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As 2017 gets rolling, we are set to swear in a new President.  The politics are already interesting.  The question is what will change, when and how.  For example there has been an ongoing discussion of infrastructure bills, but aside from WITAF approval, little clear direction has been forthcoming.  We only know that private sector participation will be encouraged.  Of course virtually all projects constructed in the public sector are constructed by private contractors, so how/if that will change is unclear.

It is also unclear which industries will be affected.  There are already comments about not pursuing he renewable energy opportunities  – China sees 13 million jobs in the coming 5 years as their economy cranks up to meet the needs.  They are contributing $360 billion to enhance this sector.  I have previously blogged about potential opportunities in the US to grow renewables.  But they are just like recycling in the 1970s.  Recycling needed to be subsidized until such time as the facilities and processes were in place to make it competitive.  Now for steel and aluminum, it is less costly than virgin iron or bauxite.  That has several benefits to the economy and the environment.

I have previously suggested that those who do the research, develop the solutions and control the patents tend to rule the economy.  The US did in throughout the 20th century.  Energy is the 21st century opportunity and I would hope we don’t cede that elsewhere due to politics.  13 million jobs would really help places in rural America and place like Detroit and Flint which have the workers.  It may be that instead of the federal government doing much in this arena, the state and local officials will lead the charge.  California has been successful to a degree in this regard.  Let’s see if making money will “trump” the politics of oil. That would be good for a lot of local governments that have workers and factories, but not jobs.  That would help people like those in Flint.  And it would help their utilities.  Let’s work on this with our local officials

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This is an interesting article from the Union of Concerned Scientists.  Should we be designing for climate change within our infrastructure systems?  The obvious answer, and the one that the ASCE code of ethics suggests for engineers, is yes.  If you live in a coastal area like me, and where sea level rise is your enemy, the solutions are somewhat clearer.  But what if you are in one of those areas where the future is far less certain?  How do you plan for uncertain, uncertainty?  A new area to study and maybe find a means to address things by thinking outside the proverbial box?

 

Designing Infrastructure with Climate Change in Mind: Assembly Bill 2800 Becomes Law


My grandmother lost here summer cabin outside of Grayling, Michigan in the Great Crawford County fire on 1990.  My grandfather had hauled the cabin and out buildings up to Grayling by rail from Detroit in the 1920s (some old houses my Great Grandmother had owned).  It was one of many fires that year, but an early one caused by significantly less snow over the prior winter, high winds, and carelessness.   The cabin was gone before anyone could react as it appears to have been in the dead center of the moving flames.  I recall the story on CNN, but no one realized exactly where it was.  My grandmother never recovered.  She wasn’t the only one.  20 year later there are trees.

Forest fires happen with increasing frequency. Today in Southern California, the Sand Fire has set more than 35,000 acres of the Santa Clarita Valley ablaze.  Difficulties fighting it are not limited to temperatures hitting 101 degrees in the area and dried brush from 5 years of drought conditions.  The Soberanes Fire in Monterey County has burned 16,100 acres along the California coast between Carmel and Big Sur. The fire is bigger than the size of Manhattan.  The 778 acre McHugh Fire located on the steep terrain south of Anchorage, Alaska.  Looking at the map, it seems the west is on fire.  A larger and larger portion of the US Forest Services’ budget gets spent on fire-fighting each year – 67% in 2016.  Yet fires on Forest Service property account for only 20% of the total fire nationally (1.9 million acres or a total of over 10 million acres in 2015), but this total amount is increasing.  Warmer weather in the west has increased the length of fire season, drought has increased the risk, budgets are stagnant so means to prevent fire intensity have been reduced, The only good news is that a University of Vermont study suggests that areas where pine beetle has killed trees is actually thinner and less at risk that heathier forests, if that is a “good” thing.

