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The term algae encompass a variety of simple structures, from single-celled phytoplankton floating in the water, to large seaweeds.  Algae can be single-celled, filamentous or plant-like, anchored to the bottom.  Algae are aquatic, plant-like organisms – phytoplankton.  Phytoplankton provides the basis for the whole marine food chain. Phytoplankton need light to photosynthesize so will therefore float near the top of the water, where sunlight reaches it.  Light is the most limiting factor for algal growth, followed by nitrogen and phosphorus limitations), but other nutrients are required including carbon, silica, and other micronutrients. These microscopic organisms are common in coastal areas.  They proliferate through cell division.

A natural progression occurs in many water bodies, from diatoms, to green algae to yellow/brown to blue-green, with time and temperature.  The environment is important.  Southern waters are characterized as being slow moving, and warm.  This encourages cyanobacteria – or blue green algae.  The introduction of nutrients is particularly difficult as it accelerates the formation of the blue green algae. Blue-green algae creates the bright green color, but is actually an end-of-progression organism.

If cells are present in the water mass in large numbers an algal bloom occurs.  An algal bloom is simply a rapid increase in the population of algae in an aquatic system. Blooms may occur in freshwater as well as marine environments. Colors observed are green, bright green, brown, yellowish-brown, or red, although typically only one or a few phytoplankton species are involved and some blooms may be recognized by discoloration of the water resulting from the high density of pigmented cells.

So the desire for development created the idea to drain the swamp, which led to exposure of dark, productive soil that led to farming, which lead to fertilizers, which led to too much water, and water pollution leading to algae.  A nice, predictable progression created by people.  So what is the solution?

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We have all seen the stories about land in the Everglades agricultural Area thissummer.  I was asked to give a presentation at a national conference in Orlando recently about water management in Florida.  It was a fun paper and most of the people there were not from Florida, so it was useful for them to understand the land of water.  Florida has always been a land shaped by water.  Initially it was too much, which frustrated federal soldiers trying to hunt down Native Americans in the 1830s.  In 1881, real estate developer Hamilton Disston first tried to drain the swamps with canals.  He was not successful, but Henry Flagler came through a decade later and constructed the east coast railroad in the 1890s.  It is still there, 2 miles off the coast, on the high ground.  However water limited development so in 1904, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward campaigned to drain the everglades.   Broward’s efforts initiated the first land boom in Florida, although it was interrupted in the 1920s by hurricanes (1926 and 1928) that sloshed water out of Lake Okeechobee killing people and severely damaging property in Miami and around Lake Okeechobee.  A dike was built (the Hover dike – it is still there). However, an extended drought occurred in the 1930s.  With the dike preventing water from leaving Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades became parched. Peat turned to dust, and saltwater entered Miami’s wells. When the city brought in an expert to investigate, he found that the water in the Everglades was the recharge area for the Biscayne aquifer, the City’s water supply.  Hence water from the lake needed to move south.

Resiliency has always been one of Florida’s best attributes.  So while the hurricanes created a lot of damage, it was only a decade or two later before the boom returned.  But in the late 1940s, additional hurricanes hit Florida, causing damage and flooding from Lake Okeechobee prompting Congress to direct the Army Corps of Engineers to build 1800 miles of canals, dozens of pump stations and other structures to drain the area south of Lake Okeechobee.  It is truly one of the great wonders of the world – they drained half a state by lowering the groundwater table by gravity canals. To improve resiliency, between 1952 and 1954, the Corps,  in cooperation with the state of Florida, built a levee 100 miles long between the eastern Everglades and the developing coastal area of southeast Florida to prevent the swamp from impacting the area primed for development.

As a part of the canal construction after 1940, 470,000 acres of the Everglades was set aside for farming on the south side of Lake Okeechobee and designated as the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA).  However water is inconsistent, so there are ongoing flood/drought cycles in agriculture.   Irrigation in the EAA is fed by a series of canals that are connected to larger ones through which water is pumped in or out depending on the needs of the sugar cane and vegetables, the predominant crops.  Hence water is pumped out of the EAA, laden with nutrients.  Backpumping to Lake Okeechobee and pumping the water conservation areas was a practice used to address the flooding problem.

There was an initial benefit to Lake Okeechobee receiving nutrients.  Older folks will recall that in the 1980s , the lake was the prime place for catching lunker bass.  That was because the lake was traditionally nutrient poor.  That changed with the backpumping which stimulated the biosystem productivity.  More production led to more biota and more large fish.  This works as long as the system is in balance e- i.e. the nutrients need to be growth limiting at the lower end of the food chain.  Otherwise the runaway nutrients overwhelm the natural production and eutrophication results.  Lake Okeechobee is a runaway system – the algae now overwhelm the rest of the biota.  Lunker bass have been gone for 20 years.

