waste. This waste — solid and liquid — had economic value and so was profitably ported away.

London and Paris, the first major cities to feature Rome-like urban water systems following the Bucket Era, benefited from being on high-volume rivers. The Thames and the Seine brought ample water; aqueducts were not needed. And these same rivers served, as did the Tiber for Rome, to dispel the discharge of the cities’ sewers. London eventually learned to draw its drinking water upriver from its sewer discharges.

Water 2.0 was inspired by the observation that even a sewage-charged river could be a safe source of drinking water if a magical mix of time and air and sun is given a chance to work on it. This self-cleaning capacity can be expressed — given relatively constant proportions of sewage and overall water flow — by distance. Poor Lawrence, Massachusetts, is located uncomfortably close downstream from Lowell, Massachusetts. Lawrence discovered that what a river can accomplish within a course of miles can be achieved close-by, after intake from a fouled source, by a water treatment plant.

Until quite recently (and the 1972 Clean Water Act was a huge moment), most urban waste — human and industrial — was discharged into adjoining water bodies. This is why the Cuyahoga River could famously catch fire. Water 3.0 introduced systematic treatment and management on the discharge side. We now scrub our water in sewage treatment plants — and increasingly use expensive filtration to rid it of other threats to the environment. Storm runoff is also subject to control — as it is a major source of contamination when sewers are overwhelmed.

Together, our current system works. We can, if we choose, drink water from the tap (although Sedlak convinces me to use my Brita filters); outside of New Orleans, tap water is not likely to make us sick. Our toilets flush away our waste, and urban sewage systems reliably port them beyond our awareness. Our local streams, rivers, lakes, and shores are cleaner than they used to be. And urban water remains fantastically cheap.

Upsetting Our Urban Water Expectations

Sedlak’s next move is predictable. Our current pleasant and reliable urban water situation — at least in the greater part of urban America — is not sustainable. Our blissful Water 3.0 existence is assaulted from all sides.

Consumers will have less water to use and will pay more for it. Americans have outsized expectations — perhaps reflecting American optimism, perhaps due to the simple fact that clean, constant urban water has been so far available at a negligible cost for most households. Water seems more like air or sunshine than electricity or gas (or high-speed cable): something we shouldn’t have to pay too much to have. And so moving from an economy of near-free urban water to one of dear water will not come easily — and Americans being Americans, there will be resistance.

Urban water and sewer systems tend to be public — this is certainly the case in Los Angeles, where the Department of Water and Power is the city’s most powerful agency. (Read Laura Bliss’s splendid essay on the centennial of Los Angeles’s plunder of Owens Valley water in the Los Angeles Review of Books.) As such, high water rates closely resemble high taxes in the public’s perception. A citywide water and sewer system, like any publicly provided infrastructure, inherently distributes wealth. These transfers (often labeled cross-subsidization) are not easily viewed from the outside, but are present nonetheless. And urban waterworks enjoy federal, state, and local support. The user often pays twice: once as a taxpayer, and then as a ratepayer. The combined effect of these public contributions and cross-subsidization causes some to pay (relatively) more and others less for the water they use.

Everyday political conservatism is inertial — it tends to prescribe the maintenance of the status quo — and so technical assertions of unsustainability, even when launched by a “neutral” scientist like Sedlak, are deeply threatening. The technocrat removes present practice — that which a conservative seeks to conserve — from the set of debatable future outcomes. But the technocrat may also self-censor, abandoning technically feasible solutions due to her perception of political resistance or financial limitations.

Tea Party Politics and the No-Longer Possible

The politics of starving and shrinking the State, from California’s Proposition 13 through the present-day Tea Party, inhibits our ability to respond to any kind of crisis. The grand structures once possible in Rome (aqueducts and cloacae) and in America (interstate highways, rural electrification, and great public universities) seem no longer possible. The problem is not purely technological, even if some element of escalating costs is, of course, technological. The greater problem is that a starved and weakened State no longer has the capacity to undertake grand projects — and this is a predetermined political outcome. We are now in the Era of the No-Longer Possible.

There are technical challenges and hard choices to be made, but the crux of the urban water problem is one it shares with energy, transport, and climate change challenges: the future will be more expensive. And in a Tea Party–filibustered United States, the furnishing of increasingly more expensive public goods is simply not possible.

What harm do we cause — to our imaginations, to our hopes — when we declare as a political matter that this or that, while technically feasible, is simply too expensive? And for whom are we speaking?

There is an inherent simplicity to the current domestic system of one pipe in (the water) and one pipe out (the sewer). We can of course reexamine our settled water practices. Not all our urban water supply need be potable (whatever that may come to mean). And the flushing of water is not the only way we can remove human waste from our homes and cities.

Our cities are still built on a Roman plan. We bring water in from greater and greater distances — and we use flowing sewers to eliminate our waste. We now treat our water (that’s Water 2.0), and we treat our discharges (Water 3.0) — but beyond these important developments, much is the same as it was in Rome. We have large-scale (typically citywide), distributed water and sewer systems. Scale is not simply a technological feature; it is also a political feature. And in order to address our problems, we must match political scale to infrastructure scale. Urban water, from Rome to London and Paris and on to Los Angeles, has generally featured a good correspondence between political scale and the scale of the water system.

Sedlak welcomes smaller-scale urban water. A large apartment building might use its rooftops to capture rainwater, and might incorporate a micro-water treatment center that would cleanse its wastewater, permitting reuse. Such a system would reduce the burden on the common system. But what becomes of the common system? The logic of small water systems follows one we have seen fail our neighborhood schools. I fear a day of radical localization of urban water infrastructure, where certain neighborhoods (guess which ones?) enjoy clean water and water-based waste removal while other neighborhoods await the water truck. Let them drink Coke! “Act Local” could return many of us to something resembling the Bucket Era.

David Sedlak’s Water 4.0 introduces the various challenges to free and easy urban water as energy costs soar, climate change threatens, urban density increases, and environmental sensibilities spread. But the most frightening threat ahead may be a failure of political capacity. We may no longer be up to carrying out what the Romans pulled off. At least not for a few more centuries.


Jeffery Atik is a writer based in Los Angeles and professor of law at Loyola Law School. His latest play is Telenovela Wives of Pancho Villa.

LARB Contributor

Jeffery Atik is an essayist and playwright based in Los Angeles. He is a professor of international law at Loyola Law School. His latest play is Telenovela Wives of Pancho Villa.


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