Water Works

First in a series of articles reimagining infrastructure.

ON A WINTER’S DAY in Seattle, a leaden monotony hangs over the Central Business District, dispiriting to this part of downtown. Contrary to reputation, the urban pallor is not born of rain, which falls almost imperceptibly from silvery clouds that match the nearby waters of Puget Sound. Rather, the gloom rises from the cement hardscape. The busy streets are paved dark gray, the wide sidewalks beside them light gray. The skyscrapers rise in shades of gray. The hulking freeways, ramps, and overpasses: gray. The monorail track and its elephantine pillars: gray.

Trudge the sidewalks northwest to Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, hang a left on Vine Street toward the sound, and a ten-foot-tall, bright blue rain tank pops from the dullness, tipped whimsically toward a red brick office building. Atop the tank, green pipes in the shape of fingers and a thumb reach out, the stretched index finger connected to a downspout from the rooftop. Rainwater flows from roof to finger to palm to thumb, from which it pours to a series of descending basins built between the sidewalk and the street. They, in turn, cascade to landscaped wedges growing thick with woodland plants. For two blocks, as Vine slopes toward the sound, water trickles down a runnel and through street-side planters, shining stones, and stepped terraces, enlivening the roadway with greenery, public sculpture, and the sounds of falling water.

The project, called Growing Vine Street, began as a small, grassroots effort among residents and property owners to turn their stretch of a former industrial neighborhood into an urban watershed. Twenty years later, it is a big part of the answer to the largest single source of pollution fouling Puget Sound and most of the major bays and freshwater ecosystems of the United States — stormwater.

The gray shellac of a city repels more than the imagination. When rain flows along streets, parking lots, and rooftops rather than percolating into the ground, it soaks up toxic metals, oil and grease, pesticides and herbicides, feces, and every other scourge that can make its way to a gutter. This runoff impairs virtually every urban creek, stream, and river in Washington. It makes Pacific killer whales some of the most PCB-contaminated mammals on the planet. It’s driving two species of salmon extinct, and kills a high percentage of healthy coho within hours of swimming into Seattle’s creeks, before they’ve had a chance to spawn.

Returning some of nature’s hydrology to the cityscape can make an enormous difference — or could — as more individuals, businesses, and neighborhoods remake their bit of the terra firma. Washington State University scientists have found that streets with rain gardens clean up 90 percent or more of the pollutants flowing through on their way to the sound. Green roofs reduce runoff between 50 and 85 percent and can drop a building’s energy costs by nearly a third. Cisterns like the one on Vine Street solve two problems, reducing runoff and capturing water for outdoor irrigation — which in summer can account for half a city’s freshwater demand.

In the parlance of water professionals, projects like Growing Vine Street are known as “green infrastructure.” But the term does not do justice to the larger water revolution it represents. Across the nation, antiquated infrastructure like Seattle’s, swelling populations, and weather extremes are stressing our triplicate freshwater, stormwater, and wastewater systems like never before. Industry groups such as the American Society of Civil Engineers, American Water Works Association, National Association of Water Companies, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce repeat the mantra that the nation’s water systems are some of the oldest, most overused, and most seriously failing of all America’s infrastructure — worse off than the nation’s bridges. The EPA estimates that repairing, replacing, and upgrading these aging water systems will cost between $300 billion and $1 trillion over the next two decades.

Yet, too often, the engineers and the estimators aren’t taking into account that, rather than rebuilding waterworks in the twentieth-century tradition, an increasing number of communities are finding creative solutions that can be cheaper and better for the environment, and build resiliency to climate change. To halt sewage spills and comply with the Clean Water Act, Philadelphia was looking at a $10 billion price tag for a massive storage tunnel under the Delaware River. Instead, the city will meet those aims with a $1.6 billion project to restore streams, remake everything from basketball courts to parking lots with porous pavement, and plant miles of vegetation along rooftops and city blocks.

The water revolution reaches beyond the filtering and storage capacity of wetlands, plants, and trees to the way we perceive, use, and pay for H20. It involves seeing value in every kind of water — from irrigating with recycled water to finding energy in sewage. It sometimes eschews infrastructure altogether. It’s a promising new way of living with water that stands out from the old like Vine Street’s bright blue rain tank rising from the former grayscape.

