Is it Really Climate Change or is it Sewage?

Fox River Sept 2015
Fox River Sept 2015
Fox River Sept 2015

Lately I’ve seen several presentations which all include a similar slide with a graph like the generic one I created below. All the presenters then refer to the graph on the slide and make a statement similar to this: “and because of climate change you can see an increase in flooding over the last several decades.” But with no supporting data ever offered to attribute this trend to climate change, these graphs have instead made me think the cause is most likely sewage.

Graph - for example only; not based on actual data
Graph – for example only; not based on actual data

So how do I get sewage out of this? Well, first it helps to have a background in the history of water distribution and wastewater treatment in the U.S. While some major cities began piping water to homes in the 1800s, construction of water distribution systems didn’t began in most areas until the early 1900s.  At this time, wastewater in most areas was still discharged without central collection or treatment. According to Urban Wastewater Management
in the United States: Past, Present, and Future, “By 1905, more than 95 percent of the urban population discharged their wastewater untreated to waterways. Little changed over the first quarter of the twentieth century,
and in 1924 more than 88 percent of the population in cities of over
100,000 continued to dispose of their wastewater directly to waterways.” Because this led to a non-centralized system, sewage was sometimes sent directly to a stream from multiple outlets and sometimes dispersed over land to eventually make its way to a stream.

All this began to change in the mid-1900s. The same publication cited above also noted Congress enacted  “the Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. The legislation provided for comprehensive planning, technical services, research, financial assistance, and enforcement. The Water Pollution Control Act was extended in 1952 and became permanent legislation in 1956.” There was a 1965 amendment to this act, and then eventually in 1972, Congress passed another Water Pollution Control Act.  The paper points out “the 1972 Act set the unprecedented goal of eliminating all water pollution by 1985 and authorized expenditures of $24.6 billion in research and construction grants.”

The result of this flurry of legislative activity between 1948 and 1972 resulted in the installation of centralized wastewater treatment systems in urban areas across the U.S. Today all discharges from each of these systems are regulated through permits from the USEPA primarily for water quality control. The discharges are typically introduced to a stream or other body of water directly from the treatment plant. Treatment discharges have the potential to range from less than 1 million gallons per day (MGD) to 1.44 billion gallons per day. That’s a lot of water entering our streams on a continuous basis which is why I immediately thought of wastewater as a cause when I saw the graph trending up after the mid 1900s.

Wastewater clarifier
Wastewater clarifier

Another reason I suspected wastewater had a major impact on stream flow was based on something I heard regarding the river flowing through our city. It seems in the past, people could walk across the river in the summer. As you can see in the photo of this river which I included at the start of this article, walking across the river today would most likely never be possible. In hearing this, there was no question in my mind that this was due to the wastewater discharges which now regularly flow into our river  and increase its base flow.

So during the last presentation I attended, I asked if impacts from wastewater discharges were considered or analyzed to see how much these flows are contributing to increased flooding. I explained if prior to installation of wastewater treatment plants, base flows of rivers could reduce to almost nothing, these streams would have had more capacity to handle rainfall events. But now with increased base flow due to wastewater discharges, which really started entering streams between 1948 and the 1980s and continue to do so and increase, the ability of streams to handle rainfall events has decreased. This could be a cause of rainfall events impacting greater areas and resulting in increased damages in suburban areas.  Also, as this USGS site shows, How Much Water Do We Use?, public water supply usage has increased over the years which would increase wastewater discharges even more. The presenter said they had never looked at the impacts of wastewater discharges.

As I continued to wonder about this, I looked online to see if others had thought of the impact of wastewater discharges on flooding events and discovered yes, they have. I even found studies which were done on the river in my community. H. Vernon Knapp, senior hydrologist with the Illinois State Water Survey, has developed at least two studies for the Fox River in Illinois which related to this topic. In his paper, the “Fox River Basin Streamflow Assessment Model: Hydrologic Analysis, October 1988,” he  analyzes the river flow taking into consideration impacts from effluent discharges from wastewater plants along the river. According to Knapp, in 1988, “approximately half of the low flows in the river upstream of these plants originated as effluent discharges from other facilities. Under these circumstances, the capacity of the Fox River to assimilate the additional effluents should be of concern.” His paper is also informative regarding other factors which can impact stream flow.

