The Fluid Dynamic

Dry in Texas

by Curt Burnett on May 18, 2011

Friday’s forecast for the Dallas Fort Worth area includes a 10% chance of rain. To the west, Midland also faces a 10% chance. Same for Lubbock. Current temperatures in all three cities are in the upper 80’s. Here in the Seattle that would be very good news. A 10% chance of rain would mean that it just might not rain, the way it has nearly every day for the past few months.

In North Texas, a 10% chance of rain is not good enough. May is normally a wet month, and rain has never been more needed than right now. According the U. S. Drought Monitor website (  ) a record percentage of Texas is currently under either “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions. Cattle ranchers have been forced to sell their herds or move them to other states, grassfires have damaged hundreds of square miles, and crops have shriveled.

Meteorologists say that the drought in Texas and record rainfalls in the Pacific Northwest stem from the same cause, the “La Nina” pattern of warmer than usual Pacific Ocean temperatures which redirect the jet stream from its usual course and cause unusual weather patterns. For Texas though, this has been an unusually severe drought, even for a La Nina year. And it follows a severe drought in 2009. For the moment, Texans are having to learn to live with drought.

Dryland Farming

by Curt Burnett on April 26, 2011

I was born in a little town called Colfax in the state of Washington, near the Idaho border. Colfax is in an area called the “Palouse”, a name of uncertain (but possibly Native American) origins. This region has scenic rolling hills and, quite unlike Western Washington, a very dry climate. My mother’s parents were the descendants of homesteading pioneers and dryland farmers. Like many producers in the Palouse, they grew winter wheat without the aid of irrigation.

True dryland farming can be a precarious occupation. The grower depends on natural precipitation, without a safety net. While wheat can be grown with as little as ten inches of annual rainfall, the timing of precipitation is beyond human control and the farmer has to be conservative enough to financially survive an occasional lost crop. Growing up I heard stories of years in which the crop failed and my mother’s family barely got by (as well as bumper crop years when the price of wheat collapsed and they subsisted primarily on their own crop).

Dryland crop yields are lower than those of irrigated agriculture, but the lower cost of land and equipment make it feasible in some places. And in some areas like parts of Australia in recent years, formerly-irrigated land has reverted to dryland farming as water became too scarce to allow for irrigation. Sometimes dryland farming is a matter of choice, and sometimes it becomes a necessity.

Xeriscaping (yes, it’s a word)

by Curt Burnett on April 26, 2011

In the last post on Denver Water I mentioned that this utility is credited with the creation of the term “xeriscaping”, an amalgam of the Greek word “xeros” (dry) and “landscaping”. In addition to coining the word, the utility drew up seven principles of xeriscaping and to boot, helped construct a garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens to demonstrate the principles. From the Wikipedia article on xeriscaping, here are the seven principles, condensed to give just the general idea.   

1. Plan and design
Create a diagram, drawn to scale, that shows the major elements of your landscape….

2. Soil amendment
Most plants will benefit from the use of compost, which will help the soil retain water. Some desert plants prefer gravel soils instead of well-amended soils. Plants should either fit the soil or soil should be amended to fit the plants.

3. Efficient irrigation
Xeriscape can be irrigated efficiently by hand or with an automatic sprinkler system. Zone turf areas separately from other plants and use the irrigation method that waters the plants in each area most efficiently.

4. Appropriate plant and zone selection
Different areas in your yard receive different amounts of light, wind and moisture. To minimize water waste, group together plants with similar light and water requirements, and place them in an area that matches these requirements.

5. Mulch
Mulch keeps plant roots cool, prevents soil from crusting, minimizes evaporation and reduces weed growth.

6. Alternative turf
Native grasses (warm-season) that have been cultivated for turf lawns, such as buffalo grass and blue grama, can survive with a quarter of the water that bluegrass varieties need.

7. Maintenance
All landscapes require some degree of care during the year.

The combination of inventing a term, principles, and a demonstration garden has to stand as one of the more creative efforts ever undertaken by a water utility to conserve water, and it has had legs as other parts of the country have adopted the term and its concepts. A quick web search shows xeriscaping efforts and organizations in New Mexico, Arizona, North Carolina, Washington, and Hawaii. There are no doubt many more.

