31 December 2010

Going to Extremes in 2010, part 2: the Droughts

This part of my summary of hydrologic extremes in 2010 is organized a little differently from that for floods, posted in part 1.  As flood events occur more discretely in time, that list was organized month-by-month over the year.  Meteorological and hydrologic droughts are more of a creeping phenomenon over time, and it is geography that distinguishes one drought from another over the same year.  Droughts appeared or showed their strength in several locations this year, especially under the influence of a summer heatwave in the Northern Hemisphere:
  • Africa: the Sahel region reported drought and famine conditions as early as January this year, a chronic occurrence when the tropical and monsoon rains don't quite make it far enough northward the previous summer.  As a consequence, these are the years in which desertification at the western and southern edges of the Sahara become more evident.
  • China: spring droughts and dust storms resulted from long-term effects of desertification, deforestation, large-scale drought, urban sprawl and overgrazing throughout eastern Asia, as well as El Niño conditions of the winter prior to the drought.  Agricultural production in China was reduced by nearly half, and more than 50M citizens were left short of water as early as March because of meager rainfall and drying reservoirs. Summer flooding during the East Asian Monsoon season only served to wash out dry and barren farmland in the southern areas of the country. 
  • Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines were affected by the same drought that held China from the winter before, and a mild Southeast Asian Monsoon season did little to relieve conditions there.  Generally dry conditions in the region of the Mekong headwaters in China did little to help river flows downstream over the remainder of the year.
  • Russia: beginning in July, record high temperatures and little rainfall trapped under a strong Siberian high pressure system let to an outbreak of hundreds of forest and peatland fires across northern Ukraine and western Russia.  Moscow was enveloped in smoke and smog clouds for weeks, and crop failures occurred across the country.  Local and international response to the disaster was hampered further by information controls exerted by the Russian government.
  • North AmericaDrought conditions continued in the Southwest U.S., and the combination of El Niño impacts on the western U.S. and yet another weak North American Monsoon season led to ominous predictions of longer droughts and water resource shortages on the Colorado River.  Increasing variability in rainfall helped drought conditions take hold of the Southeast U.S., which is beginning to experience sustainability issues in water resources like the Southwest.  Even areas in Canada experienced wildfire outbreaks due to dry conditions in the spring.
And in the Southern Hemisphere, with less land area and overall population density compared with the global north, droughts still held their grip on key areas:
So 2010 has certainly been a year of extremes, including floods and droughts around the globe.  What will 2011 hold for all of us?

Going to Extremes in 2010, part 1: the Floods

WaterLink International recently posed the question "2010: Year of the Floods?" with an overview of just four major events that happened this year.  Granted, they picked out four of the larger flood events, but those were just the exemplars that got stuck in the short memory of the media.  Many of the links here are to Wikipedia articles, which retain much more than local media outlets.  It seemed to me, a watcher, that somewhere new was getting hit every month.  And in actuality, that was true:
  • January: the first floods and mudslides of the year for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with 85 deaths and 4,000+ displaced. Also, the first of two flood events in Albania, with 5,300+ displaced along the Drin River.
  • February: a strong Atlantic storm crashed through the Portugese island of Madeira, interacting with the island's sharp topography to produce flash floods and mudslides on the south side of the island, with 42 deaths reported.
  • March: floods in Queensland, Australia are only the first of a strengthening La Niña episode and its impacts on the continent.
  • April: the second episode of floods and attendant mudslides in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with an additional 212 deaths and 15,000+ displaced.
  • May: extreme rains over two days brought 1,000-year statistical flood levels to the Cumberland River through Tennessee, Kentucky and northern Mississippi in the United States, with 31 deaths reported.
  • May, June and August: flooding events throughout central Europe, especially in Poland, with 37 deaths and 23,000+ displaced.
  • May through August: flooding storms, monsoon rains, and landslides across southern China led to nearly 3,200 deaths, 1,000+ missing persons, and approximately 15.2M displaced.  Water levels on the Yangtze River behind the recently-completed Three Gorges Dam peaked at just under 159 m on 23 July, well above the dam's flooding "alarm level" at 145 m.
  • June: river and flash flooding in Var, France, was considered the worst flooding in that region adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea in almost 200 years, with 25 deaths and 1,000+ displaced. Floods in northeastern Brazil washed away whole villages, with 51 deaths and 120,000+ displaced.
  • June and July: flooding in Romania and Ukraine, eastern Europe, with 21 deaths and 9,500+ displaced.
  • July: floods from monsoon rains in Pakistan washed out much of the Indus delta, causing nearly 2,000 deaths, 20M+ displaced, and an ongoing humanitarian disaster with regional and global consequences.  NASA's Earth Observatory captured numerous images of this event.
  • August: heavy rains and flash floods in Jammu and Kashmir, a disputed region between northern Pakistan and India, with 193 deaths and 1,000+ displaced.
  • August through October: numerous events contributed to flooding in western Africa, especially in the Sahel and Sudanian savanna regions, swelling the Niger River to its highest stage in 80 years, with 8 deaths and 111,000+ displaced.
  • September: flooding in Slovenia, southern Europe, with three deaths and more than 60% of the country affected.
  • October through November: late-season monsoon rains flooded parts of Thailand, with 232 deaths and a reported 7M+ displaced.
  • November: a series of floods struck northern Malaysia and Thailand following landfall of tropical cyclone Jal, with 4 deaths and 50,000+ displaced.
  • November through December: flooding from extended monsoon rainfall events in Colombia, with 174 deaths and a reported 1.5M+ displaced.
  • December: A second major flooding event in Albania, in many of the same areas as in January.  Also, the most extensive flooding in more than 50 years in Queensland, Australia, with their wettest spring on record (1.3 m of rain over the month) and 200,000+ displaced.  River floods in New South Wales, just to the south in Australia, have already destroyed vital wheat crops.  Attributed again to La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean, the flood events in Australia are ongoing...
I didn't even count the Atlantic and Pacific tropical storm impacts, and factored in only one of the Indian Ocean cyclones that we saw this year.  Counting just these listed events and not including more numerous and smaller events around the globe, 2010 saw at least 6,315 deaths and more than 44 Million displaced persons worldwide due to floods.  Ongoing disasters in need of continued attention include those in Pakistan, China and Australia.  Though Pakistan grabbed (and still holds) much media attention, events in China seem an almost larger disaster with numerous major river basins still in flood.

While not every individual storm and flood event can be attributed to climate change per se, an overall pattern and trend is evident in the strength of monsoon systems here.  Are we ready for this extremity of climate change impacts to get even worse?  I ask because we are still just at the beginning of our quest to understand how much more intense the hydrologic cycle may get, with more extreme rainfall events among the many anticipated outcomes, and strengthening of tropical circulations one of the expected leading indicators of climate warming.  This was indeed a "year of the flood," but it won't be the only one...