The backpumped water is usually low in oxygen and high in phosphorus and nitrogen, which triggers algal progressions, leading to toxic blue-green algae blooms and threaten lake drinking water supplies.  Think Toledo. Prolonged back pumping can lead to dead zones in the lake, which currently exist.  The nutrient cycle and algal growth is predictable.

The Hoover Dike is nearly 100 years old and while it sit on top of the land (19 ft according to the Army Corps of Engineers), there is concern about it being breached by sloshing or washouts.  Undermining appears in places where the water moves out of the lake flooding nearby property.  So the Corps tries to keep the water level below 15.5 ft.  During the rainy season, or a rainy winter as in 2016, that can become difficult. If the lake is full, that nutrient laden water needs to go somewhere.  The only options are the Caloosahatchee, St. Lucie River or the everglades.  The Everglades is not the answer for untreated water – the upper Everglades has thousands of acres of cattails to testify to the problem with discharges to the Everglades.  So the water gets discharged east and west via the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie River.

The nutrient and algae laden water manifests as a green slime that washed onto Florida beaches in the Treasure coast and southwest Florida this summer, algae is actually a regular visitor to the coasts.  Unfortunately memories often fail in temporal situations.  The summer 2016 occurrence is reportedly the eighth since 2004, and the most severe since 2013.  The green slime looks bad, can smell bad, kills fish and the 2016 bloom was so large it spread through estuaries on both coasts killing at least one manatee.  One can see if from the air – try this link:

 

https://www.google.com/search?q=algae+florida+aerial&rlz=1C1CAFA_enUS637US637&espv=2&biw=1194&bih=897&tbm=isch&imgil=-znOtKN1py0w1M%253A%253BR2WKOUpBlkwQUM%253Bhttp%25253A%25252F%25252Fabcnews.go.com%25252FUS%25252Ftoxic-algae-blooms-infesting-florida-beaches-putting-damper%25252Fstory%25253Fid%2525253D40326610&source=iu&pf=m&fir=-znOtKN1py0w1M%253A%252CR2WKOUpBlkwQUM%252C_&usg=__KgNR31PY5qxleBf1KST7DWY2mXo%3D&ved=0ahUKEwiqyKK6uJvPAhWr6oMKHdt7C5oQyjcIKg&ei=QNvfV6qoLavVjwTb963QCQ#imgrc=-znOtKN1py0w1M%3A

 

algae


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


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 project I am currently involved with looks at the impacts of climate change on public health in southeast Florida.  The initial grant focused on looking at socially vulnerable populations and the impact on chronic diseases these groups from climate change.  The question was whether climate change, which in southeast Florida is basically sea level rise, would have an impact on health issues.  On the face of it, the correlation between chronic health conditions and climate seems tenuous although the statistics support the link between chronic health impacts and socially vulnerable populations.  But what is interesting is that in general, the climate vulnerable topography and the socially vulnerable people do not correlate.  This may be a southeast Florida issue, but it is the less socially vulnerable who live in the climate vulnerable topography.

Those familiar with the history of southeast Florida know that makes sense because of the beaches.  The beaches are topographically vulnerable but eh wealthy want to live there anyway. But the problem is more pervasive.  The data actually can be mined further to reveal that the older homes (1940s-1960s), generally smaller and of lower value, were traditionally built on the high ground.  Turns out our ancestors were a little smarter than we thought – they actually thought this out.  Aside from Henry Flagler building the railroad on the high ground, most of the cities were located similarly – on the coastal ridge.  Drainage of the Everglades permitted the western migration of residences – newer and larger, but at lower elevation and mostly reliant on drainage across the ridge to the ocean via canals.  But as sea level rises, the water moves more slowly.

The question that must be asked then is what happens as this housing stock ages?  We already see some newer communities, primarily built for retirees, moving to relieve themselves of the 55+ designations to allow the housing stock to be sold – the children of the retirees don’t want the property and desire to sell it – often quickly.  To increase speed of sales (and ultimately retaining some value), eliminating the 55+ opens younger families to move in.  However the lower value of the properties makes them conducive to migration of people who are social vulnerability, so migration may be toward social vulnerable people moving to topographically challenged property.  That portends poorly for the link between climate and health in the future.

Two issues arise from the research.  First future health vulnerability from climate may be more related to vectors and waterborne disease than chronic health effects.  That expands the health vulnerability to all populations.  The second issue is that storm water, sewer roadway and water infrastructure may relieve some pressure on these topographically vulnerable properties, but the people who are moving to then will have significantly less ability to pay for those improvements, creating a political conundrum that will that a significant amount  of leadership to overcome.  That means that resiliency must be built into infrastructure and redevelopment projects now, to address future conditions.  Building in resiliency is not currently being considered by local planners and engineers because the situation is not well understood and a 50 year planning horizon is not the norm.  Also, it would likely create a firestorm of fuss from developers who would pay the costs, which discourages good planning.