More recently Knapp developed a presentation, Effects of Future Water Demands and Climate Change on Fox River Water Availability. In it he states “watershed modeling suggests that the potential effect of climate change on Fox River low flows is considerably less than the effects of effluents and withdrawals, and thus does not substantially alter the water supply potential of the river.” He also notes “low flows in rivers such as the DesPlaines are almost 100% effluent.”

Perhaps not all increased flooding in all watersheds can be directly attributable to increased wastewater discharges since the 1940s, but I’m surprised it’s not always at least considered. Instead increased flooding events have been attributed to climate change, yet I could find no study which directly proves this. Most studies only look at the extent of flooding and make the leap with no specific data to back up the claim that this is due to increased precipitation brought on by climate change. A few studies I found also indicated there are too many factors other than just precipitation, such as antecedent water content, soil type, topography, etc., to conclusively make a direct correlation between increased rainfall and increased stream flow.

In the future, I hope to find more studies which do take into account the impacts of wastewater effluent on river flow and flood events to see if others have findings similar to Knapp’s.

 

 

 

 

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ArcGIS Pro – My New Favorite Software

ArcGIS Pro ScreenShot of 3D Map

As a public works professional, one of the best things you can do in the new year is to check out ArcGIS Pro – a GIS mapping software by ESRI. I admit, like many GIS software products, ArcGIS Pro can be a little overwhelming to use right out of the box. Even though I am a regular user of ESRI’s older product, ArcMap, the user interface was nothing like what I was used to and the workflows somewhat different. But after trying it out for a few weeks, I have found ArcGIS Pro offers more effective features that increase flexibility, capabilities, and ease of use. It was definitely worth taking the time to figure it out.

If your workplace does not yet have a subscription, you can download a free trial to try it out. Because the new software is so different from past products, I went through the great tutorials ESRI has on their website to help me learn the software. After completing these trainings, I felt confident in making the switch to ArcGIS Pro for all of my GIS work.

The best way to explore what ArcGIS Pro offers is to download the software and use it yourself so I won’t try to lay it all out here in this post. Instead I included a few screenshots from the tutorials so you can get an idea of the layout and look. The data displayed is for Wellington, New Zealand and is provided by ESRI for use in the tutorials.

In the screenshot below, you can see the menus are displayed across the top in a manner similar to other Windows-based products. A content window is located on the left and lists the data included in the map. When you start accessing other menus such as catalog or symbology, they will show up in this same space. Then you can switch between them by clicking the tab for each located at the bottom of the window. In this image, I only have the content and catalog menus open.

ArcGIS Pro ScreenShot of MapArcGIS Pro screenshot of a 2D map

You can also see in this image several tabs shown above the map window. This is because ArcGIS Pro allows you to create multiple maps and layouts as a project rather than just creating one map at a time. With this format it is easy to switch between maps and layouts and copy data from one map to another. In the image below, a layout for this project is displayed.

ArcGIS Pro ScreenShot of LayoutArcGIS Pro screenshot of a layout

The other feature I really like is the ability to easily create 3D maps. Below is another screenshot of a map showing buildings in Central Wellington, New Zealand. This map displays the same data as shown in the layout in the image above, but in a 3D format. I clicked on one of the buildings to get a pop-out window of the information stored for that structure. Also I had changed the basemap to get an aerial view which displays more of a picture of the ground.

ArcGIS Pro ScreenShot of 3D MapArcGIS Pro screenshot of a 3D Map with data displayed

Finally in the screenshot below, I had clicked in the Analysis menu to display some of the tools available. You can customize these display windows to show tools you frequently use.

ArcGIS Pro ScreenShot of Analysis ToolsArcGIS Pro screenshot of available tools in the Analysis menu

Another added bonus with ArcGIS Pro is the integration ESRI included between the software and ArcGIS Online. With the Share menu, you can easily copy your maps to your ArcGIS Online account where they can be displayed as web maps or used to create other applications such as story maps.