IN 1878, a sanitary engineer named George E. Waring Jr. ranted in The American Architect about the nation’s sudden craze for faucets on every bowl and washbasin. The demand for freshwater pipes coming into homes, waste pipes going out, and the luxury of hot and cold was so intense, plumbers were rushing jobs, busting pipes, and causing boiler accidents, in some cases scaring homeowners back to sponge baths.

“In our desire to save labor so far as possible, to procure in our houses the luxury of abundant water without the task of carrying it in and out by hand, and to provide, even for those classes of society which are little given to luxuries, the untold convenience of a free tap of water at every point, we have carried the possibilities of the industry to its utmost limit,” he warned.

Waring was all for the sanitation. Deadly epidemics of yellow fever and cholera in major U.S. cities had drawn Americans, who previously feared submerging themselves, to a new idea: daily baths. The real coup was the loo. After 1900, flush toilets joined tubs in a new room all their own. America’s water and wastewater systems would go down among the greatest scientific achievements of the twentieth century, saving countless lives. So impressive were the health and sanitation gains — not to mention the “luxury of abundant water” — that few complained as engineers tapped most of the major rivers and aquifers in the land and snaked water pipes underground thirty times the length of the U.S. highways.

But Waring was right when he warned of the limits. The twentieth-century miracle has become a twenty-first-century migraine as aging systems strain to rush freshwater to and rid waste from some 300 million Americans and their industries. (The two largest water users in the nation — agriculture and energy plants — extract their own water for the most part.) It’s a matrix designed with little thought to sustainability: pump a pristine waterway; pipe it in some cases hundreds of miles at substantial energy cost (for some Southern Californians, 444 miles and 3,000 feet up and over the Tehachapi Mountains); treat every drop to federal drinking-water standards; use it once, mostly for toilet flushing and lawn watering; clean it up again; then pipe it off to another waterway.

With much of the infrastructure subsidized and out of sight, until now, the average American hasn’t had to think about where their water came from, where it went after they used it, or question the logic. Why would we treat water to drinking standards, then flush it? Why would we irrigate our lawns with this same designer water? Why would thirsty metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and Miami, desperate for new sources of freshwater, flush hundreds of millions of gallons of rainwater a year to the sea?

Instead, we settled into the comfort of abundance even as the rivers, the aquifers, and the aging pipes themselves began to reveal the illusion. Most dramatically, the Colorado River that shaped western landscape and wildlife for more than 6 million years was whipped by America’s voracity in less than a hundred. Apportioned in archaic water rights and courtrooms to 40 million people and 4 million acres of irrigated farmland in seven states and Mexico, along with 22 Native American Tribes, 22 more national parklands, and 4,200 megawatts of hydropower, the river cannot meet all of those obligations — much less those it once carried out to nature. Scientists say climate change will widen the gap between supply and demand as a warming West means more evaporation, less snowpack, and continuing drought. A new Bureau of Reclamation study has analyzed hundreds of climate and population scenarios and projects that by 2060, the river will fall short of human demands by at least 3.2 million acre-feet — more than five times the amount of water consumed today by the city of Los Angeles.

Even in the relatively wet East, population growth and lavish water use have worn down the built infrastructure and the waters both. The smallest river in the nation to supply a major metro area’s drinking water, Georgia’s Chattahoochee is impounded fifty miles above Atlanta in a reservoir called Lake Lanier. In 2008, it came within ninety days of disappearing and leaving more than half a million people high and dry. These days, Atlantans have their Chattahoochee water. But its impoundment during drought leaves the downstream ecosystems of the Apalachicola River in Florida and the formerly rich oyster fishery where it meets the Gulf without the freshwater they need to survive.

On the wastewater side, the story is the same. The more freshwater we pull into our homes and businesses, the more we send down drains and toilets and into waste pipes that leak, spill, and burst an average of 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage a year in the United States. Some of the largest sewage spills in American history tainted U.S. waters not in the fetid days before environmental regulation, but in the past decade. In Honolulu in 2006, a cement pipe as big around as a breakfast table gave way following heavy rains, forcing 50 million gallons of untreated sewage into the aquamarine waters of Waikiki. The disaster closed some of the most famous beaches in the world for ten days and is suspected in the death of a surfer who became infected with flesh-eating bacteria. Not least, there are the carbon emissions associated with pumping, heating, and treating water, and moving it around our homes, cities, and regions. It all adds up to an estimated 10 percent of U.S. energy demand — more than it takes to power our computers and the internet. If we want to reduce energy use, living differently with water is a no-brainer.