Denver Water

by Curt Burnett on April 20, 2011

I spent last week in Denver, and of course had to look into the water situation while I was there. Denver Water has a very informative website, and so I drilled down to take a look at their conservation program.

Here it is in a nutshell:

Use only what you need. It’s Denver Water’s rallying conservation call and for many, it’s a way of life. Creating a culture of conservation in Denver dates back to 1936 when Denver Water advertised on street trolleys asking customers to help save water. The modes of transportation have changed, but the message remains the same as does our commitment to helping customers use this precious resource wisely.

It’s interesting to see that the utility claims to have created in 1982 the term “Xeriscape” for landscaping which uses plants which thrive in a low-water environment.  (see the Wikipedia entry for more information on Denver water and the term “xeriscape” : ) They maintain two xeriscape demonstration gardens to show the public what this approach looks like. They also have creative incentive programs for efficient irrigation and strict seasonal “no watering” rules as needed – the carrot and the stick.

In their 40-page brochure “Solutions: Saving Water for the Future”, a colorful graph shows what part of the typical family’s consumption goes to various purposes.  The runaway leader is “outdoor”, at 55% of total usage. The next nearest is “Toilet”, at 11% and “Clothes Washer” at 9%. This really gets to the heart of the matter for municipal water conservation. Water-saving toilets and appliances are valuable and important, but a conservation program that doesn’t address landscape irrigation is doomed to failure.

Denver Water looks to me to be a real conservation leader. Check out their website!


Last I looked, Seattle was having the fifth-wettest March on record. Seametrics is located near the Green River, which flows from the foothills of the Cascade Mountains into Puget Sound, an extension of the Pacific. Late last week I did a double take while crossing a nearby bridge over the river. It was wide, muddy, and not all that far below its banks.

And then there’s South Florida. From the website of the South Florida Water Management District:

Regional Water Shortage Declared

Residential Irrigation, Agriculture and Other Uses Must be Reduced

With regional ground and surface water levels low thanks to a record-breaking dry season, and long-term forecasts calling for continued drier-than-normal conditions, a number of water shortage orders are now in effect. The orders limit landscape irrigation to two days per week and require mandatory reductions in agricultural and other large water uses. Landscape irrigation using reclaimed water is not restricted.

Or this, from the Philippines and the Manila Standard:

MALOLOS CITY—Metro Manila may be headed for a water shortage as cloud-seeding operations by the Bureau of Soils and Water Management that lasted for 50 hours between January 20 to March 3 over the watershed area of Angat Dam failed to lift the water elevation at the dam’s reservoir.

The water level is now just 18 meters above the critical level of 180 meters. Metro Manila gets about 97 percent of its water supply from Angat.

When I talk about water shortages and what Seametrics does, sometimes someone feels the need to point out that ultimately the world’s water gets more or less fully recycled, that there’s always plenty of water in the ocean, and that floods may follow droughts (see Queensland, Australia). All true, but tell that to the folks in South Florida or Manila.

The point is that the world’s continuing water emergencies are really about a widespread lack of water of sufficient quality in certain places at certain times. In the developed world the usual result is forced change rather than mortality: it’s no longer feasible to grow certain crops, build new houses, or put in landscaping the same way as in the past.

Since I started to pay attention to water issues, droughts have come and gone, water wars have seesawed back and forth, and always there are places that need more than they have. And as high-quality groundwater gets more or less permanently mined in many parts of the world, the number of water-short places is likely to grow.

How the Toyota of Texas Plant Conserves Water

by Curt Burnett on April 4, 2011

Early in the morning a couple of weeks ago I found myself standing on the sidewalk outside of the convention center in San Antonio Texas, waiting for a van to pull up to the curb. We were exhibiting for the first time at the WQA (Water Quality Association) annual conference, and had learned late that a tour of the Toyota Texas truck plant was going to be held. Marketing Manager Karin Grinzel got an email which didn’t actually say that I would get to go but told me what not to wear (sleeveless shirts or high heels). When the bus finally pulled up I climbed on and hoped for the best. Fortunately someone didn’t show, and I got the last seat on a 20-passenger bus.

