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Last weekend I went hiking on Rocky Mountain National Park, on my way to a conference in Oklahoma City. My goal was to hike 35 miles in 2.5 days prior to the conference. Friday afternoon was a solid 7 miles, but not a difficult hike. Saturday was more interesting. I hit 10 lakes in under 10 hours, plus 4 water falls. And still saw 7 deer and a bunch of Elk. And trout. And birds. So here are the 10 lakes in order:

Bear Lake

IMG_7751 Bear Lake

Mills Lake

IMG_7773 Mills Lake

Jewel Lake

IMG_7803 Jewll lake

The Loch

IMG_7813 The Loch

Lake of Glass

IMG_3162 Lake of Glass

Sky Pond (after climbing up rocks – highest lake)

IMG_3165 Sky Pond

Lake Haiyaha

IMG_3188 Lake haiyaha

Dream Lake

IMG_3198 Dream Lake

Emerald Lake ( sorry sun was directly ahead so this is washed out a little

IMG_3203 Emerald lake

Nymph Lake

IMG_3214 Nymph Lake

Arrived back at Bear Lake at the end of the trek. I luckily got a parking spot as the lot was basically full at 830 am due to the unseasonal weather.   It was over 80 degrees – which is warmer than the temperatures this past July when we went out. Unseasonable warm weather brought out people by the thousands to enjoy the opportunity to hike this late. And the last two years I was hiking in snow on Sept 22 and Oct 4.


Teddy Roosevelt would be unhappy if he were alive today.  As our initial conservationist, conserving wildlife seems to have been left out.  And it’s not just hunters and developers who may not being conservative.  Wildlife Services, an agency within the U.S. Agriculture Department, killed more than 2.7 million animals during fiscal year 2014, including 15,698 black-tailed prairie dogs, 3 bald eagles, 2,930 foxes, 796 bobcats, 454 river otters, 322 gray wolves, 305 mountain lions, five golden eagles, 22,496 beavers, 580 black bears, 61,702 coyotes and scores of other animals including badgers, jackrabbits, muskrats, raccoons, skunks, opossums, porcupines and 16 pet dogs deemed pests by powerful agricultural, livestock and other special interests.  Umm, aren’t some of those threatened or endangered animals? And rabbits?  Really?  Scary attack rabbits on public property?  Or maybe zombie rabbits?  Wolves, coyotes and prairie dogs – were targeted and killed on behalf of livestock grazers ,but haven’t we learned that certain dogs will keep wolves away from livestock?  I think Oregon has a program that provides the dogs and will reimburse ranchers if a wolf gets to the livestock.  Didn’t we also learn that the ecosystem is damaged when the top predators are removed from the ecosystem?  The return of wolves to Yellowstone demonstrated that the loss of wetlands and beavers was attributable to the loss of wolves, not just hunting.  Haven’t we figured out the expansion of coyotes coast to coast is due to the loss of wolves and lions?  Perhaps there is a better way that doesn’t just involve bullets?  Just asking.


In an interesting twist of fate, USEPA caused a spill on the Animas River when a staffer accidently breached a dike holding back a solution of heavy metals at the Gold King mine because the misjudged the pressure behind the dike.  Pressure?  The spill flowed at 500 gpm (0.7 MGD), spilling yellow water spilled into the river.  Downstream, the plume has travelled through parts of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, and will ultimately hit Lake Mead.  Officials, residents, and farmers are outraged.  People were told not to drink the water because the yellow water carried at least 200 times more arsenic and 3,500 times more lead than is considered safe for drinking. The conspiracy theorists are out.  The pictures are otherworldly.

colorado-mine-spillRayna Willhite holds a bottle of water she collected form the Animas River north of Durango Colo., on Thursday, August 6th, 2015. About a million gallons of toxic mine waste emptied out of the Gold King Mine north of Silverton that eventually made it into the Animas River. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald via AP)

0807 colo spill epa-spill-

But they are all missing the point, and the problem.  This is one of hundreds of “legacy disasters” waiting to happen.  We are just surprised when they actually do.  A legacy disaster is one that is predicated on events that have happened in the past, that can impact the future.  In some cases the far past.  There are two big ones that linger over communities all over the west and the southeast – mines and coal.  Now don’t get me wrong, we have used coal and needed metals form mines.  That’s ok.  But the problem is no one has dealt with the effects of mining or coal ash for many years.  And then people are upset.  Why?  We can expect these issues to happen.