27 December 2010

NASA Energy and Water Cycle Study 2010 RFP

Editor's Note: the following was just announced as part of NASA's Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) 2010 announcement, which was first released much earlier in the year. Where I once worked at the Goddard Space Flight Center, one of the NASA research facilities, we pushed eagerly for more proposal opportunities like this within NASA because, while contractors were allowed to submit proposals to outside agencies (NOAA, USGS, etc.) because of our academic or other outside standing, the scientists employed directly by NASA were allowed to submit funding and project proposals only to NASA.  Regarding the timing of this announcement, as part of the ROSES-2010 omnibus solicitation, I can only suggest that by the time these proposals are due to NASA, the ROSES-2011 solicitation ought to be released, but then I remember it seems never to have actually been released in full on the date anticipated.  The NEWS program itself only comes around for proposal competition every two or three years, and once a solicitation is released there's no guarantee that the program will be continued for another solicitation to appear in a couple of years, so the survivability of the program itself is contingent on sufficient interest from both investigators and those higher up in NASA who determine the agency's budget and priorities, and those two groups don't seem to talk to each other very well.  On the substance and goals of this particular announcement, I think that NASA is still under-reaching by far, and that's all I will say about it for now. 

Final text for ROSES 2010 Appendix A.17: NASA Energy and Water Cycle Study.

The overarching long-term NASA Energy and Water Cycle Study (NEWS) grand challenge can be summarized as documenting and enabling improved, observationally based, predictions of water and energy cycle consequences of Earth system variability and change. This challenge requires documenting and predicting trends in the rate of the Earth's water and energy cycling that corresponds to climate change and changes in the frequency and intensity of naturally occurring related meteorological and hydrologic events, which may vary as climate may vary in the future. The cycling of water and energy has obvious and significant implications for the health and prosperity of our society. The importance of documenting and predicting water and energy cycle variations and extremes is necessary to accomplish this benefit to society.

NASA's Energy and Water Cycle Study solicits projects to mine the vast data and model resources through innovative analyses to make progress against the NEWS goals. These projects should eschew focusing their efforts on product generation, model capability revision, or extensive model simulations. Instead, they should exploit existing resources that can be gained from previous or ongoing NASA sponsored research. Potential NEWS PIs are encouraged to leverage previous and existing NEWS funded activities, see http://nasa-news.org/ (see tabs for "Resources" and "Projects").

Amendment 29 releases the final version of the text of Appendix A.17: NASA Energy and Water Cycle Study, which replaces the draft text in its entirety. Notices of Intent to propose are due on February 16, 2011. The due date for proposals is March 22, 2011.

On or about December 27, 2010, this Amendment to the NASA Research Announcement "Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) 2010" (NNH10ZDA001N) will be posted on the NASA research opportunity homepage at http://nspires.nasaprs.com/ (select Solicitations then Open Solicitations then NNH10ZDA001N). You can now track amendments, clarifications, and corrections to ROSES and subscribe to an RSS feed at: http://nasascience.nasa.gov/researchers/sara/grant-solicitations/roses-2010

Questions concerning this program may be addressed to Dr. Jared K. Entin, Earth Science Division, Science Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC 20546-0001. Telephone: (202) 358-0275. E-mail: Jared.K.Entin@nasa.gov

25 December 2010

Some Things I Learned from my Mom, a Teacher

A brief philosophy of teaching
by Matthew Garcia, a son of my mother

It is said in business that "the customer is always right." That does not necessarily mean that the customer is always correct, but instead that the customer’s needs are of the highest priority in the successful transaction of business. In education, the student is the customer, and the needs of the student must always come first and foremost in the teacher’s effort to complete the transaction that is the learning experience.

The student waits, and the teacher may teach all that he or she wants or finds necessary, but that does not motivate the student to take in all of this teaching. The student becomes motivated, often by personal appeal or, even more likely, by an interest in something drawn from their experience, and their capacity for learning becomes unlimited. A transactional process begins, where the teacher provides knowledge and the opportunity for experience, and the student begins to learn from those, to build their mental shelves and place upon those shelves chapter upon volume the individual facts, concepts, ideas, and experiences that add up to the education of an individual. The motivated student is the insatiable seeker of knowledge, the teacher merely a guide and pointer to those aspects of the world that the student desires to acquire most.

But it is still not enough, simply to provide guidance and knowledge. The teaching process by which knowledge is provided and the student acquires, is incomplete. The role of the motivated teacher must fit to that of the motivated student as elements in a structure, the mutual construction of those shelves in the mind through which different volumes of knowledge become connected. For both, the motivated teacher and the motivated student, the development of understanding is a cooperative process. The motivated teacher is a lifelong student, seeking constantly to expand and enhance their own understanding of their world. The motivated student, in cooperation with the dedicated teacher, grows to understand that learning is a lifelong process, a never-ending cycle of questions and answers, leading to more questions and more answers.

It is recognized that the introduction of a child to reading is the opening of the world of knowledge to that child, but the understanding of that knowledge is a process that takes much longer than the complicated process of learning to read. With the conceptual framework that is built up in the cooperation between teacher and student, more knowledge can be brought to the student than all of the books in the world. The key to building this framework is the recognition, first by the teacher and then by the student, but only chronologically, that the framework is unlimited, that the chapters and volumes are endless, that the connections between concepts and facts in the student’s knowledge grow without bound. The imagination is the key to learning--if the student can dream of it, then it can be known and eventually understood. A question may take a minute or a lifetime to answer. The cooperation, dedication, and imagination are the keys to this process of lifelong learning and the quest for understanding of our individual and collective knowledge.

A teacher must seek to work with students individually and cooperatively to make the most of their particular mode and direction of learning. Some students learn by reading, others by seeing something done, and still more by doing it themselves. With the provision of knowledge, the explanation of process, and guidance through the process for the benefit of conceptual learning, the student learns more than just the solution to a particular problem or question. With the cooperative exploration and development of the teacher-student transaction, the student learns how to solve a problem or answer a question, any problem and any question. The student adds to their shelves of knowledge a collection of fundamental concepts and method that will become a toolbox, available for the construction of new shelves and connections throughout the student’s lifetime of learning and quest for understanding.

20 December 2010

Rant no. 3 of 3: following up...

A.S. (that's ante script, as opposed to P.S. or post script.  Hey, I'm a writer, I have authorial license!): For those of  you looking for my answer to the challenge posed in rant no. 2 of 3 last week, I have had no responses as yet, so I'm extending the explanation for a day or two in order to give my readers more time to exercise your imaginations, and to give me some time to address other things, such as holiday preparations around home and...

In response to my rant no. 3 of 3 last week, despite a lack of comments submitted here, I have indeed had some feedback.  Specifically, there was some surprise that I elected to review the ASU press release and not the PNAS journal article on which the press release was based.  I mentioned, specifically and repeatedly, that I had not read the paper but that I felt the ASU press release needed some response.  "But if you did not read the paper how can you assess the press release?" was one of the questions I received.  There is an easy answer to that question: the press release should stand on its own as an accurate account of the science to the public; if it does not do that properly, it will cost the scientists far more time and effort to correct public and professional misunderstandings than should have been spent on the press release, getting it right the first time.