Finally, if things accelerate, wealthier parties may begin to see a retreat from vulnerable eastern beaches to higher ground as being a reasonable concept.  However the high ground is currently occupied by socially vulnerable people, creating a potential area of conflict over the fate of displaced residents who’s social status may force them toward the vacant, topographically vulnerable properties.  This is a future problem for planners, developers and officials approving new development with an eye to displacement a concept not in the current thought process.  Thinking about vulnerability means a lot of infrastructure must not only be constructed, but maintained meaning local public works and utility budgets will need to increase in kind.  That means higher rates and charges to populations that may have limits to their ability to pay   Stay tuned…..


Spring is in the air, at least in some places, so it gives us a chance to take stock of where we are after the winter.  Boston actually is seeing the ground after record snow.  The west is seeing lots of ground, even though some areas should not be seeing ground at this point.  I recall the Colorado Rockies having snow at 8000 ft a couple years ago, but not this year.  Some ski resorts in western Colorado never opened.  Not a good sign.  Snow was 10% of normal in parts of California which means the drought will continue.  12% in Oregon and Washington is some part – not good for places that rely on snow for water supplies.  So the question is whether the current drought is the start of a longer climate driven issues and/or the result of where demands have permanently exceeded supplies?  And if the latter is true, conservation is one option, but has obvious financial and supply limitations since urban use is less than 12% of water total use (agriculture is 40% and power plant cooling water is 39%).

Better management is part of a toolbox, but when the supply is finite, the economics says that costs will increase, shutting out certain sectors of the economy.  This is where the “market system” theory of economics fails large sectors of the population – at some point finite supplies become available only to those who can afford to pay, but water is not one of those commodities that is a luxury – we need it to survive.  Certainly the argument can be made that water is underpriced, but like energy, low water prices have helped fuel economic development while improving public health.  It is a chicken/egg conundrum where the argument that conservation will solve all problems is not realistic, nor is using the market or curtailing economic activity.  This is where the market fails and therefore governments have a role in insuring that all sectors are treated fairly and the commodity can be provided to all those in need of it – serving the public good.  The public good or public welfare argument is often lost in the political dogma of today, but our forefathers had this figured out and designed regulations to insure distribution after seeing the problems that arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  We have forgotten many of those lessons.

The public good or welfare does not mean unlimited distribution to areas that would otherwise be bereft of the commodity.  The early engineers in Los Angeles realized that development could only continue if water was brought in.  So massive water movement projects were developed.  The economic benefit was the only consideration – the impacts of these changes were not considered.  Likewise the Corps of Engineers was directed to drain the Everglades, but no one asked if this was a good idea or would have negative impacts.  Loss of the Everglades permitted economic development that is southeast Florida – 40% of the economy of the state, but it impacted water supply and places millions are risk for future sea level rise impacts.  Worse, agriculture was fostered in the upper Everglades as the federal government sold off the acreage to private interests cheaply to encourage sugar cane and winter vegetables.  That agriculture is now planning to develop the Everglades if the property is not purchased by the state.  But purchasing the property rights a prior error in consequences – it is likely in the public interest as an effort to restore water supplies in the Biscayne acquire that feed southeast Florida, and to increase water flows to retard saltwater migration in the southern Everglades.  These are both ”sins” of the past, made with good intentions but with very little thought of consequences beyond the economic benefits.  Both have resulted in water shortages in the areas they were meant to serve as climate patterns have changed.

The question is whether we continue to make these mistakes.  Development in desert areas, areas known to be water poor, and deepening wells to get groundwater supplies who’s levels continue to decline are all poor long-term decision, despite the short-term potential gains.  California farmers continue to deepening wells but those aquifers have a limit in depth.  Deepening wells means those wells do not recharge (otherwise the aquifer levels would not continually decline).  What happens when the wells run dry permanently? Clearly the sustainability criteria is not met.

Meanwhile lower aquifer can divert surface waters into the ground – not enough for full recharge, but perhaps enough to impact surface water flows to other farmers, potable water users, and ecosystems.  Droughts are climate driven- and we have persevered droughts before, and will again.  However in light of the California drought, perhaps we should all assess more closely the long-term trends – lowering groundwater, increasing demands, lessening availability and make better decisions on water use – not only in California but in many parts of the US and the world.  Changing water use patterns is great, but it is just part of a larger issue — do we need to change our current behaviors – in this case water use – in certain areas?  Are there just places we should not develop?  Is there a limit to water withdrawals?  And how do we deal with the economic losses that will come?  All great question – but do we have the leadership in place to make the hard decisions?


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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