Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Waterworld – Obsolete Infrastructure Making It Worse

The “modern era” of water management quivered into existence towards the end of the 19th century – with earthen dams and under-engineered water channels – and moved into an accelerated high gear in 1902 under President Theodore Roosevelt as he created the federal Bureau of Reclamation. Systems of dams and water management expanded in the 1930s under another Roosevelt, Franklin, as the nation was put to work by building massive water-related infrastructure projects, from flood control to power generation.
Today, building such massive projects probably could not find funding in an austerity-directed Congress, but we now have to live with the fact that these wondrous endeavors were built for a different era with very different challenges. Population centers exploded in the West, and climate change wasn’t remotely on anyone’s radar.
In Los Angeles, for example, those lovely flood channels (like the “Los Angeles River” – a natural river encased in concrete by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1930s) were built with a kind of concrete to accelerate water flow towards the ocean to solve horrific if occasional flooding problems that plagued the city (see above picture). And we wonder why L.A. doesn’t just capture this wasted water flow today? It was built for precisely the opposite result!
Yesterday’s problems with yesterday’s technology do not solve today’s issues. The agency that built and continues to operate huge network of 476 dams, 348 reservoirs and 8,116 miles of aqueducts across the West, fully appreciates the incredible inadequacy of that legacy system.
“‘We have to think differently,’ said Michael Connor, the deputy secretary of the Interior Department, which includes the Bureau of Reclamation. ‘It’s not enough just to conserve water. We need to rethink these projects. We have a lot of infrastructure, but a lot of it doesn’t work very well anymore. We need to undertake what amounts to a giant replumbing project across the West.’
“Mr. Connor said that in the future, the nation’s water agency would have to putclimate change at the center of its mission… President Obama has already started to grapple with that change. Under orders from the White House, the Bureau of Reclamation has begun studies on the impact of global warming on 22 Western water basins and is drawing up multi decade plans to begin rebuilding its Western water management systems.
“But a new water infrastructure across half of the United States could cost taxpayers billions of dollars — at a moment when Republicans are still focused on cutting taxes and lowering government spending. In Congress, the Republican majority has targeted [cutting] climate change research as well as federal policies intended to stop climate change.” New York Times, June 5th. Some conservatives want to abolish federal involvement in water management entirely, returning that power to the states, but it’s hard to picture how water issues, which often ignore state boundaries, can be resolved with national coordination and management.
We can in fact anticipate and design huge new projects, knowing that Congress probably won’t act until some horrific event kills lots of people, but we do know one thing for sure: water issues are going to get a whole lot worse before we can even begin to grapple with solutions: “Although Western farmers are among the most politically conservative groups in the country, many of them acknowledge the changing climate and say they want the bureau to make the changes necessary to support them. The National Climate Assessment, a 2014 scientific report by 13 federal agencies, says that over the coming century, the impact of human-caused global warming will diminish the once-thick snowpack across the Sierra Nevada and other Western ranges.
“‘We have enough guys noticing that things are changing, and most of these models suggest we’re going to have more intense weather,’ said Dan Keppen, the executive director of the Family Farm Alliance in Klamath Falls, Ore. ‘The snowpack is going to run off quicker and heavier in the spring, and there will be drier growing seasons… So it’s going to be critical to change the water infrastructure,’ he said. ‘We’re going to need to have as much storage and ability to move things around as possible.’”
“Water policy experts point to dozens of changes that could be made, starting by using climate change models to plan new water-collection reservoirs. While climate change models show that there will be less snowfall in the mountains, there may still be rainfall in other regions. The bureau, they said, could build reservoirs designed to capture and store that rain.
“It could also change its methods of irrigation. Today, the bureau sends water to farms in the cheapest way possible, by opening floodgates and soaking agricultural fields. But in the future, the bureau could invest in precision watering technology — computer-operated equipment that measures and moves smaller amounts of water to exactly where it needs to be to help crops grow. Such techniques could be used to continue to irrigate crops while saving lots of water. But they cost substantially more money.
“Experts also point to the need for an update and overhaul of the bureau’s system of aqueducts, earthenware channels that absorb water and easily crack and leak. Mr. Connor said they could be rebuilt with more resilient cement, and covered in waterproof, nonabsorbent coating.” NY Times. We need solutions, big and small, but at least let’s do what we can before the very complexion and livability of so much of the West “vaporizes.” And trust me, the entire United States will suffer massively from this calamity.
I’m Peter Dekom, and sitting idly by and letting the best of what we have disappear should not be our only options.

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