One major problem is that both are often located adjacent to or uphill from rivers.  That’s a disaster waiting to happen.  The King Gold mine is just the latest.  We had recent coal ash spills in Kingston, Tennessee (TVA, 2008) and the Dan River in 2014 (Duke Power). The Dan River spill was 30-40,000 tons.  Kingston cleanup has exceeded a billion dollars.  Coal ash is still stored at both places.  Next to rivers.  We had the federal government build ion exchange facilities in Leadville, CO and Idaho Springs, CO to deal with leaking water from mine tailings from the mountains. Examples are in the hundreds.  The photos are of the two coal spills, mine tailings that have been sitting the ground for 140 years in Leadville and one of the stormwater ponds – water is red in Leadville, not yellow.

kingston_coalash POLLUTE-master675 IMG_4803 IMG_6527 (2015_03_08 17_53_48 UTC)

When the disaster does occur, the federal government ends up fixing it, as opposed those responsible who are usually long gone or suddenly bankrupt, so it is no surprise that EPA and other regulatory folks are often very skeptical of mining operations, especially when large amounts of water are involved.  We can predict that a problem will happen, so expensive measures are often required to treat the waste and minimize the potential for damage from spills.  That costs money, but creates jobs.

For those long gone or bankrupt problems, Congress passed the Superfund legislation 40 years ago to provide cleanup funds.  But Congress deleted funding for the program in the early 2000s because they did not want to continue taxing the business community (mines, power plants, etc.).  So EPA uses ARRA funds from 2009.  And funding is down from historical levels, which makes some businesses and local communities happy.  The spectre of Superfund often impacts potential developers and buyers who are concerned about impacts to future residents.  We all remember Love Canals and Erin Brockovich.  Lack of development is “bad.”  They ignore the thousands or jobs and $31 billion in annual economic activity that cleanup creates, but it all about perception.

But squabbling about Superfund ignores the problem.  We continue to stockpile coal ash near rivers and have legacy mine problems.  Instead we should be asking different questions:

WHY are these sites permitted to store ash, tailings, and liquids near water bodies in the first place?  EPA would not be inspecting them if the wastes were not there.

WHY aren’t the current operators of these mines and power plants required to treat and remove the wastes immediately like wastewater operators do?  You cannot have millions of gallons of water, or tons of coal ash appear overnight on a site, which means these potential disasters are allowed to fester for long periods of time.  Coal ash is years.  Mine tailings… well, sometimes hundreds of years.

One resident on the news was reported to have said “Something should be done, something should be done to those who are responsible!”  Let’s start with not storing materials on site, next to rivers.  Let’s get the waste off site immediately and disposed of in a safe manner.  Let’s recover the metals.  Let’s start with Gold King mine.  Or Duke Power.  Or TVA.


Most of you that read my blog know I do a lot of hiking in National Parks.  These parks are truly beautiful places and national treasures.  We periodically add beautiful places to the list.  These national treasures have always had huge public support (88+%), millions of visitors, and historically bi-partisan support among politicians.  Parks are places for respite, for creatures to live, and places to just get away from it all. However, in hiking around, you will notice that that there are things that have not been fixed, things are closed, things are not repaired, etc.  The question is why?  This goes back about 20 years. Congress has not allocated funds – in fact the national Park Service budget has been reduced and upgrades unfunded.  There was a $5 billion backlog when Clinton left office, which Bush said he would correct.  But the backlog was $9 billion when he left office and is over $11.5 billion now and Obama says he is going to fix it.  However, since 2000, the NPS operating budget has been cut over 20 percent, which only fuels the problem and makes our visits to the park more difficult.  The question is when are we going to fix this?

Interesting because while Presidents say they will fix the issue, it is Congress controls the budget and Congress has been unable or unwilling to find the funds to maintain the parks.  They have cut their revenues which is unfortunate for all of us.  Privatizing is not the answer as some in Congress have suggested – American are not in favor of making Yosemite or Yellowstone into a theme park or commercializing the parks.  We want the parks wild.  And for water systems we want the parks wild because some of them are headwaters for our water supplies and we want them clean, not full or industrial or agricultural waste.  So water systems should be big proponents of protecting parks.   But it takes money to protect those assets.  It is no different that protecting your car, your house, your buildings, your water plant or your water and sewer piping system.  Oh wait, the latter one are problems, too.  Sad state of affairs.

Of course it’s not just parks, the most recent State of the industry for AWWA indicated that the top 3 issues all related to infrastructure condition, water supply sustainability and cost to customers.  Seems we can’t get the public to understand and our elected officials to fund all of these improvements.  And we got WITAF approved, but as yes Congress has provided no funding. Same with the Everglades – promised billions, but not much flowing to everglades protection.

So the big question is:  how do we get our elected officials, at all levels, to understand that by being elected, they are assuming the duties as stewards of these assets.  They are elected to protect them?  All of them.  For us!


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?


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.

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