I could not find any actual laws or rules issues here, but does it bother anyone else that it is increasingly common for big engineering contracts to have lawyers, lobbyists, etc. get involved in what is intended to be a qualifications based selection process?  I find little that specifically addresses the issue beyond some inference in older ASCE canons.  In Florida, the intent of the statutory selection process might be is that governmental agencies “shall negotiate a contract with the most qualified firm for professional services at compensation which the agency determines is fair, competitive, and reasonable.” But wouldn’t employing lobbyists and lawyers frustrate this process ?.  And it is not like Florida hasn’t had several elected official go to jail and/or be indicted over such issues.  So as the public becomes more aware of these activities, does it create a more negative perception of engineers?  And is this good for either the engineering profession or the local governments (and their utilities) involved in the selection process?  The comment that “that’s how business get done” is not an acceptable argument when the priority purpose of engineers, and utility operators is the protection of the HEALTH, SAFETY AND WELFARE OF THE PUBLIC.  The concept of qualifications-based selection processes enacted for public agencies is that getting the professional who has the best set of qualifications usually means fewer issues arise since they have designed similar projects before and know the pitfalls.  Someone who has not, likely will not, which can add unexpected costs to a job.  Just a thought, but maybe it is time to think about this seriously.


I had the opportunity this weekend to visit one of the traveling Vietnam Memorial Walls.  I have been to the real wall in Washington, but this was a 3/5 scale model in steel that gives a lot of people who cannot get to Washington a chance to check it out.  There were ancillary exhibits that went with it, but it was generally a fairly quiet event.  Too quiet in fact.  Over 58,000 people lost their lives in Vietnam and 150,000 were wounded.  Some 25,000 of them were 21 and under.  They were kids.  And there were maybe 20 people there.  The vendors had very few visitors.  Most of the merchants in Jupiter near the exhibit were closed (it was Sunday, but still). Even the band had only one person sitting and listening to the 60s tunes they were playing.  Students from adjacent FAU were conspicuously absent.  There were a number of Vietnam vets there eager to share memories and stories, many of which were great.  But I really felt that this was a missed opportunity for a lot of people.  WWII vets get attention, as they should, but sadly they are leaving us.  Likewise Korean War veterans are passing on as well.  Our next set of fighting vets are those in Vietnam, who were never greeted with the same fervor as WWII.  Vietnam was the longest war we fought until that point and these guys just did the job they were drafted to do.  It was a game-changing event in America. Go see the wall if you can and pay your respects.  These guys will appreciate it after all these years.


This past weekend I had the pleasure to accompany 30+ of my civil engineering students to Chattanooga to compete against 27 other engineering schools and 900 students in the annual southeastern ASCE student contest.  Great fun.  if you don’t believe concrete canoes can float, just try racing them!  And if you think kids can’t make very cool, very stable and very strong bridges, you missed out, along with another dozen or more contests that challenge their skills, communication and cooperation.  I will post some photos but congrats to all the participants.  And especially congrats to our FAU students who competed well, showed themselves well and learned a lot in Tennessee!


The number of people that recall the Dust Bowl of the 1930s is dwindling and that may portend poorly for society (likewise the loss of Depression memories and two world wars).  The Dust Bowl was aptly names for the regular storms of windblown dust that pummeled farm fields and blew away valuable topsoil needed by farmers.  Why it occurred was more interesting and foretelling.

The amount of farming had exploded in the late 1920s as a result of  record wheat price, motorized tractors and government programs encouraging farmers to plow up the prairie and plant.  The crops replacing the native plants did not have the same root structure and were less drought tolerant as a result.  When wheat prices collapsed, the fields were left fallow exposing the topsoil to the elements.  Since the topsoil was no longer anchored to the soil by plants, the wind and lack of rain caused much of the topsoil to migrate with the wind as dust.  Topsoil was lost, rain ran off, transpiration decreased, and the cycle just go worse.   Up to 75% of he topsoil was lost.

Rains returned in the 1940s but much of the dry farming (no irrigation) practice was immediately converted to wet framing using deep wells to capture water from aquifers.  The result was healthier crops, more consistent yields and protection of the remaining topsoil as a result.  Or is it?

Visit California today.  They are in the midst of severe drought conditions. Farmers have attempted to protect themselves by drilling more wells – deeper wells which diminish water supplies to the shallower neighboring wells.  Water levels decline, land subsides, the aquifer collapses, and there is little recharge.  Some areas of the central valley have sunk over 8 feet in the past 100 years.  But we have up until this point, had healthier crops and more productive yields, which protects the valley until the rains return.  Or does it?