Waring’s words ring true: We have pushed our nation’s water infrastructure “to its utmost limit.”

SEATTLE WAS AMONG the first major American cities to accept that it had hit the limit. The Emerald City taps a clear mountain river called the Cedar, and a smaller river, the Tolt, to quench the thirst of 1.4 million urbanites and corporate giants from Amazon to Microsoft. The Cedar River begins in the cloud-laced foothills of the Cascade Range, flows forty-five miles south to Seattle’s iconic Lake Washington, and ultimately to Puget Sound. Seattle’s leaders had the foresight to begin buying up the river’s watershed for drinking water in the late 1800s; over a century, they’d preserved more than ninety thousand acres. At the upper reaches of the watershed, snowpack collects in winter, then fills the city’s reservoirs for the dry summer. At the lower end, the Landsburg Dam diverts the river for drinking water.

Beginning in the 1960s, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) officials were convinced the system could not meet the demands of a fast-growing population that, like most of America, used water as if it were abundant as air. While many cities faced one water anxiety or another — dwindling supply, looming infrastructure costs, flooding, sewage and stormwater overflows — Seattle, its original waterworks so old it had been built with wooden stave pipes, faced all of those and more.

Managing water is a delicate balance. Hoarding too much can unleash floods. Storing too little can mean shortages. In winter 1991–92, SPU spilled off its reservoirs to guard against springtime floods. But spring rains were paltry. By summer, drought bore down. Across the West, wildfires burned hundreds of thousands of acres. The Cedar River shrank, and the water quality plummeted too. The utility, which had never done more than filter and fluoridate its pristine supply, now planned a multi-million-dollar ozone-purification plant to get its customers through future droughts. Long-term, it planned to spend $180 million for a project to siphon the north fork of the Tolt River for additional supply.

To deal with the emergency at hand, SPU banned lawn watering for the entire summer. At first, losing their lawns did not sit well with residents, who each indulged in about 150 gallons of water a day through the 1980s (today’s average, roughly, for most Americans). The city is surrounded by water. With the illusion of abundance in panoramic view — lakes Washington and Union, and Puget Sound — Seattleites saw little harm in cranking the sprinklers before they left for work. But soon “people started figuring out the laws of surviving drought,” says twenty-year employee Ralph Naess, SPU’s director of watershed education. “A: You don’t need the water. B: You don’t have to pay for the water. And C: Everyone else has a brown lawn too.”

The drought showed residents they could live with much less. But it was the region’s flashing silver amulet — the salmon that swim through culture as much as nature in the Pacific Northwest — that convinced them why they should. While sewage and stormwater were killing salmon in the streams, the drinking-water side of the equation had choked off the fishes’ migration up the Cedar River. Through the 1990s, the plight of the river’s Chinook — the lunkers among Pacific salmon — gained urgency in the public’s awareness thanks to wildlife advocates, including the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, leading to a “threatened” listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Over the decade, Seattle’s water use dropped even as its population climbed. As conservation caught on, the utility delayed plans for the new drinking-water project on the Tolt, as well as the ozone plant. SPU structured its water rates so that heavy summertime wasters paid more. New plumbing codes required efficient toilets and faucets in all construction. Incentive programs rebated hundreds of thousands of residents and business owners who switched out wasteful old plumbing. Public education put saving water on par with recycling.

The water industry had always viewed conservation as an emergency stopgap during drought. But now, Seattle and other cities, including San Antonio and Tucson, were proving the numbers could be huge. Conservation was the cheapest, most ecologically sound source of new water, and could supplant costlier infrastructure. Seattle residents’ daily Big Gulp has dropped steadily each decade, from a per-person high of 169 gallons in 1979 to 92 gallons today.

A more profound shift has come in recent years, as the mentality of saving water gives way to living differently with water. Rather than irrigate less, increasing numbers of residents don’t irrigate at all, or they rely on cisterns. Rather than cut back on the potable water flushed down toilets and churned in washing machines, more homes collect rain for those uses.