But I am not exactly one for a short explanation, so I gave the questioner nine specific reasons:
  1. I assumed that the paper is good: it was in PNAS, had authors that I know to be of high reputation, and PNAS itself seems a professional journal of the most strict repute;
  2. ASU has a vested interest in relating the science properly as a leading educational institution in one of the states both criticized for and affected by western water issues;
  3. The statements I picked out for criticism and response were simply and scientifically incorrect, so these needed straightening out;
  4. If those statements did come directly from the paper, then the paper isn't what I thought, as I made clear in my blog post;
  5. I will indeed be reading the paper itself, now that I have a copy; I did not have it at the time the press release was made available; the paper, and the other articles in a special section of PNAS on water issues in the southwestern U.S., are all available subscription-free to the public;
  6. The ASU press release was a disservice to the intent of the paper and the reputation of authority demonstrated by the authors; that said, if the paper is also bad, I will criticize that too;
  7. Sciences, especially controversial topics in the sciences, deserve better from those who claim to advocate on the behalf of scientists and their work, but this press release amounts to misleading junk for the masses; part of the purpose of my blog is to help improve that communication, with the basic assumption that the masses are not as dumb and gullible as the media thinks they are;
  8. I am attempting to build a reputation here as a critical eye on water science but also as fair, detail-oriented, and not afraid to question the conventional wisdom or set the record straight; in the interests of full disclosure, I am still seeking paying work, and though some may think that the kind of criticism I posted is not the best way to go about that, I wouldn't take a position in which anything less analytical (or more "politically sensitive") was expected of me;
  9. Finally, for such a defining issue in the southwestern U.S., even ASU doesn't seem to get it right, and I am referring here to the relation of science activities and results to the public, not to the activities and efforts of the scientists themselves; the situation of public education must improve, or the situations related to the communication of water issues specifically, and science in general, with the public will only get worse.
So, my comments have appeared elsewhere now, and my criticism has been rerouted to the direct attention Mr. John Sabo, the lead author on the paper and a research scientist at ASU.  I am reading the paper in detail now and will post at least one more update, more fully educated on how it compares with the ASU press release, if it answers some of the questions I posed in my original comments, and additional details as seem needed.

15 December 2010

Wednesday funny, a sad commentary

This story, worded as a newspaper article, may have made its rounds more than once, but it's been a long time since I last saw it. Do you remember usenet newsgroups like rec.humor.funny? Were you even on the internets when newsgroups, a kind of text-based on-line sharing forum that is actually still popular, came into widespread use? Are you too young to have any idea what, if anything, came before Facebook? I don't want to scare anyone out there, but did you know that the web did not appear spontaneously, a ubiquitous eye on the activities and concerns of billions of people around the globe, a benevolent Big Brother that was placed on the Earth to receive and distribute to the masses a minute-by-minute account of your daily life? 
A student at Eagle Rock Junior High won first prize at the Greater Idaho Falls Science Fair, April 26. He was attempting to show how conditioned we have become to alarmists practicing junk science and spreading fear of everything in our environment. In his project he urged people to sign a petition demanding strict control or total elimination of the chemical "dihydrogen monoxide."

And for plenty of good reasons, since:
  1. it can cause excessive sweating and vomiting;
  2. it is a major component in acid rain;
  3. it can cause severe burns in its gaseous state;
  4. accidental inhalation can kill you;
  5. it contributes to erosion;
  6. it decreases effectiveness of automobile brakes;
  7. it has been found in tumors of terminal cancer patients.
He asked 50 people if they supported a ban of the chemical. Forty-three (43) said yes, six (6) were undecided, and only one (1) knew that the chemical was water.

The title of his prize-winning project was, "How Gullible Are We?"

He feels the conclusion is obvious.
By my calculation, we are about 92% gullible, generously counting "undecided" as half of a "yes."  Recast into the more contemporary campaign for scientific literacy, the measure is probably even more chilling...

Rant, tartare, no. 3 of 3

If you have not tried your steak tartare, I do recommend the experience, even if just once.  My experience was actually by mistake, during a trip to France, decades ago...someday, again, hopefully soon.  But I digest...er, digress.  For now, continued from part 1 and part 2 of my cathartic rant, onward to the third and final item...

According to a press release from Arizona State University that was picked up early this week by Mike "Aquadoc" Campana for his own blog as well as the blog of the American Water Resources Association (with both blogs under Mike's editorial leadership), several researchers have realized and explained that Mark Reisner's Cadillac Desert was correct about the sustainability of water resources in the American Southwest.  This news comes only 25 years after the publication of Reisner's popular work, to say little of John Wesley Powell's assertion (dutifully cited by Reisner) of the same concept in 1878.  Cadillac Desert, first published in 1986, was principally an historical work and was followed closely by Reisner's less-known Overtapped Oasis, a collaboration with Sarah Bates on the more present state and future of water in the American West, in 1990.  Taken together, these two works by Reisner have overshadowed much of what came before and after in both popular histories and technical accounts of water management in the western U.S.  That's not to say that the others are not good in the own right, just not as stark and brutally honest in their depictions of what has happened to get the West into this mess and the vast sacrifices it may take to get out.

This recent journal article is titled "Reclaiming freshwater sustainability in the Cadillac Desert" and was just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  I know two of the co-authors on the article, Mr. Campana by e-mail correspondence (outside of his blog), and Ms. Wohl only by her reputation and the quiet intellectual power of her books on western rivers and streams.  In the criticism that I offer here, I mean not to offend friends or colleagues.  However, both of those people are hydrologists, and Mr. Campana offered quotes to ASU in support of the press release on the paper's publication, and as such might have exerted some scientific influence on the wording of the release.  I certainly understand that the scientists cannot control all of the information that is promulgated in more traditional media about their work--in the academic journal system, we at least have recourse to formal comments and the opportunity to reply in official publication.  To its credit, there is Paragraph 6 in the press release, which leads me to believe that the study and paper are well-founded:
"At the core of their analysis, Sabo and his colleagues applied the best available tools to data on water, soil, salt, dams, fish and crop yields. 'Our data and analyses confirm with numbers and maps what Reisner deftly described with words,' Sabo said."
So, when it's not the journal article, but instead the press release, that I believe to be in error, even from an institution acting on the authors' behalf and in their interests, I have little more than this.  Maybe I'm just being picky here, but some things in the press release just don't seem to do justice to the study that is being promoted for public consumption.  So, let me begin with...

Paragraph 2:
"Researchers applying modern scientific tools and mapping technologies, unavailable during Reisner’s time, find his conclusions for the most part to be accurate scientifically correct. As a result, current water practices are not sustainable and many dramatic initiatives will be needed to correct the current unsustainable path the West is on."
While the mapping and data-relation technologies of GIS have been with us for quite a while, it took the advance of the other "modern scientific tools" to make such a study truly possible: distributed hydrological modeling is still a toy in the academic community, despite the efforts of yours truly and like-minded progressive individuals with whom I've had the pleasure to work over the years, and the operational community (such as the 13 regional River Forecast Centers in the National Weather Service) doesn't come close to trusting it yet.  Don't let them tell you otherwise--I've worked with several of the forecasters, with even more of the researchers and bureaucrats, and with the models that they suggest will make the transition to distributed use, and I know that they just don't have it yet.  But that's a rant for another time...

However, it is not the eventual efforts at scientific validation of Reisner's assertions and conclusions that have made "current water practices" unsustainable--those water policies were not sustainable practices long before this study, before Reisner's work, well before Reisner was born for that matter.  The water policies in the American West were unsustainable long before science told us just exactly how and why they left us in this mess.  The point of Reisner's work was to demonstrate with historical evidence and a keen analytical eye those conclusions about Western (oh, I almost wrote "wastern" there--a Freudian slip?) water policy that the present study has reinforced with a more "modern" scientific approach using mapping technologies, distributed hydrological models, and basin-level water accounting practices.

