The Fluid Dynamic

Drought Creates Potential Forage Danger for Cattle

by Curt Burnett on July 13, 2012

We’re all aware of the current drought in the Midwest and its potential effects on crop yields, particularly corn. I wouldn’t have known about this hazard though if I hadn’t been reading the farm press:

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri agriculture officials are warning that cattle grazing on some drought-stressed plants are at risk of falling ill or even dying.

One issue is nitrate poisoning. The University of Missouri Extension says nitrate poisoning poses the biggest risk in pastures that contain sorghum sudan, millet and Johnsongrass.

Animals that eat nitrate-laden plants appear to be suffocating because nitrate poisoning inhibits the ability of blood to transport oxygen.

Nitrate is a naturally occurring form of nitrogen found in the soil. Normally, little nitrate accumulates in plants because they rapidly convert nitrate to amino acids and proteins. But when conditions are dry, the roots will take up nitrate faster than the plant can convert it.

Dry conditions also can lead to potentially toxic accumulations of prussic acid in plants such as sorghum.

Wetter in Texas

by Curt Burnett on June 8, 2012


LUBBOCK — Spring showers that fell across Texas this year will likely spare the Lone Star State a second straight record-setting summer of heat and drought.

Texas got an estimated 8.5 inches of rain from March through May, more than three times the amount from those months in 2011 when the state endured its driest year on record. Although parts of West Texas are still battling drought, weather officials say this spring has left most of the state in position for lower temperatures and improved rainfall chances compared to last summer.

This would mean more water for thirsty crops, fewer brown lawns and less strain on a power grid that was tested last year by millions of Texans trying to escape record heat waves.

Read more:

This sounds like very good news for much of Texas. Apparently the last couple of years of extreme drought have been related to a La Nina event, which typically leads to lower-than-normal precipitation. This year looks to be an El Nino year, the other half of this periodic oscillation, and El Nino events are typically associated with wetter and cooler weather in Texas. They surely could use some of that for a while to refill the reservoirs.  

Drought in Tuvalu

by Curt Burnett on January 10, 2012

The 2011 Tuvalu drought is a severe period of drought afflicting Tuvalu, a South Pacific island country of approximately 10,500 people, throughout the latter half of 2011. A state of emergency was declared on September 28, 2011, with rationing of available fresh-water. Parts of the country were reportedly in danger running out of natural drinking water by Tuesday, October 4, 2011

I’m a little late to this story since the drought has actually ended with the coming of the rainy season in November. Before that happened, both New Zealand and the US launched ship-based rescue missions in October, with our Coast Guard sending a buoy tender from American Samoa to deliver contianers of water. As of now, there are plans for assistance from Australia and Japan to provide more desalination capacity.

Stepping back a little, the likely immediate cause of the drought was said to be a La Nina condition, the “other half “of the ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation) weather seesaw.

Much closer to home, this same La Nina pattern is leading to predictions of likely continuing drought in Texas and Florida this coming year. When it comes to climate, we live in a very connected world.


by Curt Burnett on November 17, 2011

Today I heard for the first time that some of my readers consider me a “greenie”.  After getting over the shock of hearing that I have any readers at all (and you both know who you are), I tried to think just what a greenie might be. With no clear definition and only the vague sense that it isn’t a compliment, I’ve decided to repeat some of the things that I do believe, at least in the narrow context of water use. So here’s a list, in no particular order:

1) Agriculture, like manufacturing, is a bedrock part of the American economy. As a nation we should never neglect or take for granted our agricultural bounty. It’s a tough business even in the best of times and we should be grateful that anybody wants to do it for us.

2) There is no shortage of water, and there never will be. There is a growing shortage in numerous places of usable water, in the right spots, right quality, at the right price or pumping cost, and so on.

3) Waste is bad, efficiency is good. Efficiency comes from the creative application of human knowledge to eliminate waste.

4) One of the better slogans I’ve ever heard is often used by the Irrigation Association ( ) of which we’re a member: “More Crop Per Drop.” That kind of says it in a nutshell.

5) Here’s another pithy saying: “That which can’t go on forever, won’t”.  There are some water use practices in some places that will come to an end sooner or later, regardless of any regulatory activity or lack of it. For instance, when ancient water in very dry places is gone, it’s gone (for our lifetimes, at least).

6) We think that American agriculture as a whole is the quintessential learning industry, constantly developing in its ability to acquire information and to use that information to produce more with less. We hope we can do our little part to help out.

How green is that?

