Mismanaged Water in the West

The California Drought is part of the greater Water Crisis in the Western United States (WUS), affecting not only California but also Arizona, Nevada, and other states. The causes of the crisis are both anthropogenic and natural, however, since water resources management should be done in a way that takes into account hydrological cycles and overall water fluxes, it could be said that this is an entirely anthropogenic disaster. A brief history of the WUS shows clearly the need for Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) in changing ‘water rights’ in the US.

A recent project by ProPublica, “Killing the Colorado”, outlines different aspects of the crisis, ranging poor regulatory understanding of hydrology with a relentless agricultural and population growth to generally unsustainable management (Lustgarten, 2015a). A major source of water is the Colorado River Basin, which has a fluctuating amount of water capacity, with approximately 18 MAF of flow being measured during the 1922 Colorado River Compact, but flows ranging from 3.8 MAF in 2002 to 22.2 MAF in 1984. with one of the first major interstate management efforts being the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The 1922 Compact apportioned 15 MAF throughout the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basin, and 1.5 MAF were allocated to Mexico, so there’s 16.5 MAF allocated, but natural average flows could be about 13 MAF (Gelt, 1997).

The exact specifics of how much the water is changing aren’t very important, and will probably change with more accurate modelling and in-situ and satellite data availability, but the results still stand: The amount of water is in flux, and continuing growth will result in massive shortages during years of lower flows. Of course, the Colorado River isn’t the only source of water in California. Large amounts of groundwater are also being depleted, in fact to the point that parts of California are subsiding at an average of a foot per year, with parts of San Joaquin Valley going at 2 inches a month (2 feet per year). The USGS estimated about 12.3 Billion GPD of groundwater removal in California (population 37 million), roughly 12 times the amount of water NYC daily consumption (population 8 million), or nearly 20% of all groundwater pumped in the United States (Bell, 2016).

Outside of the unsustainable amount of water being used, the people managing it aren’t acknowledging the science. Scientists have identified that surface and ground waters are connected, and as the ProPublica piece “Less Than Zero” shows, California isn’t acknowledging that (Lustgarten, 2015b). In fact, a recent piece of California legislation mandated that regulators were not allowing to mention the connection between groundwater flows and surface water until 2025. This is meant to give them more time to prepare better regulatory measures, but it’s a common symptom of management without science.

A remedy to this has been proposed, but it does not appear to have been used in this management policies of the West. Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), espoused by UNESCO and hydrologists, is a process which promotes the coordinated development of and management of water, land, and related resources, in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without comprising the sustainability of vital ecosystems. (Loucks et. al 2005) The IWRM is a system that could be used to fix the WUS, but only through the push by scientists to have their science be a part of policy.

By considering the links between surface and groundwaters, by using drought (availability) models that are able to reasonably discern seasonal and yearly fluctuations in availability, and by making sure that these predictions form the backbone of allowances, a system will be developed that allows growth to occur without collapsing unto itself. Edward Abbey said that, “growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell,” an ideology that should be considered when developing massive urban and agricultural developments in an arid climate.

I have not gone into the different water users and how efficiency may be improved, but the biggest portion of water savings can come from better agricultural practices. The hydrological climate in the WUS isn’t great for growing crops, and this needs to be considered – more efficient irrigation has to be used, and the federal government needs to consider removing subsidies for crops that really shouldn’t be grown in the WUS.

One major lesson of the California Drought and the Water Crisis is the same that the former Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, pushed for in his tenure: Let science guide the way we develop our resources, but have a staunch conservatism in development. Do not let development go unchecked, and don’t let managers who have no knowledge of water systems make the final decision on how water is managed.


Bell, T. E. (2016). “Peak Water? Choices Are Tough in California’s Epic Drought.” The Bent, Winter (2016), 10–18.

“Climatic Fluctuations, Drought, and Flow of the Colorado River.” (2004). USGS, US Geological Survey, <http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2004/3062/&gt; (Mar. 12, 2016).

Gelt, J. (1997). “Sharing Colorado River Water: History, Public Policy and the Colorado River Compact.” Arroyo, 10(1).

Loucks, D. P., Beek, E. van., Stedinger, J. R., Dijkman, J. P. M., and Villars, M. T. (2005). Water resources systems planning and management: an introduction to methods, models and applications. UNESCO, Paris.

Lustgarten, A. (2015a). “Killing the Colorado.” ProPublica, ProPublica, <https://www.propublica.org/series/killing-the-colorado&gt; (Mar. 12, 2016).