To give you an idea of why being able to easily share to ArcGIS Online is so important and powerful, I included just a couple examples of maps created and shared through that online service. The first is a very useful map created by the Maryland DOT. People can use this web map to figure out which entity has maintenance responsibility for any road in the state:

Maryland DOT Maintenance Responsibility Web Map

Another great example is this story map of public transit in Melbourne, Australia. This particular application displays a lot of the features and capabilities offered by story maps:

Melbourne Australia Transit Story Map

Finally, if your office doesn’t offer ArcGIS Pro for your own use or your free trial runs out, ESRI offers a fairly low-cost subscription option for people who just want access to the software for personal, non-commercial use. You can find out more about ArcGIS Pro for personal use here: http://www.esri.com/software/arcgis/arcgis-for-personal-use

 

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National Institute of Building Sciences Updates Mitigation Savings Ratio

Elevated House

On January 11, 2018, the National Institute of Building Sciences released their Natural Hazard Mitigation Strategies: 2017 Interim Report. This document reports an update to their 2005 determination of a mitigation benefit cost ratio of 4:1 where “for every $1 spent by FEMA on hazard mitigation, it is $4 in future benefits.” The new study has found this ratio has increased to 6:1 meaning “on average, mitigation grants funded through select federal government agencies can save the nation $6 in future disaster costs, for every $1 spent on hazard mitigation.”

The new study also broke out benefits of exceeding specific requirements of the 2015 model building code. It reports that, “on average, investments in hazard mitigation measures that exceed provisions of the 2015 model building code can save the Nation $4 for every $1 spent.”

While having additional data explains some of the finding of increased savings, there are other reasons this ratio is reported to be higher than the 2005 ratio. The newer study took a more in-depth look at costs and benefits and leveraged better analytical technologies.  This approach allowed for the inclusion of additional factors not considered in the 2005 study such as the following benefits and costs:

  • Benefits associated with avoided cases of PTSD.
  • Cost of lost wages
  • Losses in household productivity
  • Cost of pain and suffering

Another difference is the new study uses a discount rate of 2.2%. But even though this rate is below the higher discount rate used by the Office of Management and Budget, the study reports the measures remain cost-effective at the higher rate. This study also took into account information from 23 years of grants from EDA and HUD while the original analysis only looked at grants from FEMA.

You can read more about the entire study and findings at the National Institute of Building Sciences Website.  At this link you will be asked to provide your name and some brief contact information to download a summary, the full report, and fact sheets.

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The Day the FCC Took Broadband out of the Right of Way

Communications infrastructure in right of way

The use of public right of way is regulated by local or state government subject to local and state laws. Typically if a utility wants to install infrastructure in the public right of way, it must apply for and obtain a permit from the  government agency which has jurisdiction over the right of way. The installation and use of that infrastructure is then subject to the terms of that permit. Sometimes the issuance of the permit and the use is also subject to a franchise agreement negotiated between the local government and the utility. Utilities are also installed in utility easements which are designated on recorded plats of subdivisions. Private property owners typically own the underlying land which is subject to this easement. And the installation of the utillity in these easements is regulated by the local government through a permit and sometimes a franchise agreement. There have been additional regulations imposed through telecommunications acts. Often local government is restricted by these state or federal laws on the level of regulation that can be imposed on a public utility. Due to the telecommunications laws I have never heard of a use that was denied and instead have heard of court cases forcing cities to allow broadband companies to install their equipment in the right of way even when that installation was opposed by the city and the public.

Because the right of way and public utility easements are limited in area and because they are designated for public use, private parties are usually not granted permanent use of the right of way. Occasionally, limited uses are allowed such as street seating for restaurants or dog fences or sprinkler systems. In the case of use by a private entity, a legal agreement between the private entity and the local government is executed to permit the use. The local and state government has much more ability to charge fees and establish parameters for the use of public right of way when the applicant is not a utility or telecommunications company.

Keeping all that in mind, I can't help but wonder what will be the consequences of the FCC's net neutrality decision. From what I understand the premise of this action is the FCC is no longer going to define broadband companies as utilities and telecommunications. It appears instead the FCC's official position will be broadband companies are providing information services. Currently all of the major broadband companies have significant infrastructure in the right of way. Does this removal of a designation as a utility/telecommunication company mean local and state government can now regulate them as a private company? How about charge annual fees for use of the public right of way? And what about the infrastructure in public easements on private property? Is it legal for the company to keep its infrastructure in that utility easement? Can private property owners demand removal or payment? The next time a broadband company tries to install its Internet related equipment in my community, will the court again force the city to allow its installation as it did last time? Or since it's no longer a utility or telecommunication company, will the city prevail at denying the company access to the right of way?