My friend Dr. Chi Ho Sham did some work on forest fires on watersheds a few year back.  He found that forest fires have obvious impacts on people and our customers, but also our water supplies and our water supplies.  The ash runs off into streams and is difficult to remove at water plants because it is so fine.  Areas burned are far more subject to erosion after rain of snow melt thereby creating a need for more treatment at water plants.  This will go on for some time after the rain until groundcover can re-establish itself.  Fire retardant and water drops combat some fires although the retardant shows up in streams and water supplies with adverse impacts.  Dams and reservoirs will need more frequent dredging due to buildup, and wildlife equilibrium will be disrupted.  Forest fires make for interesting news, when they are far away, but few utilities think too much about what would happen if their watershed were impacts.  No groundwater utility has thought about impacts on surficial groundwater although that might be an interesting study.  But we should all have plans, should watch our watershed, and be cognizant that far away fires might give us the opportunity to study what could possibly go wrong at our utilities.  Meanwhile, our thoughts are with those in the realm of the conflagrations.  Be Safe!!

 

July FIRes 2016

Current Fire map – July 2016 Sources; http://activefiremaps.fs.fed.us/

San Fran Fire satteliteSatellite photo of fire outside San Francisco  Source NASA Earth

CNN photo forest fire CAFIre outside Santa Clarita CA July 2016Source CNN

2016 Alaska Fires

Alaska FIres


photo 2Over the holidays there were a couple articles that came out about groundwater issues in the US, mostly from the declining water level perspective.  I also read a paper that suggested that rising sea level had a contribution from groundwater extraction, and of course USGS has maps of areas where the aquifer have collapsed as a result of overpumping.  In 2009 USGS published a report that showed a large areas across the country with this issue.  The problem is that of the 50,000 community water systems in the US, 500 serve over 50% of the population, and most of them are surface water plants.  There are over 40,000 groundwater systems, but most are under 500 customers.  Hence, groundwater is under represented at with the larger water associations because the large utilities are primarily surface water, while the small systems are groundwater. AWWA has difficulty reaching the small systems while RWA and NGWA reach out to them specifically.  But the small utility seems more oriented to finding and producing water and operating/maintaining/drilling wells than the bigger impact of groundwater use.  It is simply a matter of resources.  I ran a system like that in North Carolina, and just getting things done is a huge issue.  A couple of my medium size utility clients have the same problem.

The bigger picture may contain the largest risk.  Changing water supplies is a high cost item.  We have seen a couple examples (surface water) as a result of drought.  We saw Wichita Falls and Big Springs TX go the potable reuse route due to drought.  California is looking at lots of options. Both have had rain lately (Wichita Falls discontinued the potable reuse when the reservoir got to 4% of capacity).  Great, but someone is next.  Droughts come and go, and the questions is how to deal with them.

Groundwater supposedly is a drought-proof problem, but is it?  Groundwater has been a small utility solution, as it has been for agriculture.  But aquifer require recharge and water limited areas do not have recharge.  The result is a bigger problem – overpumping.  Throughout the west/southwest, Plains states, upper Midwest (WI, MN, IA), southeast (SC, NC), we see this issue.  Most of these areas have limited surface water so never developed much historically.  Rural electrification changes that because it made is easy to put in an electric pump to pull water out of the ground in areas that never had a lot of water on the surface, and hence were not farmed much. Pumps made is easier to farm productively, which led to towns. However, our means to assess recharge are not very good, especially for confined aquifers. The lowering water levels USGS and state agencies see is an indication that recharge is normally over estimated giving a false picture of water availability.  If your aquifer declines year after year, it is not drought – it is mining of the aquifer. You are sucking it dry like the eastern Carolinas did.  But, like many negative things, there is a lack of willingness to confront the overpumping issue in many areas. There are many states with a lack of regulations on groundwater pumping.  And I still think groundwater modeling use is limited to larger utilities, when smaller, rural systems may be most in need of it due to competing interests.

Concurrently, I think there is a tendency to oversell groundwater solutions (ASR, recharge), groundwater quality and the amount of available water (St George, UT).  Easy, cheap, limited treatment should not be the only selling point.  That leads to some curious decisions like some areas of California north of LA the utilities do not treat hard groundwater – then tell residents they cannot use softeners because of the salt in the wastewater prevents it from being used for reuse.  The reason they do not treat – cost, but it makes things difficult for residents.  The fact is we do not wish to confront is the realization that for many places, groundwater should probably be the backup plan only, not the primary source.