As such, the press release suggests that "many dramatic initiatives will be needed to correct the current unsustainable path the West is on."  This is something that we have certainly known for a long time.  The present drought in the western U.S. is not a new phenomenon, and the work of Reisner and many others have pointed out exactly what was wrong and some of the ways that we might correct the "current unsustainable path" of western water management.  For that, this study was not necessary at all--we had all of that knowledge, information, understanding and warning already.  The history of water in the West is full of more focused and storied histories in their own right.  As we have ignored this history of evidence, we are doomed to its repetition, however more learned and thorough each iteration may become.

Paragraph 7a, regarding some of the study findings:
"Currently, the desert Southwest uses 76 percent of its total surface water to support its population. This will rise to 86 percent with a doubling of urban population (expected in 50 to 100 years). Sustainable balance for the region is achieved when 40 percent of total surface water is used."
I will be very interested to see how the study authors arrived at these numbers, likely by numerical simulation of the Colorado River and tributary/distributary systems in the region.  Of greater interest to me is how that number for "sustainable balance" was determined.  I wonder if groundwater extraction is balanced with its own recharge, and overall just how the whole surface/subsurface water system of the Southwest can become both balanced and sustainable at a single value with climate, people and agriculture all in the mix.  Alas, it is a shortcoming of the press release to provide such provocative information and then hold us in suspense...oh, yes, that's called marketing.

Paragraph 7b:
"Salt, which results from the application of large quantities of water to grow drought intolerant food crops on desert farmlands, has likely caused about $2.5 billion in reductions in crop revenues in the Western U.S."
Hello, science?  Salt results from the evaporation of saltwater, such as seawater; it is an evaporite mineral deposit.  The "application of large quantities of water" is needed primarily to offset the meteorological conditions and biological imperatives of crops grown "on desert farmlands..."  Where the weather is hot and dry, the same species of plant needs more water to survive and grow than it would in a warm and humid weather regime.  The same corn crop that grows "knee-high by the 4th of July" under rain-fed farming conditions in Iowa would wilt and wither upon sprouting in southern California.  The same cotton that thrives in the humid Mississippi delta region needs artificial irrigation measured in meters in southern Arizona.  For that matter, many species of crops grown in the dry Southwest have been selected for their drought tolerance, and Pima cotton was propagated by Native Americans and the USDA in southern Arizona more than a century ago, just for that reason.

What I think the press release is trying to explain here, but does not succeed, is the widespread issue of soil salinization on irrigated farms in the American Southwest.  When the irrigation water is untreated, as for much of the water taken directly from streams and rivers, it contains a salt content that is near the tolerance for many crops, beyond which the plant can no longer process the water properly as its biology "clogs up" with the salt load.  To counteract this build-up of salts in the upper soil layers and the consequent clogging of plant vascular systems, farmers learned to over-water their crops in an effort to flush the salts out of the root layer.  As if this overuse of water was not enough, the problem actually comes when so much water is applied that the water table, traditionally far below the surface, rises with this excess input and floods the plant roots from below.  The rising groundwater brings with it even more salts, those in solution and those that had previously deposited and dried well below the root layer.  To flush the saline from the waterlogged soils, farmers applied still more water, not recognizing that drainage had been the key problem all along but instead exacerbating the problem of soil salinization.  Eventually, whole farms perished as the salt deposits left crop soils barren and sterile.

Now about that $2.5B in losses--is that annual, or over all the history of irrigated agriculture in the American Southwest?  What area, specifically, does that cover--for example, are the earliest irrigation communities in Utah included?  Are these losses due to soil salinization and the overwatering that came with and caused that problem, or due to climatic impacts such as heat and drought that remained beyond human control and led to additional irrigation simply for crop viability?  Are farm and water subsidies, sizable sums in their own right, calculated into those losses?  The press release is mute on these points of clarification.

Paragraph 7c:
"The water footprints of Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix are the top three in the U.S.  The footprint of Los Angeles alone is larger the seven largest eastern U.S. cities (including New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.)."
However the study authors have defined water footprint, it remains a fact of geography that Chicago is not an eastern U.S. city.  The seven largest eastern cities by population in the United States are all in states that border the Atlantic Ocean.  In order, these are: New York City NY, Philadelphia PA, Jacksonville FL, Charlotte NC, Boston MA, Baltimore MD, and Washington DC.  To include Chicago IL in this list, as the third largest city in the country, Washington DC would have been bumped, and there are several cities more "eastern" than Chicago that would need to be counted.  As it is, the population of New York City is almost three times that of Los Angeles CA, the second largest city in the U.S. by population, so I am eager to see the elements of the water footprint calculated by the study authors, and that the press release does not make clear.

Paragraph 13:
"'We suggest an initially modest target of a 16 percent reduction (to 60 percent total) in the fraction of stream flow withdrawn,' the researchers state. This alone would require the seven states that make up the West to do several things they have yet to do, including improving urban water use efficiency, implementing a desalinization system by coastal cities, improvements in land-use practices that minimize erosion and sediment infilling of the region's reservoirs, and implementing modified crop portfolios that include only salt tolerant and cash crops."
The quote from the study is interesting, in that I am eager to see how they calculate these resource withdrawal numbers--do they include groundwater extraction, agricultural and municipal return flow, the relative locations of stream withdrawals, and both spatial (meteorological) and temporal (climatological) variations in supplies?  As for the "several things [the seven states] have yet to do..." I can only suggest that the writers of this press release should have searched on those terms in Wikipedia and Google News before making such an statement:
  • the widespread movement to improve water efficiency in urban settings is now into (and in some places beyond) its second decade, and is already being worked into international LEED building certification requirements;
  • coastal desalination plants are under consideration and construction in San Diego CA and along a sizable portion of the southern California megalopolitan region, and the inland desalination plant at Yuma AZ is in a process of re-commissioning for use in part to fulfill international treaty obligations with Mexico regarding the quality of Colorado River water that passes over the border;
  • land-use practices to minimize erosion have been in place since the Dust Bowl of the early 20th century, and the Southwestern U.S. has not ignored the recommendations and activities of what was first the USDA Soil Conservation Service (SCS) that arose from that semi-natural disaster and is now, encompassing water and forest lands as well, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).  For that matter, hydrology as an engineering practice is littered with studies using the far-outdated, highly-parameterized SCS curve number method for land-use-based runoff modeling;
  • "sediment infilling of the region's reservoirs," while it can be addressed to a certain extent with land-use reform, is more a function of meteorology and hydrology over the vast pristine and undeveloped lands of the western U.S.  Reservoir sedimentation is, in fact, an inevitability of design that is taken into account in the more thorough of engineering studies when a dam-and-reservoir system is considered.  The problem of sedimentation, not of construction durability or infrastructure maintenance, is why dams have a "usable lifespan" in practice; it is also one of the few aspects of the current state of infrastructure quality in the U.S. that is not explicitly considered in ASCE evaluations, even though the time since the last surge in American dam construction is exactly in line with the expected usable lifespan of those projects...
  • "modified crop portfolios that include only salt tolerant and cash crops" is an interesting turn of phrase, as I certainly agree with the adoption of salt-tolerant crops where those are needed for farm viability (which is not everywhere, as drainage quality varies widely), but a reliance on "cash crops" is the very problem we are attempting to overcome.  Farmers simply should not be planting crops that bring in cash just because of their market value, and regardless of the cost in water use demanded by such crops.  What we want to encourage are salt- and drought-tolerant crops, despite their smaller value on the market, in the arid southwestern U.S. while other regions with more hospitable and sustainable climates take over the "cash crops" for which the specialty farms of the Imperial Valley are known.  These are, as farming in that area has evolved, increasingly market-oriented crops with high water demand, while other areas of the country should be taking on (or retaining) those responsibilities: corn, cotton, alfalfa, lettuce, fruits and vegetables, etc.  At least we aren't seeing that last and most profitable refuge of the cash crop movement, tobacco, in water-poor southern California--at least, not that I know of...
The remainder of the press release is composed primarily of quotes from Mr. Sabo and colleagues on the study itself.  My only other complaint is the use of "unsustainability" in paragraph 10:  when sustainability is already difficult to define for public use, do we really need this new and likely problematic non-term in the lexicon as well?  The wrap-up:
"'The water crisis in the West is a regional one,' Sabo said.  'This suggests that local conservation efforts (shorter showers, banning lawns, installing a gray-water recycling systems) are necessary but not sufficient for a solution. Regional and national policy changes are called for,' he added. 
"'The cards are stacked high against freshwater sustainability in the West,' Sabo added. 'Something will have to give, and it likely will be the price of water and high quality produce. If water were priced appropriately (by market forces or policy mandates), we would become much more efficient with water use in cities and on farms, and we would likely do agriculture completely differently than we do it now in the Western U.S.'"
Wow, a shift out of our agency-controlled regime of combined water supply and power generation operations and negotiated distribution, into a market system? Talk about jumping from the frying pan to the fire...the states and established commercial interests in the American West will not go quietly.  My fellow blogger and friend over at Aguanomics is far better qualified to address the potential issues there, but with some education maybe I will soon give it a shot as well.