Lustgarten, A. (2015b). “Less Than Zero.” ProPublica, ProPublica, <https://projects.propublica.org/killing-the-colorado/story/groundwater-drought-california-arizona-miscounting-water&gt; (Mar. 12, 2016).

Flint as a lesson

Last week, the Flint, Michigan Fire Chief announced that the recent water crisis had come to his domain. A new truck has corroded valves and pumps, with an estimated $65,000 in needed repairs (Sabella, 2016). This is only one of many headlines coming out of the totally mismanaged situation in Flint. A federal state of emergency has been declared in an American city for lack of clean, safe drinking water, something that a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services employee said “sounds like a third world country” (Michigan, 2016).  These are the sort of newspaper stories that our descendants will see as marking a time of massive crisis in the US. A major part of this story is that it is essentially the fault of managers, and not due to a climatic or unforeseeable consequence.


The crisis in Flint began during the Michigan financial crisis, with control of the municipal water supply being put into the hands of the state emergency manager in 2011. Following decisions by the state emergency government, water from the Flint River entered the municipal water supply, and the Detroit Water and Sewage Department no longer provides water. There were immediate complaints, about the taste, odor, and color of the water. Analysis by Marc Edwards, Professor of Civil Engineering at Virginia Tech, revealed highly corrosive water (Michigan, 2016). Edwards’s team has been in Flint since at least August 2015, while Genesee County declared a state of emergency in January 2016. Some of the team’s data is publicly available (Edwards, 2016). The damage to the system has also been found to be largely permanent, with so many pipes corroding that full replacement of lead pipes will be needed. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality never installed corrosion control measures, and actually lied to the USEPA about installation of measures (Michigan, 2016).


The state emergency manager claimed that the move to the new water system was done as a cost saving measure, but over $100 million of aid from Federal and State governments was announced in just two days in January, 2016 to remedy the totally artificial disaster. A 2012 request by then-emergency manager in Flint, Mike Brow, for blending of Flint river water with DWSD states that blending alone would save Flint $2-3 million annually, which is only 50x less than the emergency cost that higher levels of government have given to repair the system (Michigan, 2016).


There was a comment in a 2013 email, by Genesee County Drain Commissioner Jeff Wright, that “nobody … should have these decisions made by people who live outside their community” (Michigan, 2016). In the context, he was advocating for the switch to a new regional water system. He is reflecting an often neglected attitude that the best community decisions come from the community itself. Given the proper information, community leaders can make the right choices. However, given the wrong or incomplete information, they can make disastrous mistakes. Of course, you can have the situation in Flint where even with the information there was nothing done to fix the issue.


Providing the right data and analysis is the responsibility of the engineers and scientists. Local and regional professionals should understand the environmental and public health impacts of decisions made, especially regarding access to clean and safe drinking water. This can range from making sure that the water is sustainably and renewably sourced to making sure it isn’t corrosive enough to destroy your distribution system. This case should serve as a guideline for analysts in all aspects of water resource decision making. This guideline should enumerate the ethical and moral obligations of a water resources engineer, in light of the transition to hydromorphology as advocated by leading water scientists (Lall, 2014). Engineers need to take into account water quality, availability, and renewability when designing their systems. Let the lessons from Flint lead the way to institutional reform in the water resources field.




“Disaster Day by Day: A detailed Flint crisis timeline.” (2016). Bridge Michigan, The Center for Michigan, <http://bridgemi.com/2016/02/flint-water-disaster-timeline/&gt; (Feb. 16, 2016).


Edwards, M. (n.d.). “Flint Water Study.” Flint Water Study, <http://flintwaterstudy.org/&gt; (Feb. 16, 2016).


Lall, U. (2014). “Debates-The future of hydrological sciences: A (common) path forward? One water. One world. Many climes. Many souls.” Water Resources Research Water Resour. Res., 50(6), 5335–5341.


Ross, J. (2016). “In Flint, bad tap water runs politically deep.” Washington Post, The Washington Post, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/01/14/in-flint-bad-tap-water-runs-politically-deep/&gt; (Feb. 16, 2016).


Sabella, A. (2016). “Flint Fire Chief: Water damaging fire engine water pumps.” WJRT RSS, <http://www.abc12.com/home/headlines/flint-fire-chief-water-corroding-fire-engine-pumps-368271731.html&gt; (Feb. 16, 2016).