Challenging century-old engineering traditions grounded in public health and safety was not easy. In 1998, when the Vine Street organizers presented their fifty-page plans to the city, the buildings, streets, and utility departments were highly skeptical. But over the years, as the culture of city government changed, the project amassed fifteen grants totaling $3 million to re-engineer Vine Street. Today, green infrastructure is a centerpiece of city water policy and championed by institutions as varied as Washington State University and the Boeing Charitable Trust. In 2011, WSU Extension and the nonprofit Stewardship Partners, along with dozens of other public, nonprofit, and private partners, launched a campaign to install twelve thousand rain gardens throughout the metro area. The Seattle Housing Authority has tackled the biggest green infrastructure project to date, building miles of pollution-soaking swales and other ecological filters through the largest public housing development in the city.

The private market has followed. On the sprawling Eastside of Seattle, in the city of Issaquah, a new multifamily project called zHome sets out to prove market-rate developments can be carbon- and energy-neutral. The collaboration between a local builder and one of the largest home builders in Japan also shows how little potable water it takes to live in high style. The EPA certifies new homes for their “WaterSense” if they use 20 percent less than a typical new home. The zHomes use 70 percent less. Tucked behind each townhouse is a cistern to capture rainwater for flushing toilets and washing clothes. Outside, the pervious parking lot draws rainwater into the ground rather than sending it to storm gutters. Landscaping is sod-free and inspiring, with rain gardens and drought-tolerant plants that need no irrigation.

No one claims the region will never need another major drinking-water project. A dozen years ago, five cities including Issaquah and two smaller water and sewer departments broke away from SPU to form their own water utility and give themselves some independence should the region endure another water crisis — or a climate-change wildcard, such as an influx of environmental refugees. Cascade Water Alliance still buys its water from Seattle. But the upstart utility has also purchased a future water source and water rights at Lake Tapps, a former hydroelectric project in the shadow of Mount Rainier. No pipelines are imminent. Cascade, Seattle, and nearby Tacoma have signed agreements that no one will develop new sources “until we’ve maximized every last molecule,” says Cascade CEO Chuck Clarke. It is entirely possible, he adds, that will never happen.

EASY ENOUGH, perhaps, to talk about living with less in wet Seattle, where the skies rain three feet of water every year. The arid West faces a more pronounced set of challenges. Scarce rain has become scarcer over a twelve-year stretch of drought, exposing cracks in the region’s hydraulic empire as clearly as the bathtub ring around Lake Mead. Formed by Hoover Dam, the nation’s largest reservoir reflects both the permanence of scarcity and many Americans’ obliviousness to it. The dam’s sculpted turrets are a reassuring symbol of the strength of infrastructure even as they rise above the mineral-bleached canyon walls of a weakened water source. In March, Lake Mead and the other storage reservoirs on the Lower Colorado were 54 percent full, compared with 64 percent a year before.

The historian and novelist Wallace Stegner said that civilizations try first to deny aridity, then to engineer it out of existence, and finally, to adapt. No doubt many western water managers are still at door #2.

Among the baroque proposals lawyering their way through approval, a Los Angeles–based company called Cadiz seeks to pipe groundwater from the eastern Mojave Desert and sell it to urban water agencies in Southern California. Cadiz’s engineers insist they can draw fifty thousand acre-feet of groundwater a year from land the company owns near Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve with no damage to the desert’s delicate hydrologic pastiche of aquifer and playas, springs and seeps. Federal hydrologists and scientists hired by environmental groups predict Cadiz will mine the aquifer far in excess of its ability to recharge.

A little farther east, two days after Christmas, the Bureau of Land Management gave Las Vegas a long-wished-for gift. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which relies on the troubled Colorado for 90 percent of its supply, sought to pump groundwater from rural valleys three hundred miles upstate and pipe it south to Las Vegas. For nearly twenty-five years, ranchers, local governments, Native American tribes, and environmentalists protested the project they compare to California’s Owens Valley, the once-bucolic home to orchards, farms, and ranches that turned to a near dust bowl when Los Angeles tapped it at the turn of the last century.