World Water Partners in Haiti

by Curt Burnett on November 17, 2011

Last night I attended a meeting of the local chapter of Engineers Without Borders ( held at a brewery, no less! It was my first meeting, and I was there to hear an acquaintance by the name of Patrick Cummings talk about his water-related trip to Haiti. Patrick is the director of an organization called World Water Partners, ( a non-profit which originated with students at Seattle Pacific University. Their current emphasis as expressed on their home page is on Haiti:

The  goal of World Water Partners is to develop a viable model for unifying the thousands of organizations that currently work within the water sector of the developing world.  We believe that Haiti is a strong candidate for demonstrating such a model, because it has a relatively small geographic area and has hundreds of aid organizations that are not well unified or coordinated.

Patrick had visited numerous sites where World Water Partners has activities, and he brought back some very interesting images as well as a bit of video.

What I really appreciated about his presentation is that he didn’t sugar coat or oversimplify it. He made clear that the problems of getting water to people who need it in Haiti is more a political and cultural problem than an engineering challenge (and Patrick is an engineer). He cited the theft of pipe from the water system of a particular village as an example of the kind of difficulties that people there face. He didn’t have any quick answers, but the kind of realism he brought to us is undoubtedly a necessary first step.

Second Life for Water

by Curt Burnett on August 3, 2011

MOSES LAKE — Eli Wollman and the Warden Hutterian Brethren grow hundreds of acres of potatoes, wheat, corn and other crops in arid Eastern Washington, irrigating many of those crops from wells that tap a rapidly declining aquifer.

They’ve been waiting years for additional surface water rights from the Columbia River, but the wait may have just gotten shorter.

State and federal officials gathered east of Moses Lake on Tuesday to celebrate the first major project to deliver Columbia River water to Eastern Washington farmers and communities since the 1970s.

Seattle Times, August 3, 2011

Over the years we’ve worked with the Warden Colony many times. Unlike other descendants of historic European Anabaptist movements (Amish, for instance) the Hutterian Brethren embrace technology if it makes them more productive. They’re hard and intelligent workers and the colony has prospered greatly. You may have eaten fries from their potatoes at your McDonald’s recently. 

The colony is a perfect test ground for new irrigation-related technology, because they tend to put new products to real use immediately and then give immediate feedback if something isn’t working right. And the Hutterites are very motivated in their search for new ways to achieve water efficiency. 

The Times article draws attention to the potential coming supply of Columbia River irrigation water, an eagerly-awaited development due to the decline of the Odessa Aquifer which many Eastern Washington irrigators draw from. One detail that didn’t get mentioned is that, while they’ve waited, the Hutterites have been pioneers in the use of reclaimed water for their 200+ center pivot systems.

A huge potato-processing facility was built not far from the colony a few years ago, and piping was constructed to  bring huge amounts of used potato water to the fields. Dual piping systems allow this water to be mixed in with fresh water from the wells and applied through the pivots. Starches in the reclaimed water have led to biofilm growth and other issues, but in general the approach has been successful in reducing the amount of water that has to be drawn from the aquifer.

In the future, reclaimed water will undoubtedly be one of the answers to the question of where to get the water to grow our food.

Hooked on Manufacturing

by Curt Burnett on June 28, 2011

Manufacturing hit me like a ton of bricks.  I was 27 years old, finishing grad school, and out of money, so I took a swing-shift job as a production welder. Since I was the only person on the crew who didn’t smell like pot (those were simpler times) I was made lead. Being competitive, I spent my welding time thinking about how to make the work go faster so we could beat the day crew. I made some very, very simple jigs out of scrap that helped speed things along. And my co-workers, all fierce competitors on the softball field, started to get into the game.

Before long we were beating the day crew and then some. One evening president Manford McNeil (universally known as Mac) came out to the shop to see what was going on. I  proudly showed him my pathetic little improvements, and to his everlasting credit he reacted by inviting me to spend one day a week making more such little things. One thing led to another, and soon I wasn’t welding at all. 

Eight years later I moved on from the wonderful job of Director of R&D at Romac Industries, still able to tell people that I’d do the work even if I weren’t getting paid for it. But I was hooked on manufacturing, and what drew me away was the idea of starting a company built in the image of Mac. A lot more learning had to take place before Seametrics could emerge, some of it at the School of Hard Knocks.

So when I hear recent talk about the need for and benefits of American manufacturing, I respond like a true believer. We can make things in America, and we should.  I’d put our people here up against any in the world. We have to pick our battles, some commodity products don’t make sense for manufacturing in a high-wage country. But we can make things. It’s the best game in the world, more fun than any other pro sport and besides, it helps buy weddings and mortgages and college educations for the participants and their kids.