To the authors of the study and their researchers who likely contributed immeasurably, I say well done and kudos to you all!  To the PR office at ASU, I suggest you bring the publishing scientists into your draft process, and retain some editors with subject matter expertise, or you'll continue to do a disservice to your researchers and programs.

14 December 2010

Rant, rare, no. 2 of 3, with a challenge to my readers--win a prize!

My apologies for such a pause in the conversation--I took some time to get some sleep, and still have not returned to my outside reading.  Yes, I traded reading cyberpunk and writing science for some sleep--what was I thinking?  It appears that I bit off a little more than I could chew through in one late evening of writing.

Anyway, continued from part 1 of my escalating rant, onward to the second item...

Two journalists at Slate published connected articles last week, one on politics in science and the other on President Obama's appearance on the Discovery Channel series MythBusters.  First, the more difficult topic. It's not more difficult because of the explanation, but rather the level of discourse required for effective communication with those who insist on putting forth a specious argument, especially in print.

On 8 December, Daniel Sarewitz stated plainly that "Most scientists in this country are Democrats. That's a problem."  Ummm...why, exactly?  Let me insert here a clear declaration of my own politics: I am a socially liberal, fiscally conservative, intellectually independent American, capable of evaluating candidates and issues on their merits (or failings) and casting my vote accordingly.  Fair enough?  I believe strongly that career politicians have no standing in the determination of funding and investigative priorities in science, but that career scientists have all requisite standing in providing fair and unbiased information to policy-making persons and groups in the political process.  What you consider yourself means everything in how you present yourself to the public, and consequently how others interpret your role in the public debate.  Are you a politician (or something else) first, and a scientist only second?  Science won't stand long for that...it insists on the primacy of the acceptance, the embrace, of non-bias in the work of its practitioners and advocates.  If you can't do that, just go be a politician, and leave the professionals to our work.

At first, the author starts with a simple observation based on a 2009 poll by the Pew Research Center:
"It is no secret that the ranks of scientists and engineers in the United States include dismal numbers of Hispanics and African-Americans, but few have remarked about another significantly underrepresented group: Republicans."
Let me state, right from the start on this one, that science does not pretend to demand equal representation of beneficiaries in the statistical demographics of its practitioners.  Being a Republican is an ideological choice, and has no direct causal connection to the workforce demographics of color, age, gender, national origin, etc. that Affirmative Action and (to a lesser extent) Equal Opportunity propose to correct in the workplace.  Parity in demographic representation is an inherently political construction, and does an injustice to those whose work has earned them a place at the table in the scientific community, which is inherently a meritocracy, inasmuch as that could be considered an organization.  Still, the author is paranoid enough to suggest that President Obama's appearance on MythBusters is not without an anti-Republican agenda:
"...he will be there not just to encourage youngsters to do their science homework but also to reinforce the idea that Democrats are the party of science and rationality."
So, why can't Republicans demonstrate that they are also a party of science and rationality?  What would be wrong with that?  It's not the foundation of the party, as it were.  Politics is based on perception, and we know well that perceptions are inherently flawed as subjective, by definition.  And still, the author clearly acknowledges that,
"...partisan politics aside, why should it matter that there are so few Republican scientists? After all, it's the scientific facts that matter, and facts aren't blue or red."
Just so.  Science is founded on impersonal and dispassionate investigation into the most fundamental questions of nature, oriented on objective outcomes and honest approaches to understanding better the world around us.  Scientists in the lab and in the field, in professional societies and organizations and published journals, really don't care what political party a co-worker and colleague has declared on their voter registration form.  For that matter, science is a global endeavor, not restricted to the United States and registered voters there.  To suggest equal representation, even just in the United States, is an artificial restriction on the natural evolution of science itself, and would result in a composite and compromised workforce as arbitrarily defined as political parties themselves.  And yet, that is exactly what the author proposes:
"American society has long tended toward pragmatism, with a great deal of respect for the value and legitimacy not just of scientific facts, but of scientists themselves. For example, survey data show that the scientific community enjoys the trust of 90 percent of Americans—more than for any other institution, including the Supreme Court and the military. Yet this exceptional status could well be forfeit in the escalating fervor of national politics, given that most scientists are on one side of the partisan divide. If that public confidence is lost, it would be a huge and perhaps unrecoverable loss for a democratic society...the issue here is legitimacy, not literacy. A democratic society needs Republican scientists."
Mr. Sarewitz bases his case for better representation of Republicans primarily on the political alignment of climate scientists in the controversial debate, one of the reasons for the demise of the UNFCCC and Kyoto programs over the years, as I discussed in detail in my first rant.  In a 2010 Gallup poll of registered voters, "66 percent of Democrats (and 74 percent of liberals) say the effects of global warming are already occurring, as opposed to 31 percent of Republicans." Turned the other way around in the Pew Center poll, climate scientists have apparently been found to declare their politics (again, only in the American political system) overwhelmingly as Democrats (55%) or, less so, as Independents (32%), and both far more than as Republicans (6%).  Even the "don't know" answers outnumbered declared Republicans in the Pew Center poll. 

