Thirsty? The Nature of Urban Water

New York consume a staggering 5 billion liters of water a day. That's just a little over a thousand liters for each of the city's 8.5 million inhabitants. And for all that, they pay 7c a litre. That's half the price in Atlanta and below the U.S. national average for water bills. How one of the world's most expensive cities has preserved some of the cheapest (and cleanest) water is a perfect example of what happens when you care for, and properly manage, the nature of our cities.

The first season of BBC's Nature Inc. profiles (streaming below or MP4 download) the way the city has protected its water at the source, and saved billions of dollars.



Nature Saves: NYC
90% of New York's water comes from the Catskill mountains, which are almost 200 km from the city. There rainfall is filtered through forest, mosses, topsoil, and porous rock, purifying the water naturally. The water is of such good quality that the city has gotten a waiver from US EPA filtration requirements.

The city spends $US 100 million a year working with communities, industries and farms in the region to keep the watershed clean. The alternative, building a treatment facility to deal with water quality problems after the fact, would cost between $10 and 12 billion dollars to build and $100 million a year to run. That's $10billion that the city can spend on providing other services.

Treatment Costs: Vancouver, BC
The program moves on to Quito, Equador, to look at a city where a similar system is crumbling under the pressure of poorly managed development. But it's not only cities in the developing world that are having trouble. Take Vancouver, for example. There, a similarly protected watershed supplies 70% of the regions drinking water. Unlike the Catskills, Metro Vancouver's closed watershed policy means that there are no communities or industries in the watershed. What there has been though, is logging.

Since the 1950s, the valuable old growth timber in the area has attracted logging companies that have received rights to log trees within the catchment. Access roads and clearcuts have drastically increased landslides, which in turn have decreased the quality of the water.

No one would argue that people should be allowed to bulldoze parts of a municipal water treatment plant. But we consistently undervalue the services that we get from nature. The result is that Vancouver is now in the process of building a costly and problematic $CDN820 million dollar treatment facility. There is a slightly dated (see the great 1990s hair styles!) but interesting three part documentary that covers the economic and political conflicts that have shaped the watershed (see below).

Cities, whether we realize it or not, are always dependant on a web of intersecting ecological systems and the services that they provide. Recognizing and making the most of those connections is going to be a key principle for sucessful urban centers as we move forward. New York's watershed is an example of how well that can work. Vancouver's experiences show how difficult it can be.

The really interesting question is: what are our cities going to look like as we get better at valuing, preserving and enhancing the natural systems that make them tick?


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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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