The water authority insists the project, with its 306 miles of pipeline and 323 miles of power line, is a “critical safety net” for 2 million. But it could also become one of the last vestiges of America’s twentieth-century water-industry tradition of finding a pristine new source of freshwater, extracting it with sacrifice to an ecosystem, and burning the energy to move a liquid weighing 8.3 pounds a gallon over hundreds of miles.

By comparison, the Colorado River Basin study released last year — the government’s road map for navigating the dry times ahead — collected more than 140 options for closing the gap between supply and demand. The suggestions include plenty of 1950s-era schemes, such as pumping and piping floodwaters from the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to top off the Colorado. But the report’s largest category of options involves highly local, demand-side answers: conservation, efficiency, and reuse.

In the wake of the study, geoscientist Brad Udall, one of the most prominent water thinkers in the West, made an emperor-has-no-clothes observation of the region’s water narrative. It is time, he suggested, to abandon the “we’re running out of water” game long played by water purveyors, NGOs, scientists, and the press — which loves nothing so much as a drought story illustrated with oversized photos of cracked earth. Scaring Americans with visions of a parched future has the pernicious outcome of seeing big supply projects as the only option, says Udall.

The study’s climate models point to an average 10 percent decline in the river’s flow at mid-century. Factor in demand, and that means 85 percent of today’s flow will remain, or nearly 13-million acre-feet — “still a very large number,” Udall says. Sharing a smaller amount of water will be difficult legally and politically. But those challenges pale next to the ecological and social costs inherent in big supply schemes, especially given the uncertainty of climate change.

This doesn’t mean America’s most populated metro areas will not have to resort to building alternative supply projects such as desalination plants. No doubt some will, and, under industry pressure, sooner than they should — before technologies become more cost- and energy-efficient than they are today. But there is no question that the easiest, cheapest, and most ecologically sound options for communities involve working together to use less, rather than fighting each other to grab more. Statistics show Americans have been living with a little less every year, certainly without diminishing quality of life. And the savings are but a drop in an enormous bucket of potential. Before he left office, former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger put a plan in place to reduce residents’ water use 20 percent by the year 2020. If the state reaches this goal, Californians will still be some of the most profligate water users in the world — tapping around 154 gallons per person every day.

Recycled water is another considerable and largely untapped source. Increasingly, communities are recycling their wastewater for uses such as cooling industrial plants and irrigating parklands and soccer fields. In northern California, the Western Recycled Water Coalition is a model for how local governments can work together to build and pay for the plants and pipelines. The twenty-two-member coalition grew out of a handful of San Francisco Bay–area cities and utilities that began pooling resources for recycled water projects in 2008. Five years later, the group has secured $38 million in federal funding and another $114 million in state and local money to build eight recycling projects and research fourteen more. The new projects will pipe water to data centers in Silicon Valley and to grapes in Napa Valley. Every drop reduces the amount of freshwater the region extracts from its long-fought-over rivers and delta.

Some communities have built plants that wring drinking water from wastewater, as in the case of Orange County, California, which returns 70 million gallons of treated effluent each day to the aquifer. The downside of the most treatment-intense technologies is energy demand. To make water and wastewater systems truly sustainable, the nation will come to mine both water and energy from sewage, says Daniel Yeh, an environmental engineering professor at the University of South Florida. Some plants already turn sludge into electricity through anaerobic digestion to power their facilities; in the future, they are likely to produce biofuels and other kinds of energy directly from the waste. “When you think about it, the water that follows the population is wastewater,” says Yeh. “So if we can tag this as a renewable resource, no region will ever run out of it.”

AT THE CEDAR RIVER WATERSHED Education Center east of Seattle, SPU’s Ralph Naess says that more than any other factor, the betterment of Seattle’s water fortunes over the past two decades is the result of public awareness: “The invisible has become visible.”

On both sides of the hundredth meridian that divides the moist East from the arid West, the communities that have most dramatically changed their water futures have done so by expanding the work of water conservation to all people. Water managers, water lawyers, engineers, and environmentalists are no longer enough. Water management in the twenty-first century requires a sort of democratization. This cultural broadening can lead to local and regional solutions that put living differently with water on par with the centralized infrastructure on which we’ve become dependent.