Oh, wait, let's go back to that Gallup poll.  Did the author mean to suggest that there are liberals who are not Democrats?  Could it be possible that there are also conservatives who are not Republicans?  Could there be those seemingly endangered species, the liberal Republican and the conservative Democrat?  Could there also be those who claim "none of the above" as [gasp] Independents?  Perish the thought, lest I am attacked from all sides for my non-traditional views on the arbitrary nature of political affiliation!

One thing that the obviously-Republican author does not choose to recognize is that it's just a poll, not even close to an adequate statistical representation of climate scientists in the United States, let alone around the globe.  Does the poll include scientists declared Labour Party supporters in the UK?  Green Party voters in Germany?  Maoists in China?  X supporters in Japan?  Y voters in Australia?  Z affiliates in India, the world's largest democracy?  No, I didn't think so.  And for the record, I'm choosing parties at random here--there's no bias on my part for or against those parties.  I would no more likely choose not to work with a Conservative hydrologist from England or a neo-Maoist water resources engineer from China as I would choose no longer to think about hydrology itself.  As a scientist, I have a bias for working with fellow scientists from other countries--I'm glad to work with anyone, American or otherwise.  Science, like mathematics and music, approaches ubiquity as a global language.  If a scientist, no matter their citizenship, has something to contribute to the discussion, more perspectives can only improve the results.  In my opinion, the best conferences are international, as I've had the pleasure to find.  And as for collaboration, the number of climate scientists in the rest of the world, and thus without American party affiliation, far outweighs the collection of declared Democrats and Independents in the United States.  I would guess that I now know more scientists from Mexico, personally and professionally, than all of the American scientists I have met whose voting record, or even registration status, I also know.  Any scientist worth their salt recognizes that who you vote for doesn't make a damn bit of difference, as long as you can do the job and make a contribution to the results of your research.

The author poses a question that is, I think, poor in its intellectual basis:
"Think about it: the results of climate science, delivered by scientists who are overwhelmingly Democratic, are used over a period of decades to advance a political agenda that happens to align precisely with the ideological preferences of Democrats. Coincidence--or causation? Now this would be a good case for Mythbusters."
The scientific term you were looking for there is causality, as a principle, and not the more legal causation in its common use as leading to a particular effect.  And it's strange that the author should ask this question in particular, as causality is exactly the principle at issue.  Specifically, he brings up the idea of education:
"It doesn't seem plausible that the dearth of Republican scientists has the same causes as the under-representation of women or minorities in science. I doubt that teachers are telling young Republicans that math is too hard for them, as they sometimes do with girls; or that socioeconomic factors are making it difficult for Republican students to succeed in science, as is the case for some ethnic minority groups. The idea of mentorship programs for Republican science students, or scholarship programs to attract Republican students to scientific fields, seems laughable, if delightfully ironic."
I don't know what's so ironic about it--that isn't explained at all by the author.  It is relevant that he evoked the educational process, however.  Think about which you encountered first in school: science, or party politics?  If you yourself have grown up in a standard school system, and if you have watched your children do so, you recognize well that they have more opportunities (and reasons) to learn science in grade school than to join a political party.  Their opportunities to develop an inclination to a career in science, beginning in the early grades in most curricula, are far greater than any opportunities to form learned opinions on the basis of a limited education in politics and government (which begins well into the later grades) and then lock themselves into the ideology of an established political party.  I would suggest that a child's education in politics has far more to do with their parents talking about Election Day every year than with their limited experience of American Government in a 10th grade classroom...

The other thing that the author does not realize, but that is evident in our educational system even before science and politics enter the discussion, is that there is a danger in definition of Republicans as a group with the same standing as African-Americans, or women, or any other group addressed by the principles of Equal Opportunity.  A claim of poor representation of Republicans in the scientific community is tantamount to a claim of discriminationNo such discrimination on the basis of political ideology exists in the meritocracy of the scientific community.  The author's claim in the pages of Slate is, on the basis of faulty logic and circumstantial evidence, a specious argument.

So then, the easy one:  according to the author of the article on the President's appearance on MythBusters (since I have not seen the episode, though I am quite familiar with the premise of the series),
"Obama tasks the Mythbusters to take a stab, their second, at reconstructing Archimedes' heat ray, supposedly an array of bronze shields or perhaps mirrors that, reflecting and concentrating sunlight, incinerated approaching ships during the Siege of Syracuse.  Why did the White House and Discovery pick this myth to re-bust?  Is there a metaphor about national security in there?  A parable of collectivism?  Is this the light of the unum out of the pluribus?  Does the Pentagon think this technology might have practical applications?  Such questions do not trouble the lively minds of our likable hosts..."
If you, Mr. Patterson, had taken some time out of making fun of "this TV president," and the apparent bias of the climate-political twist in which you've put yourselves, to sit down with your colleague Mr. Sarewitz and actually read something literate about climate change science and the approaches to mitigation that are already underway, you might have recognized the origin and utility of President's Obama's request.  Do you need some clues? 

Okay, I'll allow a few clues, but that's all.  Consider it my first experiment in issuing a direct challenge, requiring an explicit response, on this blog.

Three shall be the number of clues, and the number of clues shall be three (sorry, old movie reference):
  1. It's not a parable, or the one that arises from our many, or any other sort of metaphor;
  2. It does have national security implications, if only by collective association with other such technologies;
  3. It does have practical applications--the technology is, in fact, already in use--but not yet (overtly) for the Department of Defense.  Wow, are avowed Republicans really that paranoid about military power too?
Commenters are welcome to answer too--President Obama, listen up, you're eligible too!  The first to get it right will receive, as recognition of your knowledge, one of my most curious possessions acquired during my near-decade of work in water issues.  Unless a commenter gets it right, I'll post the answer next Monday.  Either way, I'll post an explanation and reveal the prize!

Rant, medium rare, no. 1 of 3

Just playing with the title there: "medium rare" as opposed to "rare," as in "how well cooked would you like your steak?"  Also as in how often I really rant on anything--I prefer to call it "posing an argument" or something more civil.  But when three different things, each of which might just plain irk me on their own, all pop up in my innocuous web browsing within minutes of each other, it really irks me.  And all I wanted to do was check my e-mail and write down a cool new term before getting back to the second chapter of Pattern Recognition in my evening reading.  Yes, my reading list is actually longer than my backlog of blog posts, but I'm dealing with it as best I can...

Three news items caught my attention tonight:
  1. Some in politics and the media actually think that the COP-16 meeting in Cancun was a success,
  2. Two journalists at Slate hold an intellectually dim view of both science in general and the President's intentions to promote science in education, and
  3. Several researchers and PR people at Arizona State University have taken only 25 years to realize and explain that Cadillac Desert was correct about the sustainability of water resources in the American Southwest, to say little of John Wesley Powell's assertion of the same concept in 1878.
There is a common thread here, as I see it:  politics is little different from a common computer--it's no smarter than what you put into it.  If you need the "garbage in, garbage out" principle explained, I was actually able to do so at one time using established and standard scientific references, so I can give it another shot.  In the meantime, onward to the first item...