New York is Failing its Students

This has been a platform that is difficult for me to make time for: It has no hard deadlines, there’s a million other writings needed to be done, and lots of more excuses. This is not really relevant, the real issue is the abysmal state that the City University of New York is in. This is awful. Literally awful.

The City College of New York has a shortage of toilet paper on campus. Seriously, don’t use the bathroom on campus it’s gross. You can’t wipe. This is a university recently identified as one of the highest producers of Nobel, Fields, and Turing prize winners. This is a school that was called Harvard on the Hudson. One of the few public engineering schools in New York State granting bachelors degrees. One of the few schools that doesn’t cost tens of thousands of dollars a year to students. And we can’t get any damn toilet paper.

The State of New York in its infinite wisdom and caring for its citizens and voters has cut the CUNY budget significantly. Compounding this, cuts from NYC, and less enrollment than expected, we’re facing a budget cut of nearly $15 Million. How will this affect us? They’re going to fire a bunch of adjuncts. In the math department alone there are 45 adjuncts. What are they going to do, not offer classes? In a meeting with assistant dean of undergraduate affairs, we were told that an extra 500 students were accepted to the Grove School of Engineering. There weren’t enough introductory math, chemistry, and physics classes even being offered.

These are students unable to even begin progress in the long, sequential series of classes necessary to graduate with a bachelors of engineering. This isn’t ok. Why did we overaccept students? Because the schools that failed to meet the expected number of enrollments were facing a budget cut. So in exchange we received no cut but now have to many students to cater for.

The CCNY School of Education received a 40% cut in its budget. That’s ridiculous. Just flat out ridiculous. Two people I know are on the verge of dropping from the school, receiving different degrees so they can at least have a chance to graduate. They will literally be unable to graduate because of these cuts.

The cuts mean that courses now offered once a year may not even be offered once a year, as the adjuncts supposed to be teaching them won’t be paid. That means that one core, 400 level engineering course you need to graduate isn’t going to be offered for another year. That means you need a job for the next year until you can get your degree. That means being stuck in this increasingly awful city for another year.

The cuts mean that the professors of CUNY, represented by the Professional Staff Congress, a 27,000 strong union are preparing to go on strike. They haven’t received a new contract in 6 years, and have been working without a contract for 5 years.

Our educators are treated horribly. Our students are treated horribly. The state does not care about the students of New York. It does not care about the people getting an education in universities carrying its name. It does not care about the people born and raised in the five boroughs and are getting a degree, and will one day help build this city.

New York City does not care that the country’s largest urban university system, with over 500,000 students and 24 campuses is facing these cuts. It does not care that in 2014, these 24 campuses had a budget of almost $3 Billion. It does not care that in the same fiscal year, the NYPD was funded 50% more, for a total of nearly $4.7 Billion. Is this really what we value?

There’s not a lot more to say.

CUNY has failed its students.

CCNY has failed its students.

New York has failed its citizens.

CCNY Students are protesting against the budget cuts on November 10 at 12:30 pm in front of the Wiley Administration Building. Let your voice be heard.

Formal Education is for Skills, not Knowledge

When I started engineering school, there may have been some bragging about this major was the best and it’s so great and those damn liberal arts kids aren’t learning anything. That went away, pretty quickly. Mostly gone after the first year, it’s bothersome to hear that idea said now. A quote like “She studied psychology? She’ll never make any money!” Who cares? You go to school to study what you want to study. Learn what you want to learn. You’re paying for a service, you’re paying for exposure to people to teach you things. In the US, you’re paying for the ability to get hired, since a majority of jobs now require a Bachelor’s degree for employment.

That was more of tangent than I meant. A friend of mine, also in the tiny world that is the Earth Systems and Environmental Engineering program, was talking about how people often think majors define them. Or define what they’re doing. For example, they’ll take an introductory Mechanical Engineering course and say “Holy crap this is what mechanical engineers are gonna do? Ok this is what I’m gonna do.” And to quote him, “It’s not. It’s what the professor does.” The fluid mechanics professor? He studies the boundary layer of the atmosphere. Not how to build a piping system. The guy teaching Environmental Site Assessment? That’s what he does. That isn’t what you need to do.

It’s also easy to think that mechanical engineers study how to build small things. Environmental engineers must study municipal water treatment, which is the traditional definition of environmental engineering. Oh and those electrical guys? All they must do is build cool gadgets! What you major is not this narrow, restrictive set of rules and life opportunities. Environmental engineering students now study remote sensing, renewable energy, and climate change. A ton of mechanical engineers study fluid mechanics! Look at the guy teaching the course!

