A non-partisan, neutral perspective supporting diversity in the color of water

Monday, January 16, 2017

America's Mosul Dams

Unless you are a dam engineer or dam(n) historian, dams are pretty boring news. In Norman Smith's classic treatise on dams - History of Dams - that received this great review when it came out decades ago, we learn that dams are some of the oldest structures on the planet dating back 5,000 years.

Dams are paradoxes, both loved and hated, serving as symbols of peace, and weapons of war. The latest news about the Mosul Dam, the fourth largest dam in the Middle East and located in Iraq, provides a good example. Like the vast majority of dams, the Mosul Dam had the typical mission of "controlling" water resources for agriculture and flood prevention.

The problem with Mosul Dam was the site geology got in the way of a good engineering project. The bedrock is gypsum, which is 100 times more soluble than limestone, leading to sinkholes and caves, not good things to try to pile a bunch of water near or store water on top of in large quantities. Of course, geotechnical engineers rarely let "geology" get in the way. All it will take is money and grout - and a lot of both.

But now with the human geography of the Middle East shifting with the advent of "populist" Springs, the control of nature, and the structures built to exert control, become targets to win. In this New Yorker article, Mosul Dam is considered a "bigger problem than ISIS". And this Al Jazeera article promotes the collapse of Mosul Dam would be "worse than a nuclear bomb." Even the Canadians are concerned as discussed in this CBC article and video where millions of Iraqis are at risk of flooding if the dam foundation were to collapse without its daily "injection" of the magic grout keeping the gypsum foundation from disintegrating.

America's love affair with dams has lead to something like 75,000 scattered across the US by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the federal Bureau of Reclamation, energy companies, and states that have the foresight to invest in water on their own like Wyoming.  As Norman Smith discussed, many of the proposed dams met their mission. Others, however, were not so lucky and failed, either by washing away, or were "leakers" meaning they never held water, or they barely held water. In at least one case outside the US, Smith describes the untimely demise of a dam design engineer when a king discovered that all of the water in his newly constructed dam leaked under the dam.

In the US, perhaps the most famous dam failure is the St. Francis Dam in California. The history and forensic engineering analysis of this catastrophic failure where a dam "tipped"over due to "hubric" overfilling is well documented by J. David Rogers in his incredible bookarticle, and presentation.

And then there are the dams like the Mosul Dam where the foundation of either the reservoir, dam abutments, or both, lead to the failure of the dam mission. Anchor Dam located in north central Wyoming is infamous for "leaking". I grew up in Wyoming and knew some of the contractors to the federal Bureau of Reclamation who constructed parts of the dam. Yet even with all of the information collected by the Bureau of Reclamation geologists and engineers, lots of myths and misinformation were shared with the public by prominent academic and government scientists. The misinformation lead to my paper to dispel some of the confusion regarding why the dam served as a money pit for so long (and continues to do so today).

One of my graduate students revisited the Tumalo Dam located in central Oregon. The dam was constructed over 100 years ago yet never held water due to sinkholes, presumably due to pirating of water by tubes and fractures in the volcanic rocks. Here is a video of someone from the area describing the turbid history. And here is the graduate student thesis exploring converting the "failed" dam site to managed aquifer storage and recovery.

But what about a dam that might rival Mosul Dam if it ultimately failed? Baker Dam in Washington state might fit this bill. Like the Tumalo Dam, the Baker Dam is almost 100 years old. And like the Tumalo Dam, much of the dam construction information was not documented, or in the case of Baker Dam, lost forever when a landslide destroyed the powerhouse where the documents were stored. Unlike Anchor and Tumalo dams, leakage occurred along the abutments following the initial filling of the reservoir, in part because no grout curtain was installed.

Seepage investigations indicate the possibility of the Baker Dam "failure". Concrete, Washington with a population of about 1,000, rests below Baker Dam, so while its failure would probably not rival a nuclear bomb in terms of lost life, the lost hydropower would likely be sorely missed in nearby Seattle.
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Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. 
~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Saturday, January 7, 2017


The ultimate in sustainable buildings, a geodesic dome surrounding a cob house in northern Norway. Treehugger ran this great article and very well done video (10 minutes) on one family's adventure in building their "green" house in the Arctic Circle.  The greywater (gråvann) system can be viewed about two minutes into the video.
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“Progress is man's ability to complicate simplicity.”
 ~Thor-Heyerdahl (Norwegian ethnologist, 1914-2002)

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Welcome to the Hotel Tiny-fornia

You can't check in any time you like,  because a city permit is impossible to receive.

Apologies to The Eagles and their legendary hit, Hotel California, but the tortured lyrics are apropos for the LightHotel, a tiny hotel trapped near Lake Como (no, not Italy, but Minnesota). The Twin Cities Pioneer Press reports that the LightHotel — "a one-room, 120-square-foot converted storage container — bill their demonstration project as both the latest in urban living and a mobile exhibit on environmental sustainability." - is stuck in "permitting limbo".

St. Paul Parks and Recreation and city zoning officials consider the temporary hotel a "lovely place", but the St. Paul Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI) wants evidence the construction is sound.

According to the LightHotel website, "the greywater comes from both the shower and faucet. It is then stored in the utility closet in a greywater filter where any bacteria or contaminants that may be present are removed. Once the water is filtered it can be used to water plants or reused for non-potable purposes."

It is old news that Minnesota "chose" someone other than President-elect Trump, the New York Times reports he met with "high tech" industries located in other "blue states" and shared "Anything that the government “can do to help this go along,” he made clear, “we’re going to be there for you."

Looking forward at the bigly picture, perhaps LightHotel could become one model of simple living luxury real estate worthy of incorporation within the Trump Tower portfolio of properties.
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"In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."
~Former President Ronald Reagan

Monday, December 26, 2016

Tiny Houses Use Drops in a Bucket

Much has been written about conserving water and living buildings, but not much water press on reducing a water footprint by reducing the footprint of our living spaces. Especially living spaces approaching 400 square feet or less. 

Tiny Houses to the rescue! The cavalcade of *dream* tiny houses for 2016 includes one from Oregon, City despite unhappy officials wrestling with outdated planning and zoning laws. Yet, the craze is catching on with architects developing twirling tiny houses that rely on composting toilets, to Tiny House Villages near Mount Hood. And the push is not limited to the US - check out this incredible tiny house in Chile.

"A smaller footprint means savings on materials, time and labor. Tiny houses cost little to maintain and utilities are a bargain. Typical monthly expenses are $6 for water, $25 for electricity and $20 for propane."

Greywater recycling systems are a *big* part of living tiny. 

Portland will host the Tiny House Conference in April, 2017. 

And remember, tiny things can lead to *bigly* changes!
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~US President-elect Donald Trump