The 16th Conference of the Parties (COP-16) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and 6th Meeting of the Parties (MOP-6) to the Kyoto Protocol was held in Cancun, Mexico, during 29 November through 10 December 2010.  Some of the conference background is already documented on Wikipedia, which we can expect to expand in the coming weeks with procedural accounts while the public and official international response is still brewing.  Many thought that the previous meeting, COP-15 / MOP-5 held in December 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark, was a complete failure because it resulted in no new agreements, no commitments from "party" nations toward emissions reductions, no financial policy decisions with regard to environmental mitigation, and generally little advance on any of the principal topics at issue.  The perception of failure at COP-15 / MOP-5 was due primarily to high expectations without accompanying preparation among, nor pressure within, the attending countries to see through with necessary commitments.  Specifically, the so-called Bali Road Map that was proposed in 2007 at COP-13 / MOP-3 was to have made its penultimate stop in Copenhagen, with a plan established for widespread action on climate change mitigation beyond 2012.  The 2007 meeting in Bali was, in some ways, very much a success with much promise in its outcomes.  That those outcomes depended on the success of a conference two years later in Copenhagen was, however, a blatant exposure of the UNFCCC and Kyoto process for its "decide now to commit later" philosophy.

Of the binding agreements that were expected to appear from negotiations in Copenhagen according the Bali Road Map, none materialized.  I write it just exactly that way for a good reason--going into the Copenhagen meeting, few of the "parties" had actually worked out their commitments to the negotiations on their own, preferring instead to defer hard statements on unilateral actions while waiting for someone, anyone else to pick up the responsibility of leadership.  Sadly, one could hardly have expected much better from the United States, what with all of that time between Bali and Copenhagen falling over an election cycle and a near-guarantee that the balance of political power (and, thus, global outlook) in the U.S. would shift substantially. Again sadly, the environment fell beneath the platform entirely for both major parties and throughout the election year in the U.S.  I expected better, and I was disappointed.  When so many political issues in an election year could have been (indeed, had been, but not by the mass media) brought carefully back into the context of our national outlook on global issues, among which climate change does indeed remain among the top concerns, the election process in America remains a dismal orgy of pandering and narcissism.  The politicians who allow it to remain just so...oh, never mind.

What I'm trying to get to is this:  grassroots activism, on which the latest environmental movement in America was oriented, must remain the base of the process for pressure on political institutions, or the process will fail dramatically and without recourse.  Putting the power of negotiation into the hand of the politicians is a perversion of the process--not only does it take away the power of the people to decide what is best for themselves and their planet, but it puts into the hands of those least able to make a clear commitment or decision (the politicians) the power to defer such decisions as are needed now, not later.  For the United Nations and the United States, both nominal advocates of the democratic process, it is a travesty levied against every person whose livelihood is diminished, whose life is shortened, for our political leaders to bring back the news from Bali, or Copenhagen, that the necessary decisions and commitments to make life better for ourselves and our children, to preserve the biodiversity that our planet supports, and to preserve the planet that supports our own lives, has been deferred to later...

There were two things that I thought very ironic about the outcomes from the COP-15 / COP-5 meeting in 2009.  First, several useful and positive meetings were held in 2009 prior to the UNFCCC and Kyoto "negotiations" in December.  For one of these, in March 2009, scientists met for an International Scientific Congress on "Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges and Decisions" in Copenhagen to discuss in great detail the meanings and outcomes of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.  According to its article on Wikipedia, this conference was convened "with the stated intention of scientifically informing the political COP15 negotiations."  The official website for the Congress states:
"The main aim of the congress was to provide a synthesis of existing and emerging scientific knowledge necessary in order to make intelligent societal decisions concerning application of mitigation and adaptation strategies in response to climate change.  The congress aimed to identify and synthesise the science, technology and policy advances required in order to ensure sustainability of global communities in the current and coming decades...The findings of the congress should be seen as a supplementary to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The congress provides a summary of existing scientific knowledge two years after the last IPCC report."
Regarding political outcomes, however, the stated goals of the Congress were less lofty:
"All findings will be compiled in a book on climate change, and a synthesis report with the main findings will be handed over to policy makers before the COP15." [sic]
Realistic, pessimistic, or simply noncommittal, I can't quite say...handing over a report policy makers is not nearly the same as a clear and explicit understanding that your report will inform that policy-making process.

Second, as it was held in Copenhagen, the outcome of "failure" in the negotiations rather poetically demonstrated the meaning of the Copenhagen Consensus issued years earlier, upon which Bjorn Lomborg developed his reputation for telling the truth to power, as unromantic and unprofitable as that has become, with the publication of Global Crises, Global Solutions.  Mr. Lomborg went on to publish The Skeptical Environmentalist, on which basis he has incorrectly been pegged as a "denier" of climate change, and the more public-friendly Cool It regarding developments in the scientific and political communities closer to, and more heavily invested in, the COP-15 / MOP-5 process that was to have reached its zenith in Copenhagen but instead found its nadir.  All that to say, simply, that Mr. Lomborg favors solutions embedded in the welfare of the people, not those that depend entirely on the power of the politicians and the profit of global industry.  The trust-oriented costs of half-actions, the failure of political insistence on multilateral negotiation and interdependent commitment to action, and the ignorance of global governments and industries regarding the issues at hand--all of these have added up, as yet, to nothing, while the money put forth toward ephemeral ends might have been better spent over the past decades on issues that we might actually have solved with concerted effort and considerable understanding.

Now, COP-16 / MOP-6 is seen as a success, according to coverage in the Washington Post and other outlets, but Andrew Revkin of the Dot Earth blog at the New York Times has seen it differently.  So also has one of the student observers, Emily Cross, who attended the conference in Cancun.  It was primarily an eleventh-hour but still Phyrric victory, visible only on paper and not in actions or commitments, very much in line with the tone of the more recent political meetings: "let us dither and bicker for two weeks, then hurry to write something just before we leave."  Some of the commentary offered by Ms. Cross sums up the context and attitude nicely:
"...the president of a climate-action organization asked the audience, 'What is the point of all of this? Why do we even go to these conferences?' This was the first time I heard a participant pose this important question. While she gave herself the opportunity to answer it meaningfully, she opted instead for a vapid answer. Unfortunately, this was the norm at COP-16."
To come back to what I was saying above, taking the process out of the hands of scientists and grassroots activists and allowing the politicians to high-jack the discussion and turn plans and actions into mere "negotiations" has led only to this.  What is worse, when the negotiations require iterative pre-conference meetings (such as those ahead of COP-15 / MOP-5 that were well-documented), the process has sunk itself into the mire of bureaucratic limbo.  With the 20th anniversary of the original UNFCCC coming up in late 2012, what are we to expect?  It seems, quite obviously, too much for them to look back on the process and ask, "Have we done our job well?"  The answer is simple: NO!  Is also now too much for these leaders to ask, "Why are we here?"  While the scientists and environmentalists could answer that question in a heartbeat, the politicians would just as likely remain mute.

13 December 2010

Pittsfield Airport, part 2: Initial Concerns

It was during my brief initial review of available documents that I published the first part of what will become a short series on the polluted travails of citizens in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In the course of that review, I came to several concerns and observations regarding what seems to be going on around the seemingly innocuous extension of a runway at the Pittsfield Municipal Airport. At the beginning of this investigation I was interested primarily in the results of construction permit requests to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the New England District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).