Home State Water Fight

by Curt Burnett on June 20, 2011

June 20, 2011

KENNEWICK, Wash. The state Supreme Court is considering an appeal in a case involving a cattle feedlot near Elopia that could limit the amount of water used by farmers and ranchers.

Neighbors of the Easterday Ranches feedlot in Franklin County and environmental groups say pumping water for 30,000 head of cattle will deplete the groundwater supply. Easterday disputes that and cites a state law that says a permit is not needed if groundwater is tapped for animals.

The Tri-City Herald reports a Franklin County superior court upheld the exemption. The state Supreme Court heard arguments last week on the appeal and will issue its ruling later.

AP, information supplied by the Tri-City Herald

Kennewick is one of the Tri-Cities in eastern Washington State. Unlike the western side of the mountains, this part of the state is semi-desert, and agriculture is dependent on irrigation. The original water law exempting animal needs from groundwater pumping limitations was passed in 1945. Washington State legislators probably didn’t have 30,000 head feedlots in mind.

A while back I wrote about a case in Idaho that pitted traditional crop producers against fish farm operators, with scarce groundwater as the point of contention. 

The takeaway is that as water becomes scarcer different forms of agriculture are forced to compete for the same scarce resource. We’ll be watching for the State Supreme Court’s ruling in this case.

Edwards Aquifer

by Curt Burnett on May 31, 2011

SAN ANTONIO — The Edwards Aquifer has hit the trigger point for Stage 2 water restrictions for the San Antonio Water System and BexarMet districts, falling below 650 feet.

The watering window for sprinklers and soaker hoses will narrow. Under Stage 2, watering days stay the same, but you can only water from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m. and from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.

SAWS Conservation Director Karen Guz said she hopes good participation by customers will mean no further restrictions.

“When we’ve had a bad drought before, like in 2009, our citizens did a really good job at following the rules and for six weeks we held off Stage 3 in 2009,” she said.

KSAT TV News website, May 20 2011


I’ve just discovered a wonderful website about everything relating to the great Edwards Aquifer, the underground reservoir that made the city of San Antonio, Texas possible. ( Texas water and its law is endlessly interesting, and there is no more interesting piece of it than this aquifer. When Spanish explorers discovered this area in the 17th century, the aquifer was the source of artesian springs that fed the river the explorers called San Antonio. Much later, drilled wells virtually dried up the river, leading to a long series of efforts to preserve its flow. Indirectly these efforts and the need to control seasonal flooding led to the present-day tourist attraction of the Riverwalk which winds through downtown San Antonio.

The Edwards Aquifer provides water for the San Antonio Water System (SAWS), as well as many other needs, particularly irrigation. The potential uses far exceed the ability of the aquifer to supply them, which leads to it being one of the most closely watched and tightly-managed aquifers in the nation. The Edwards Aquifer Authority has a great deal of control over water use in its jurisdictional area.

One of the primary trigger points for the various San Antonio water use limitations is a reference well labelled “J-17” . On Monday May 30 J-17 dropped below the 650′ level, causing the City of San Antonio to put into place “Stage 2” water restrictions. These rules primarily affect landscape irrigation, decreasing the allowble hours on the designated one watering day per week.

A recent bill in the Texas Legislature which makes a significant change to Texas water law specifically exempts the Edwards Aquifer from some of its provisions, implicitly recognizing the importance of the management of the aquifer. More on that to come.

The Sun!

by Curt Burnett on May 20, 2011

Friday, May 20,2011

Here in the Seattle area it’s the annual Bike to Work Day. This morning an estimated 25,000 people commuted to work under their own power, many undoubtedly for the first time this year and on the third day of a rare sunny streak. If the temperature reaches 70 before the day’s end, it will end a 199 day stretch of temperatures below that mark.

If there’s any benefit to a severely delayed spring, it’s that when it finally comes it seems so utterly wonderful. I rode to work on my tricycle (picture your most comfortable piece of reclining lawn furniture floating along on three wheels). The Duwamish River was running high and muddy, ospreys were nesting, a rabbit hopped through the damp grass with ears lit in the early sun like pink stained glass windows, and enthusiastic young people cheered as I rode past their Bike to Work checkpoint.

When I reached Seametrics the Flanged Magmeter team was hard at work building AG2000 battery-powered irrigation meters for hot, dry places like North Texas. They had the door to the parking lot propped open to let in the sweet breeze and a little bit of precious sunshine. In spite of all the weather troubles in the world it was hard, for one brief moment, not to feel completely blessed.