The big draw for this tour was that it combined two of my favorite things, American manufacturing and careful water use. Our guide at Toyota said that to the best of their knowledge this was the first walking tour ever given at the plant (daily tram tours are open to the public.) An extra effort was made to accommodate the WQA, maybe because Toyota is justifiably proud of their efforts to eliminate water waste.

Seametrics has followed our own version of lean manufacturing for years, and we’re currently learning and growing in the practice of lean design, so I was thrilled to enter a Temple of Lean. We followed our guides through the half-mile plant in groups of five. Ours pointed out one detail after another to illustrate the near-fanaticism with which Toyota employees approach the task of continuous improvement by eliminating waste, promoting safety, and decreasing cycle time.

The Toyota of Texas plant uses nothing but recycled water for everything but human use. After using San Antonio’s recycled water, they send it back cleaner than it was when they got it. And of course they’re working towards an end goal of being self-contained, continuously recycling their own water. It’s an impressive sustained effort and one that I hope will eventually be an example to industry of what can be accomplished through sustained effort.

Water, Water Everywhere

by admin on September 12, 2009

Agriculture creates the rural character of the Okanagan Valley so valued by residents and tourists alike. The valley produces 25% of the total value of British Columbia’s agriculture, and is the province’s major producer of apples, peaches, pears, and other tree fruits. The valley is also famous for its grapes and many wineries. Vegetables and forage crops that support milk and meat production are also important. Agriculture occupies about 70% of the developed valley lands, and accounts for about the same proportion of water use.

from: Okanagan Basin Waterscape by Natural Resources Canada

Approaching Kelowna BC from above Okanagan Lake, a tourist could be forgiven for thinking that the least of the city’s problems is water. The lake itself is huge, extending out of sight in both directions. Water recreation is obviously one of the area’s draws, judging from visible boats. And in September the orchards above the lake are deep green.

Okanagan Lake is a huge body of water, but much of that water is “old”, meaning that it has accumulated over a long period of time and is slowly recharged. According to hydrologists who have studied it, the lake is unable to sustain significant withdrawals without a lowering of its level, something that would be particularly disastrous for the many marinas around the shore. And the recharge ability of the small streams that feed the lake has recently come into question. Reporting on drought conditions developing in the Okanagan, the Columbia Valley News had this to say on July 24, 2009:

Inflows to Okanagan Lake have been well below normal for the past 12 months, and are ranked as the fifth-lowest since measurement began in 1918.

Adding to stress on the water resources of this semi-arid basin is rapid population growth. Population has doubled in the past two decades, to somewhere around 300,000. Irrigated agriculture may take 70% of the water, but the towns and cities are where the demand growth is. This situation has the ingredients of a classic farm-city water conflict.

In the late 70’s an organization was formed to bring together all of the water stakeholders in the region. Named the Okanagan Basin Water Board, it has representatives from urban, agricultural, and first nations groups. Originally the group concentrated on milfoil weed abatement and water quality, but it appears that the focus has shifted to water sharing.

Canada’s water law comes from the English tradition, and thus has a riparian tendency, although with some features borrowed from US appropriation laws. My suspicion so far is that the tendency here is to begin cooperating at an earlier stage than in the US, but I’ll have to study more to really understand if that’s the case.

Water Call in Idaho

by admin on August 28, 2009

Idaho law distributes water rights on a first-come, first-served basis, and Clear Springs Foods has older water rights than the groundwater pumpers.

from the Capital Press Agriculure News, August 23, 2009

In Idaho, about 150 users of irrigation water, covering about 4,000 acres, have been ordered by a court to stop pumping groundwater. This came as a result of a “water call” or claim to more senior rights by a fish farm called Clear Springs Foods. Clear Springs claimed that as a result of groundwater withdrawals by more junior water rights holders the flow from the springs which provide its name had dropped to levels inadequate to maintain operations.