That leads to the question – what do we do about it when every politician’s goal is for their community to grow?  For every farmer to grow more crops?  But can they really grow sustainably?  DO we not reach a point where there are no more resources to use?  Or that the costs are too high?  Or that competition become unruly?  The growth and groundwater use ship is sailing, but in to many cases they do not see the rocks ahead.


My apologies for being offline for a month. It has been very busy.  I got back from Utah, and it was tests, reports, etc.  Then Thanksgiving – we went to Disney for my stepdaughter.  Then the Florida Section AWWA conference, then student final design presentations with President Kelly present for some of it, then finals, then a trip to the west coast, then posting grades, then it’s now.  Crazy.  And my kitchen is being worked on -see the photos of what is left of it.   Not much, and Christmas is how far away.  Yikes.  At least the wrapping and chopping are 99% done!

In the meantime a lot has happened.  Congress cut SRF funding, but passed the transportation bill.  They passed WITAF, but provided minimal funding.  The debates roll on.  A recent South Park episode is all about illegal immigrants from Canada escaping, then there is a wall built, by the Canadian so t hose who left don’t come back, and then we find out who the new president in Canada looks like… well you just have to watch and be scared.  Very scared.  If you do not follow South Park, well you are just missing it.

Russia had a plane brought down by an apparent ISIS bomb.  The Egyptians deny it.  Too much arguing about was it or wasn’t it to garner much of an outcry.  Best wishes to the friends and families of the victims.  Then France had their 911 event sponsored by ISIS, and most of the world is sending their best wishes to the victims, the victims families and the French population.  In such events, most of the world comes together.  Everybody was French for a day.  Best wishes to the friends and families of the victims. Then the couple in California.  Best wishes to the friends and families of the victims. But it raises a very disconcerting question, and one fraught with far too many xenophobic concerns as ISIS and their allies like the Taliban, Boko Hiram and others continue to reign terror and violence on the rest of the world.  The xenophobic response will be – whom do we trust in the Muslim world?  If you don’t believe in blowback, listen to the debates.  One commentator points out the xenophobia may actually help ISIS (Donald are you listening?).  LOL – of course not.  But utilities should expect another round of security costs and analyses in the future.

The Florida Section conference was great.  The venue was great (Renaissance at Sea World).  The program garnered a lot of buzz and comments.  Who knew at a water conference that potable reuse would be the big topic?  I also won two awards at the Florida Section conference – a best paper award and the Alan B. Roberts award for Outstanding Service by a member.  Wow!!  I am humbled.  A lot of great utility folks were present at the FSAWW conference.  It is a great event for the water industry (that includes wastewater, storm water etc.).  The technical program is designed to be good, timely and useful to those that attend.  While all utilities struggle with costs, please make time to send your folks if possible.  The training cost is reasonable for what you get and who you meet.

My students did well on tests and presentations.  President Kelly was impressed with their presentations and projects at the Dean’s Design Showcase.  We have never had the Dean at student presentations, let alone the President of the University.  My sincere appreciation to him, his staff and those that made it happen.  The students were pleased and impressed.  And they are getting jobs easily.  You can tell people are building and working on infrastructure as most of the graduates get jobs right away, if they don’t have them already.

Grading and the west coast went well.  The Fort Myers News Press-Sunday Headline was “Where has all the water gone” – a discussion on how groundwater is depleting across the country including south Florida which gets 60 inches of rain.  But the article points out what that climate, rainfall, recharge and other factors have been altered in south Florida as a result of development.  We really do make an impact and it is affecting utilities today. This follows another article last week on depleted groundwater around the world.  I have lots of photos in my travels from the air – groundwater use is highest where surface waters are limited – i.e. dry areas.  Except in dry areas, the groundwater does not recharge.  I had a student do a project for his master’s degree that estimated that groundwater depletion is a measureable percentage of sea level rise.  More to come on that.

Next the kitchen.  I will post photos in another blog.

As I said, a busy month.


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.


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.

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