This brings up the idea of what going to school even means. You go to school, and get an “education.” Said education teaches you. I would argue that you go to school to learn how to learn. There is no way you’re going to remember every individual course and its information after you graduate. The majority of us do not have photographic memory. However, you will develop a skill set. What that skill set is up to you. Maybe you’ll learn how to read and analyse papers amazingly quickly. Maybe your writing style will become fine tuned. Maybe you’ll learn how to prove that irrotational flow is given by the curl being 0.

A college education is about developing yourself, and adding knowledge on the side. When someone says “I am a chemical engineering major! Chemical engineers make the most money.” It doesn’t make you’ll make the most money buddy. Especially if you piss everyone off.

So, go to school and think about how you can learn better. Make some friends. Learn how to derive complex principles, and how you can solve problems from the principles of physics and mathematics. Learn how to analyse, so that you can create. And stop talking about how your major is better anyone else’s!

Specific utility and General utility

As someone learning how to program as both a hobby and a class requirement, a major thing that comes up is the ability to reuse something you’ve done. That is to say, to write code that can only does one specific thing, once, is not very efficient. For you, or for people attempting to build upon your work. To give an example of this, over the summer I used “R” to construct linear regressions of climate data. Part of this involved trying different kinds of linear regressions for a months worth of data, for all the months. That meant making 5 regressions per month, or 60 regressions per year. It would be insane to individually write this, or to call an identical for loop for each region that was being studied. So I built a couple functions that would generate the regressions and then plot the data with the regression. Then I just called that for each region.

The tedium of making this “work-all” and more general purpose (but still highly specific) tool made doing further work in that field easier. Almost nothing being made had a single purpose. It would be rewritten to be generally applicable for the same process, if the process was being re-run. That isn’t even a great feat, and the tools being made were still basically useless outside of what I was doing. But it just doesn’t make sense to spend a bunch of time making this one thing that does absolutely one thing.

This comes up in life often, when looking at how many things are produced for highly specific purposes and their possible utility ignored. From the ubiquitous single use plastic wrappers to automatic tie racks, many things are designed with one use in mind. Tools and objects are created to be bought, used, and tossed. Generally within a matter of days. It’s incredibly wasteful. An old boss of mine one day said, “Have you seen how much wrapping is on a single flash drive? There’s a ton of paper and plastic to get a tiny bloody thing.”


Source: http://www.goingveggie.com/plastic-wrapped-potatoes/

It doesn’t take much to fill a sheet of paper with the amount of items that are used and discarded, and never touched again. An artist friend of mine walked around with all the trash he generated for the week in a large garbage bag. It turned into 2, and was filled mainly with empty coffee cups, cigarette packs, and beer bottles. The first and third item on that list could be transported in reusable containers, quickly reducing the amount of waste produced.

This idea, to me, is paralleled with another issue: That of making things so general that they lose their specific purpose, and their identity as an object. Take a poorly made multi tool – Sure it has a ton of stuff including a corkscrew, but when will you use a cork screw on your utility knife?! Maybe I am speaking from ignorance of necessity. You get this item that tries so hard to be useful that it is useless.

I recall this coming up with some software, but can’t recall it at the moment. If you have any examples of this with software, please shoot off an email or leave a comment!

This is not to say that either general purpose tools or specific tools (think of a single head screwdriver) are inherently bad. This is to call for tools built to last, built to be learned and reused, built to help the user. Not built to break or tossed away after one use. Not built to sit in a box, waiting for the next time someone needs to tighten the screws on the bed frame.

This is a call to consider the materials around you as part of your life, to bond with the people and things in your life. Not to find solace in materials, but to understand that items are not useless, not one-time throwaway junk made by some faraway factory. Take pride in what you have, and take care of it. Take pride in what you make.

And stop throwing away so much stuff!

Good customer service makes for good business

I had the saddening experience of learning today that my recently purchased Surface Pro 3’s battery is defective. By defective, it won’t work without being plugged in and resetting the battery drivers doesn’t fix it. This is an especially poor time for it to fail, since this is the first semester I’ve decided to integrate a laptop into my courses and it’s become an amazing resource to take notes on, program, and have reliable computer access anywhere. It’s also my only Windows install, with a Linux-Mint install on my increasingly older desktop at home. So this isn’t the end of the world, which is extremely lucky, and there’s pretty good computer access throughout the school, which is also amazing, so this is at worst a major inconvenience.