This is an intriguing case because it brings out many aspects of the way water law works in the western states. Idaho is an appropriation state, and these prior water rights normally only apply to surface water. In this case however, the groundwater pumping was connected to the flow of the surface springs to such a degree that Clear Springs could effectively make a case with the state water adjudicator. He ruled in favor of Clear Springs, and in March of this year the irrigators were ordered to cease pumping. A flurry of legal actions attempted to stay the order, leading to a ruling this past Monday, August 24 temporarily delaying the shutoff to allow further negotiations.

I will be following this case closely for the precedents it may set.

Hetch Hetchy

by admin on August 26, 2009

Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.

John Muir, 1908

I seem to be stuck in California, both topically and bodily. Yesterday while driving up to Grass Valley in the “gold country” foothills of the Sierras, I saw a highway sponsorship sign for an organization called “Restore Hetch Hetchy“. Once I had internet access I had to research the controversy, with which I had only passing familiarity.

Hetch Hetchy is a valley in Yosemite National Park which was named after the native American name for an edible grass which grew there. Though smaller than Yosemite Valley, it shares many of the same glacier-carved features including massive rock faces and ribbon waterfalls. To some of its enthusiasts it is even more beautiful than Yosemite itself.

The thing that makes Hetch Hetchy so interesting is that as major water controversies go, it was so early. The fight over damming the valley’s Toulumne River had to be one of the first major battles between “nature lovers”, as environmentalists were then known, and would-be takers of water. And the takers won, even though such iconic figures as John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt were on the opposing side.

The battle raged from 1906 to 1913, when the Riker Act ended it in favor of the dam proponents. O’Shaughnessy Dam was completed in 1923, and the main part of the valley has been underwater ever since. But the Sierra Club and other lovers of nature never fully gave up. In recent years, dam removal has become something of a low-key trend, and momentum for restoring the Hetch Hetchy grew when Don Hodel, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, began advocating for the removal of the dam. According to studies that were conducted at that time (1988), the water and power benefits of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir could be provided in other ways. This view seems to be rather non-controversial; the argument has shifted to the cost of removing the dam without losing its water withdrawals.

I don’t have a strong opinion on the Hetch Hetchy controversy, but I do have two observations. One is that, whatever the outcome of the battle over the Valley, it’s safe to say that it would never get built today if it hadn’t been back than. The despised “nature lovers” of 1913 have become the dreaded “enviros” of today, and their political and legal strength has only grown.

The corollary observation is that we have undoubtedly seen the “high water mark” of big dam projects that supply much of the irrigation and drinking water in this country. From here on, conservation of what we have already available can only increase in importance.

Los Angeles Water Restrictions

by Curt Burnett on August 24, 2009

The effect of all these efforts is beginning to trickle down. In June, the most recent figures available, city water use dropped by 12.7% compared with the same month in 2008, the lowest overall level of consumption in 32 years.

from The Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2009

A report in the Wall Street Journal covers the efforts of water authorities in the greater Los Angeles area to decrease water use. This includes using “water cops” to issue citations and, as a last resort, $100 fines to Angelenos who break water conservation rules. Another tactic is to encourage neighbors to either report the offenders or hang a water conservation tag on their doorknob as a gentle reminder.

And reminding rather than coercion seems to be a theme of the current effort:

“The last major drought was about two decades ago,” said David Nahai, the head of the city’s Department of Water and Power. “People may have forgotten that we live in a semi-arid area”

The article points to the effectiveness of a tiered billing structure, something most experts on billing structure recommend in drought-affected urban areas:

The biggest threat water wasters face is their bill. Under the city’s two-tiered billing structure, rates spike by 45% for customers who use more than a certain amount. Fashion designer Ann Ferriday said her water bill became “something crazy, like $450,” which she said might be attributable to her pool, which needs to be refilled from time to time, and her daily lawn waterings.
“My bill was so outrageous,” she said. “They said I was on this upper tier and I couldn’t figure out why.” She has since tried to remedy her water problems. But she said she can’t wait till the drought ends “so that everything can go back to normal.”

Ms. Ferriday may have a long wait.