While the lack of rainfall is a natural cycle, there is an argument to be made that man-made impacts have exacerbated the situation.  In the Dust Bowl states, the initial error was plowing up the native grasses without understanding how they had adapted to the mostly dry conditions on the prairie.  Many of the prairie states receive under 20 inches or rain each year, and scarcely any during the summer, which limited evapotranspiration, which limits thunderstorm and regional rainfall activity.  Less ET = drier conditions.  So growing crops is not what one would immediately identify and a “normal” land use for the prairie.  We altered the environment, but the Midwestern farming thought process doesn’t work in the dry prairie.  Irrigation was needed, but the lack of surface water limited irrigation unless wells are used.  Wells were drilled which returned and improved crop yields, but the well use has caused massive decreases in aquifer levels in the prairie states. The amount of water is finite, so as long as withdrawal exceed recharge, and with only 20 inches of rain that mostly runs off the land, there is a point in time when the well runs dry.  As the well runs drier, productivity will fall.  The interim fix is drill deeper, but the bottom of the aquifer is in sight.  Then, fields will be fallow, agriculture will be impacted dramatically, and it is not inconceivable the Dust Bowl type conditions could reoccur. Policies by man exacerbate the problem because the prairie productivity is accelerated will above its natural condition.

Likewise much of the land subsidence problem in California is irrigation driven – water is pulled through wells in an ever increasing competition to maintain one’s crop yield.  Water wars and fights with one’s neighbors over wells drying up is increasing more common as irrigation needs increase and recharge to the aquifer is diminished.  Much of California is even drier than the Dust Bowl states, and more reliant or wells and irrigation.  Less water also means less ET which means less local rainfall.  So while California has done much to protect itself over the years from drought, the current experience says that declining aquifer levels means we have exceeded the productivity of that state as well.  So is the California Dust Bowl coming?

Man is an ingenious creature.  We overcome much that the Earth throws at us.  But at the same time, we rarely consider the consequences of our actions in overcoming the challenges Earth poses.  These two examples show how our efforts to solve one problem, may actually damage the long term sustainability of these areas.  Short term gain, long term problem.


Interesting that while we all love low gas prices and the low cost of energy is fueling an expansion of our economy, including the first gains in middle income salaries since 2008, the states reliant on oil and gas may be facing real problems financially.  A year ago I read an article that noted the reluctance of North Dakota residents and politicians to invest in roads and other infrastructure despite the influx of oil money.  Keep taxes low was the mantra.  SO they did.  A recent Governing magazine article notes that a dollar drop in oil means $7.5 million decrease in revenues for the State of New Mexico.  Since oil has lost about $30 a barrel in the past year – that is $200 million loss.  Louisiana sees a $12 million cost/dollar drop so they have $171 billion less to work with.  Alaska, perhaps the most oil dependent budget (90 percent) has a $3.4 billion shortfall, but $14.7 billion in revenues.  Texas, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Kansas are other states facing losses.  Fast growing states like North Dakota and Wyoming now have hard decisions to make.  Growth in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas may be cut by 2/3 of prior estimates as a result.  A double hit on anticipated revenues.

The comparison is interesting financial straights experienced by the “property value” states like Florida, Nevada and Arizona before and after the economic collapse in 2008.  Florida politicians couldn’t wait to cut taxes and slow spending during boom years, then got caught badly after the 2008 recession when property values dropped in half and state sales tax revenues (tourism) dropped steeply.  They ran out of reserves and refused to raise taxes (after cutting them), so cut things like education and health care to balance the budget.  Not sure how either helped low and middle class Floridians get back on track since Florida has primarily create low wage jobs since that time, not high paying jobs.  We are paying the price still.  I am guessing Nevada and Arizona are similar.

We clearly have not learned the lessons of the many mill towns in the south or the rust belt cities of the Midwest that encountered difficulties when those economies collapsed. Everyone refused to believe the good times would end.  Now Detroit is half of its former self and Akron has the same population as it did on 1910.

The moral of the story is that booms great, but short term.  Diversity in the economy is a key.  Florida will continue to be subject to economic downturns more severe than other states when it relies primarily on tourism and retirees to fuel the economy.  Detroit relied on automobiles, Akron rubber and chemicals, Cleveland steel, etc.  Some day the Silicon Valley will suffer when the next generation of technology occurs that makes the current works obsolete.  It is what happens when you are a “one economy” town.  It is also what happens when you believe the booms are “normal” and fail to financially plan by putting money aside during the boom to soften the subsequent period.

An argument could be made that if the federal government had not enacted tax cuts in 2000 when the budget was finally balanced and surpluses were presumed to loom ahead, we could have banked that money (or bought down our debts), and the amount of borrowing would have been less in 2008.  Buying down debt when times are good is good business.  So is putting money in reserve.  The question is why the politicians do not understand it.  We can run government like a business financially, but takes leadership to do it.  It takes leadership to explain why reserves are good and tax cuts are a future problem.  It takes leadership to make hard decisions like raising taxes, spending more on infrastructure, requiring people to move out of flood plains, not rebuilding in vulnerable areas, and curtaining water use policies when they damage society.  Leadership is making decisions that help the needs of the many, versus the needs of the few.  Oh wait, I see the issue now.  We need Spock to lead us…

 

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