The SP3 was refurbished when purchased, and its warranty (from Microsoft) expired last month. So after doing the regular troubleshooting, called up MS today and found out after about 40 minutes of going through re-installing the battery drivers that the battery was defective. The service rep then checked on the warranty, and informed me that the MS 30 day grace period expires in 3 days, and there’s still coverage. Have to send in the laptop and it’ll get fully replaced. Crappiest part about the whole thing is that there’s no way to renew/extend the warranty, so if this happens again it’s gonna hit the wallet. Severely.
Similarly, a day or two ago, a good friend signed up for a free trial with Audible to get a book for class. She got it, started listening, and was suspicious of the total play time, 1 hour…which was due to it being the abridged version. She called them up, and told them what was wrong, and even though she had only 2 free books as part of the trial, they gave her the full copy of the book, and refunded the original. That was awesome!
Both of us hear Audible commercials all the time on podcasts, and honestly have not considered subscribing…until now. She’s considering signing up just because of how awesome they treated her.
The concept of amazing customer service from a faceless large entity is so pleasing because often, one is met with the complete opposite. Apathy from the person on the other end of the phone, and a total lack of empathy from anyone, allegedly human, from the entity. It doesn’t matter if it’s private or public, but is based more on the size of the entity.
The commitment to treat people using your service as humans and valued is working! This isn’t to excuse the people mistreated on the other end of the chain, especially the people making your products. This is to promote humanizing the trading of goods and services. Thanks MS. Thanks Audible. Y’all did awesome. We’ll be back.

The Irony of the Irony of Waste

After one of the largest Climate Change rallies in the world took place in New York on Sunday, a lot of the common trends of opponents to enviromental reform came out. The People’s Climate March (PCM) was accused of being trash generating monsters and hypocrites. The hypocrisy thing has been around for the past 40 years ago and would require much more than the length of what I plan to say to address, so I will give someone else the pleasure of addressing it. It is necessary to address the critique’s of the PCM charging it with being a wasteful, hypocritical event.

To begin with, there were 400,000 people present. Most of these people were Americans, and many were New Yorkers. The amount of waste that was generated is being criticized for being left in the streets and not in “trash” cans. What if there are no trash cans because the NYPD is paranoid that they’ll have to shut down the city looking for backpack bombers? Would the New York Post’s response be, “Environmentalists Bring Terrorists and Death to New York.”

The amount of waste that was generated in sad in itself. Over 150,000 signs were left in the street. That is unacceptable of people to do, and they should try to reuse them or find some way to recycle them. However, many of these signs were handed out by the organizers of the event, and not brought by people. Several of the people I spoke with said they were given signs off the side of the street when they arrived. The organizers of the event should be contributing to trash clean up if they are going to be giving out many large signs. The masses of groups selling goods and handing out free 8 oz (236 mL) water bottles are generating much more trash, and of a worse quality.

Some have pointed out these signs are made of cardboard, and that the many people present are promoting the logging industry. So, having seen a few protests in the last year and photographs of previous years, especially in the 20th century, do people ever bring signs not made out of cardboard? A friend of mine told me I should’ve brought a small piece of metal that has a lab safety warning printed on it. That would’ve been awesome, except it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to be able to do that. Then again we’re not talking about people with reasonable expectations. Should everyone have bought solid plastics to write on the back of? Would they have pasted paper on the back so you could write legibly? The last I checked, trees come back in a human’s life time. Oil derivatives come back in a species’s life time. Many of the signs were also re-purposed from old cardboard. That is often what people do, since it’s free.

The real problem is the Starbucks coffee. Now why it was necessary to buy Starbucks coffee is questionable, but also reasonable in the situation many were in. It is physically exhausting to shout and cheer for several hours. My abdomen is still sore, and I’ve lost my voice. Water ran out before the march began, and we had to wait until about half way in to get more. I saw some people carrying their empty Starbucks cups looking for water refill stations. This was at about 11am. At around 2pm, a friend of mine, pretty exhausted, said to me, “Look…I can go to Starbucks for just a minute…it’s worth it.” A woman next to us looked at him and said, “Oh you’re not going there. You’re going to hold out.” He stayed with us. He didn’t get some burnt and overpriced coffee. Maybe some of the older people in the crowd couldn’t hold out and had to buy a coffee. Are they now hypocrites who aren’t allowed to comment on the status of the overall trend of the climate to be changing?

Lastly, maybe these same people should comment on the massive waste and destruction caused by other people. Here’s some mountains that don’t exist anymore.

Credits to Google Earth for the image.

Thanks, and keep on fighting.