Monthly Archives: July 2015

The most recent issue of the magazine Population Connection notes several interesting things.  First, the world’s population grows by 80 million people per year, predominantly in areas that are not “first World” countries.  In many of these places water is limited – 1.2 billion people live in these areas. By 2030, 40% of the people, especially those in these areas will be facing water deficits that will increase their risks.  Some of these deficits will be exacerbated by climate changes.  Agriculture is responsible for 70% of water use, and that number is not expected to decline as the need for agricultural products increases with time.  So clearly water use and population are related, just as carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and population appear to be related. Worse yet, the number of urban residents that do not have access to wastewater services is expected to increase by 50%.  The good news, not so much in the US, where such services are expected and available to the vast majority of people.  So the problem – most of these people live in Third World countries that lack both the economic resources and social infrastructure to deal with these problems.  This is what Engineers Without Borders is trying to address but it does raise that question – what are the social consequences of trying to help them?  Surely engineering ethics say we should help protect the public health, safety and welfare, which this work does.  But on the other side, if they develop more and add more people, does that add to the strain on limited resources in these areas which might damage the public health safety and welfare.  Which is the more critical issue?  And how do we decide? How should engineers evaluate the conflict between public health and sustainability from an ethics perspective? Just asking?

Over the past couple weeks I have been at two conferences and had two interesting conversations.  The first one was in Anaheim at the AWWA Annual Conference and Exposition.  The subject was the organization Engineers Without Borders (EWB).  The organization has the mission to help get drinkable water to people in undeveloped parts of the world.  Nearly two billion people do not have clean drinking water which drastically impacts their health and ability to be productive and earn a living.  Many of these people live in Africa and Asia; some in central and South America as well.  The mission is a noble one – to help people.  But the guy I was talking to raised an interesting question – if we help all these people get water, they will demand more resources and if the resources are already limited, won’t creating more demands for those resources compromise our access and cost to those services?  Hence helping them actually creates competition with us for the same resources and that can compromise our goals.  Clearly not a fan of EWB, but, an interesting take on the issue..…

The second conversation was a few days later when a group of people were talking politics.  The conversation inevitably ended up on political parties and people and service organizations like Engineers Without Borders that are often viewed as being ”liberal” or “progressive” as opposed to “conservative.”  The discussion got around to this question – would conservative groups give money to progressive groups like EWB?  The answer was a resounding yes, because that would improve conditions which would make people more productive, which means more jobs, and more income to give more people access to buy more things, which creates a demand for more things, which expands the economy.  In other words, increase profits for those folks building the “things.”  Interesting twist, and you thought is was all about water….

There is an interesting ethical issues that arises in this discussion also. Engineers are entrusted to protect the public health, safety and welfare. When there were few people, projects did not impact many so little thought was given to the “what could possible happen” question. We are still paying for that. When bad things happen, the precedent has unfortunately been set that somehow “the government” will resolve this. An old 1950s BOR director said he thought he was “a hero because he helped create more room for people” in the west with dams and water projects. He did accomplish that, except that while there were more people coming, the resources were never analyzed for sustainability, nor the impact it might have on the existing or potential future economic resources. But once the well runs dry, I think we just assumed that another solution would resolve any issue. But what is if doesn’t?

There are many water supply examples, where we have engineered solutions that have brought water or treated water to allow development. South Florida is a great example – we drained half a state. But no one asked if that development was good or appropriate – we drained off a lot of our water supply in the process and messed up the ecological system that provided a lot of the recharge. No one asked in the 1930 if this was a good idea.

Designing/building cities in the desert, designing systems that pump groundwater that does not recharge, or design systems that cannot be paid for by the community – we know what will happen at some point. Now that there are more people, conflicts become more likely and more frequent. Most times engineers are not asked to evaluate the unintended consequences of the projects they build. Only to build them to protect the public health safety and welfare while doing so, but from a specific vantage point.

So if you know a project will create a long-term consequence, what action should you take? So the question is whether there is a conflict between engineers meeting their obligations to the public and economic interests in such cases?  Or should we just build, build, build, with no consideration of the consequences?

