I recently had the experience of moderating a Congressional briefing panel discussing water-based hazards. Since my role was to create a big picture framework for the presentations (as well as keep speakers to their allotted time and control the flow of the question and answer period), I took the opportunity to think about all of the challenges we encounter related to water.
Some of the biggest water stories lately involve too little water. I find checking the U.S. Drought Monitor to be a heartbreaking exercise since it shows the extent of California’s crippling drought that has emptied reservoirs and made water rationing a reality and a necessity. During the year when my heart belonged to Colorado, my adopted state was in a similar world of hurts, and pictures from the southeastern part of the state were reminiscent of the dustbowl with blowing dirt and sand that was no longer anchored by the dead and dying plants. Even when the rains come, they first must saturate the parched ground before there is excess to raise the water level in the lakes and reservoirs.
Then there are the problems with an overabundance of water. After all, storms such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy are a combination of wind and far too much water for the ground to absorb. Images of submerged rail lines and coastal communities washed away after Sandy demonstrate that big storms are not exclusive to the South.
Flooding is also not exclusive to the coasts. In September 2013, a huge rainstorm that settled in over the Rockies demonstrated how fragile our infrastructure can be. Some communities were temporarily isolated by the floodwaters, whereas others were cut off from the rest of the world when roads built along the Big Thompson riverbed were washed out. As people brought in groceries on horseback, I was reminded of my year of transporting groceries in DC without a car. At that point, it all comes down to weight and bulk of what you select and carry.
We in the United States, often take our water supply and our water quality for granted. That illusion of an infallible water supply has run up against reality several times in the past year or so. Over 300,000 residents of West Virginia learned the weakness of the system when a storage tank leaked out a substance used in the processing of coal. The contaminated water was undrinkable for days. People had to cope with either the limited bottled water that was distributed, or they drove for hours to get to clean water. Toledo learned a similar lesson this past summer when an algae bloom of cyanobacteria dumped toxins into Lake Erie right at the water intake pipe for the city. With waste water treatment plants equipped only to remove usual toxins rather than exotic toxins, there was more distribution of bottled water and yet more driving to find clean water.
Even disasters that on the surface seem to be unrelated turn out to affect water. For example, forest fires in Colorado are commonly understood to be double disasters. The first disaster is the loss of homes and properties in the fire. The second is the effect on the water system. In the summer of 2012, the ash from the High Park fire near Fort Collins washed down the steep slopes until the Poudre River ran black. Does a farmer irrigate with the black water or not irrigate at all? For the Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs in the same year, the challenge was infrastructure. The runoff of water down the steep slopes is enhanced anywhere between two and ten-fold after an intensely burning forest fire. A few months after the fire destroyed 350 homes, a relatively routine rainstorm shed so much water off the slopes that the force of the water stacked up concrete culverts like straws at the bottom of the drainage.
Against this backdrop of water-based hazards, it was fascinating to listen to the speakers who focused on ways in which science can be a resource for creating resilient communities where the impacts of such events are prevented or reduced. NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is working with the local and regional resources around New York City to make future zoning plans that not only consider the current flood zone maps, but also use maps that project the new flood zones taking into account future sea level rise. In Vermont, geologists are creating landslide susceptibility maps with the goal of identifying undesirable places to build and potentially buy out owners of existing structures. Toxicologists are searching for new faster ways of measuring health risks of chemicals without using animal testing, so safe levels in water can be established rapidly. Construction companies are working with FEMA to create programs that will pay not just to replace a damaged concrete bridge with an identical copy, but to pay the extra money required to build the new bridge higher and out of steel so that the new bridge will be less prone to damage, last longer, and be more easily repaired.
I fielded one question that intended to hold the speakers accountable for creating a grand consolidated plan for addressing all of the challenges of water-based hazards. I pointed out that the panel had highlighted several good starts and that as scientists and engineers, we stand ready to help. We have to leave the grand plan to the policymakers.