  1. Two aquifers in the Pittsfield area each have different depths and bedrock characteristics. A deep carbonate aquifer, on which the airport is located, is part of a system that supplies high-quality water to local and regional systems, including Croton Reservoir and the water supply for greater New York City. The other aquifer, composed of gravel from glacial sediments, has been directly affected by PCB contamination from the General Electric facility and its waste disposal sites. Though the overall contamination is now considered to be in remediation, groundwater impacts are addressed in joint GE / EPA clean-up activities in only a cursory manner.
  2. The two aquifers meet in western Pittsfield, where contaminant exchange may occur. Both aquifers contribute to the Housatonic River, which flows southward from Pittsfield through western Massachusetts and Connecticut (see the first map graphic in part 1 of this article series).
  3. The aquifer in the southwestern part of Pittsfield supplies groundwater to the only major branch of the Housatonic River headwaters that is not contaminated with PCBs. This high-quality aquifer resource acts as an active chemical filter and supplies water to communities in the vicinity of the Pittsfield Airport, including residents in Pittsfield who use groundwater wells for their domestic supply.
  4. No geotechnical development activity in the vicinity of Pittsfield, and especially at the airport because of its sensitive location, should be undertaken without study of potential impacts on the surface and groundwater system. Such construction could alter flow patterns, possibly leading to the complete loss of wetland areas and the release of additional PCB contaminants into the surface and groundwater system.
First and foremost, the hydrogeologic nature of the area to be modified has been found to occur most rarely, and it remains unknown what long-term impacts the project may have on the behavior of such ecologically diverse and sensitive wetland areas. Activities in any wetland area are limited under various statutes, including the federal Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act, as well as Massachusetts' particular adoptions of these (MCWA and MEPA, respectively) and further protections. In activities where a loss of wetlands area is unavoidable, the enhancement or construction of "compensating" wetlands areas is often a condition of permit issuance. However, the quality of such enhancement and construction was not defined and cannot be guaranteed.

Given the rarity of calcareous wetlands (sometimes known as fens) such as those to be affected by construction at the Pittsfield Airport, what is the likelihood of successful wetland replication and/or enhancement without prior detailed studies of their structure, origin, ecology and biochemical composition? Based on the documents at hand, we lack the data to support any answers or conclusions about the specific area at issue. Published evaluations in professional journals have generally reported unfavorable comparisons between the quality and function of constructed wetlands in comparison with their natural counterparts, even for sites in close proximity.

In addition, the continuity of surface and subsurface geology suggests that, where blasting and digging are planned in areas near these wetlands to provide fill for runway and safety areas, that removal of soils could lead to unanticipated results: the discovery or even creation of new springs, enhanced surface and subsurface outflow from the wetland areas, and even the complete drainage of valuable open-water and wetlands areas.

These wetlands, generally renowned for their biodiversity, are further distinguished by the underlying geology and the hydrogeologic conditions giving rise to seepage and springs at these particular locations. There is, however, little or no reference to such phenomena in much of the project documentation. It is evident from the aerial photography in Google Maps (see the map embedded in part 1 of this article series) that the original construction of the Pittsfield Airport occurred in wetland areas, but there is no indication in the project that this history and its impacts on the area may be relevant to planned construction. We must ask, what is the potential cumulative damage to the hydrologic system? If the planned construction proceeds, the rich ecology of these wetland areas and our opportunity to study the processes that generated these special areas could be lost entirely.

It is apparent that the location of airport construction relative to the locations of groundwater seepage and springs has not been determined. What are the potential consequences of building an airport runway on carbonate-dominated fill over, or even near, a groundwater spring? In carbonate aquifers, groundwater is known to dissolve the surrounding minerals to form cavities (karst geology), leading to caves and sinkholes if the ground surface is affected. These processes in a fill area can lead to progressive dissolution and wasting of soils, leading to added maintenance requirements (e.g. crack repair, repaving) and even the complete collapse of the runway above. The weight of an aircraft on the runway during taxi, takeoff or landing only adds to such danger.

The hydrology and geology of the area have been the subject of prior study: the USGS has issued a number of reports (1916, 1968, 1973, 1984, 1985, 1991, 1992, 1996, 1998a, 1998b, 1998c, 1999a, 1999b, and 2000) regarding the upper Housatonic surface waters and underlying geology and hydrogeology. However, regulatory assessments and the project permits are based on project documents that have referenced none of these sources. Hydrologic Atlas No. 281, a 1968 USGS report, includes numerous figures describing the fundamental physiography, geology, and hydrology (including water quality) of the Housatonic River basin. From that study, it is clear that one of the few areas left unaffected by PCB contamination from the GE facility was the Southwest Branch of the Housatonic, where the airport and these wetlands occur.

A deep carbonate aquifer underlies the upper Housatonic basin, but the surface aquifers vary in composition with location. In Pittsfield, the surface (alluvial) aquifer is dominated by glacial sediments; both the West and East Branches of the Housatonic occur in these conditions. The loose conglomeration of glacial deposits facilitates the transport of PCB contamination laterally and downward to the underlying carbonate bedrock. Upstream on the Southwest Branch, however, the deep carbonate aquifer is exposed at the surface, hence the occurrence of calcareous wetlands there but not farther to the east. While the hydrologic chemistry and hydraulic conductivity of the carbonate aquifer may differ from those in the surface deposits to the east, those differences would not prevent the exchange of contaminants at the geologic contact between the two aquifers.

At present, it appears that PCB contamination has not migrated to the Southwest Branch. Further studies are needed to determine the possibility and extent of aquifer contamination, which has not been addressed in GE / EPA remediation efforts, and if construction at the Pittsfield Airport could indeed disturb contaminated surface sediments and cause degradation of the regional water and environmental quality. These studies would be highly valuable on a larger scale as well—the USGS Ground Water Atlas of the United States, published in 1995 and now available on-line, shows that the carbonate bedrock formations underlying much of the upper Housatonic basin are contiguous with carbonate bedrock outcrops along the Hudson River basin in New York (see figure 85 at right, figure 99 below, and figure 101 on-line). It needs to be remembered that a surface watershed divide indicates the separation only of surface and shallow-soil water drainage, and then from the conditions described in the USGS studies it becomes clear that the water resources of western Massachusetts are connected beneath the Taconic Range to resources in southeastern New York, including some of the drinking water sources for New York City. In addition, the consistent grouping in USGS studies of the Housatonic River basin with the Connecticut River and Thames River basins to the east, from which extensive water supplies for Boston and other metropolitan areas are drawn, is a clue that significant connections exist there as well. It is well-known that the wetlands in the vicinity of Pittsfield share groundwater hydrology and chemistry with areas to the south, including conservation areas along Yokun Ridge (part of the Taconic Range) and numerous communities on the Massachusetts side of the drainage divide between the Hudson River and Housatonic River basins.
Studies published by the USGS do not necessarily characterize the behavior of surface water and groundwater resources in the specific area of interest. Further studies remain necessary in order to determine the impacts on groundwater resources of past contamination in the Pittsfield area. We must consider and assess the utility of rare calcareous wetlands in and near Pittsfield as a possible indicator of the health of the underlying aquifer and its potential use as a resource. Finally, we must assess the potential impacts of pending construction activities on the degradation of water resource quality for communities along the Housatonic River and in surrounding basins, given their surface and subsurface connections. None of these aspects of the wetlands near the Pittsfield Airport are addressed in the project documents.