You may not realize it, but perhaps the greatest discovery that we will see in this decade is Pluto.  It is the first new planet we have visited.  It is also the only new planet any of us that are alive today will ever see.  All other planets are in other solar systems are are not reachable in our lifetimes.  We should all marvel at this wonder that the USA and NASA started 9 years ago  The arrival comes 85 years after Pluto was first detected/discovered.  That’s the amount of fime the fine actor/director Clint Eastwood has been alive.  This is very cool….click on the word Pluto below for a ppt.


We are all aware of the major drought issues in California this year – it has been building for a couple years.  The situation is difficult and of course the hope is rain, but California was a desert before the big water projects on the 1920s and 30s. Los Angeles gets 12 inches of rain, seasonally, so could never support 20 million people without those projects.  The central valley floor has fallen over 8 feet in places due to groundwater withdrawals. Those will never come back to levels of 100 years ago because the change in land surface has collapsed the aquifer. But the warm weather and groundwater has permitted us to develop the Central Valley to feed the nation and world with produce grown in the desert.  The development in the desert reminds me of a comment I saw in an interview with Floyd Dominy (I think), BOR Commissioner who said his vision was to open the west for more people and farming, and oversaw lots of projects to bring water to where there was none (Arizona, Utah). The problem is that the west never head much agriculture or population because it was hot, dry and unpredictable – hence periodic droughts should be no surprise – the reason they are a surprise is that we have developed the deserts far beyond their capacity through imported water and groundwater.  Neither may be reliable in the long run and disruptions are, well, disruptive.  Archaeologist Bryan Fagan traced the fall of Native American tribes in Arizona to water deficits 1000 years ago.

Yet policymakers have realized that civil engineers have the ability to change the course of nature, at least temporarily, as we have in the west, south, Florida. I often say that the 8th and 9th wonders of the world are getting water to LA over the mountains and draining the southern half the state of Florida. I have lived in S. Florida for 25+ years and am very familiar with our system. The difference though is that we have the surficial Biscayne aquifer and a rainy season that dumps 40 inches of rain on us and LA doesn’t (as a note of caution, for the moment we are 14 inches below normal in South Florida – expect the next drought discussion to ensue down here in the fall). The biggest problems with the Everglades re-plumbing are that 1) no one asked about unintended consequences – the assumption was all swamps are bad, neglecting impacts of the ecosystem, water storage, water purification in the swamp, control of feedwater to Florida Bay fisheries, ….. 2) one of those unintended consequences is that the recharge area for the Biscayne aquifer is the Everglades. So less water out there = less water supply along the coast for 6 million people 3) we lowered the aquifer 4-6 ft along the coastal ridge, meaning we let saltwater migrate inland and contaminate coastal wellfields 4) we still have not figured out how to store any of that clean water – billions o gallons go offshore every day because managing Lake Okeechobee and the upper Everglades was made much more difficult when the Everglades Agricultural Area was established on the south side of Lake Okeechobee, which means lots of nutrients in the upper Everglades, and a lack of place for the lake to overflow, which meant dikes, more canals, etc. to deal with lake levels.

The good news is that people only use 11% of the water in California and Florida, and that Orange County, CA and others have shown a path to some degree of sustainability (minus desal), but the real problem is water for crops and the belief that communities need to grow. When we do water intensive activities like agriculture or housing, in places where it should not be, it should be obvious that we are at risk. Ultimately the big issue it this – no policy makers are willing to say there is “no more water. You cannot grow anymore and we are not going to send all that water to Ag.”  Otherwise, the temporary part of changing nature will come back to haunt us.

A couple weeks ago we conducted a one week camp for middle schoolers at our engineering department.  So 15 kids, 12-14 and what do my Tas Julia and Dylan, and I do to entertain them, keep them out of trouble, be safe and have them learn something?  Well of course build things and destroy them or course!.  So as you can see in the photos, we did concrete cylinders, popcicle stick buildings, popcicle stick dams (for water), spaghetti bridges, and filters.  And spent a whole day destroying all of it.  Of course then they were required to do a short presentation before they could have pizza, but at this age, they did a decent job.  If fact there were some really smart kids in the group.  They did great with the concrete – competing with older kids on the mix.  The buildings were interesting – triangles work well, and glue will help make your spaghetti bridge bend, but not break.  Lots of glue.  Ridiculous amounts of glue.  But it was fun, and several of them want to be civil engineers.  So get them while they are young!

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