With all the discussion online about the upcoming FCC decision, I've been surprised to see only one article touching on these issues and questions. The author of that article, "Ajit Pai's Net Neutraility Shell Game," suggested this reclassification will not take place and that this action by the FCC is only a ploy to force lawmakers into a position to concede even more power to broadband companies through additional telecommunication legislation. But if the FCC does end up moving forward with what they propose, I would expect eventually some local agency will test the legality of a broadband company's right to occupy the right of way. And if that litigation is found to have merit, permitting of right of way becomes a whole new playing field. 

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2017 National Engineers Week Educational Resources

2017 National Engineer's Week

An increasing number of STEM professionals have been flooding the market for the last decade, yet in the next ten years there will be a shortage of professionals in the field. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that from 2012 to 2022, STEM employment rates will grow by 13%, higher than the 11% projected growth across all other occupations. And yet by 2025, the U.S. will need approximately one million more professionals than it will have produced.

Engineers Week is one step towards a solution to this conundrum. The 66th Engineers Week, which started on February 19th, is being celebrated in schools across the nation. With new initiatives such as the Future Cities Project and Girl Day, Engineers Week aims to inspire the next generation of engineers who will help steer the U.S. as a global leader in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Below you will see a number of academic infographics that showcase how the future generation of engineers can impact the world.

From 7.4 billion in 2016 to 9.7 billion in 2050, the world's population will continue to grow over the next decade, and the brunt of the baby boom will be centered around developing countries. The problem is that these same regions do not have sufficient infrastructure to cope with the rapid growth.

The challenge to bring basic infrastructure to the developing world now falls on the shoulders of the next generations of engineers. By having a STEM expertise, it will not only put them in the forefront of science and technology, but it provide them with the skills to steer the world towards a better future. To learn more about engineering infrastructure for the developing world, check out the infographic below created by Norwich University’s Online Master in Civil Engineering program.

Infographic - Engineering

Technological advances in transportation and information technology have resulted in a global tourism boom in recent years. The good news: the economies of both leading and emerging destinations have been positively impacted. The bad news: the rise in coastal tourism is taking a toll on the environment. The silver lining: the continuing surge in global coastal tourism has indirectly caused more demand for environmental engineering professionals.

Indeed, the next generations of environmental engineers will have to propose and develop sustainable coastal tourism solutions that aren't focused on doing the tourists a favor — they're literally saving the planet, one tourist destination, coast, and reef at a time. To learn more about how engineers can help build sustainable coastal tourism, check out this infographic below created by Ohio University’s Online Master of Science in Civil Engineering program.

Infographic - Engineering the Coastlines

Modern communication technology is one of the most promising fields of the future. From homing pigeons to telegraphs to status updates, the advances in modern communication have supported the advance of civilization for ages. At the heart of it all, electrical engineers are solving the real world problems that allow these communication technologies to function and progress.

What's next for the electrical engineers of the future? Will virtual and augmented reality communication be commonplace? Will the Internet of Things take over?

Electrical engineering has never been as game-changing a field as it is today. To learn more about electrical engineering's impact on communication, check out this infographic created by the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Masters in Electrical Engineering program.

Infographic - Communications

Roads, bridges, and other critical infrastructures are the hallmarks of modern civilization. The bridges of today are not only a testament to the cultural aesthetics and norms of the period, but also the technological prowess of society.

However many of our bridges are crumbling and scouring due to several causes. We need a new generation of engineers to not only preserve the architectural symbols of our culture, but also adopt a modern approach to the renovation of existing bridges and planning of new ones. These engineers are ensuring the safety of the people using the infrastructure today and a century from now. To learn more about engineering strategies that prevent bridge failure, checkout the infographic below created by the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Master of Science in Civil Engineering Online program.

Infographic - Bridge Scour

– by Austin Anderson, Circa Interactive

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