In Milwaukee, religious institutions, including the Islamic Society and Trinity Episcopal and Tippecanoe Presbyterian churches, have joined with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, American Rivers, and others to make retrofits to stem the city’s pervasive flooding and associated pollution that runs off to local rivers and Lake Michigan. Students in the Islamic Society’s Salam School used to look out their second-floor classroom windows at an ugly stretch of gravel ballast covering a six-thousand-square-foot gymnasium roof. Today, their vista is a green and red rooftop garden of low-growing succulents that bloom through spring and summer with starlike yellow flowers. This green roof and others like it have done their jobs so well that Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources recently granted the sewerage district a discharge permit that is among the first of its kind in the nation: one million gallons of water storage once provided by reservoirs, bedrock tunnels, and sewer pipes now will be met with wetlands, green roofs, and rain gardens.

In San Antonio, Texas, stakeholders from colleges to building supervisors helped what was one of the most wasteful metro regions in the nation cut water use in half over twenty years. When a federal judge stepped in to stop San Antonio from overpumping the Edwards Aquifer in 1993, then–city manager Alexander Briseño recalls that it felt like “Armageddon.” Instead, the ruling became an impetus for real change. Industrial water users made the biggest difference, thanks to a massive commercial rebate program funded by the city-owned water utility. Officials with the San Antonio Water System figure they’ve saved 121,000 acre-feet of water and deferred spending $3.3 billion on alternative supply projects since launching the rebates and other conservation strategies. But, like in Seattle and Milwaukee, the real change is a water ethic among residents who tend to use less, recycle what they use, and help their scant rainfall make its way back to the aquifer.

One of the early idealists behind Seattle’s Vine Street project, local architect Carolyn Geise, compares the new ways of thinking about water to other urban revolutions such as the return to living downtown or growing local food in cities. The imaginative hand atop Growing Vine Street’s giant blue cistern reaches out as if acknowledging water “almost as a gift,” Geise says, “to treasure, use, and enjoy.”

This article is part of Orion‘s Reimagining Infrastructure series.

Click here to see an audio slide show with more photos of the water revolution.

Cynthia Barnett has reported on freshwater issues from the Suwannee River to Singapore. Author of the water books Mirage and Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis, she is now at work on a human and natural history of rain.


  1. I love this article. I’m going to feature it on the reading list for the Art, Water, Ecology course I teach at the University of Florida, which includes the work of artist Buster Simpson (part of the Vine Street group). As far as I know, it’s pretty rare for an article that focuses primarily on water infrastructure to feature what was and is, in large part, a community-based public eco-art project. Highlighting the fact that projects combining art, innovative infrastructure and sound environmental practices can be beautiful, efficient and, at the same time, economically wise and productive, Barnett’s article increases the visibility and legitimacy of these projects for communities and agencies looking for optimal solutions to their water woes. A wonderful example of art working with science and community vision to create tangible social, as well as environmental, value. Thank you!

  2. I too loved this article. My organization is involved in a campaign to get our local sewer authority in Allegheny County Pennsylvania to think like this. It is inspiring to see what other communities have done.

  3. Really great article. For sustainability to take hold, it has to be cost efficient. There will always be penny-pinching budget hawks trying to keep public spending on these types of projects to a minimum. I’m especially impressed by the example in Philadelphia. Some creative thinking resulted in reduced costs by a factor of 10! With virtually the same benefit! Really inspiring.

  4. I see different lessons in this article.
    I see how much our ideas (not so much our… money and our budgets) limit and stifle our lives, or open up our imaginations to create new ways to live.
    Several years ago, I had a… revelation.
    That it was blasphemous to send my shit down the toilet with drinking quality water.
    To me, water is not a… “utility”.
    It is a blessing, and something so sacred that I have an obligation, inasmuch as possible, to respect it, and not waste it (I DO go to the hammam once a month for almost unlimited water, but only once a month.).
    The UNIFORM metallic, artificial grey of the financial centers of our cities has ideas behind it, too, and these ideas are sapping our spirit.
    We need… beautiful colors, differences worked into our not so big projects to find joy in living once again. But we also need to consider that there is more to life than balancing a budget, or being “efficient” and “useful”, too…
    Thanks for this very interesting article.

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