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I’m biting my nails, hoping the engineers and responders will be able to “cap” the largest leak on the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The first attempt failed due to a buildup of ice crystals that clogged the cap and made it buoyant.

According to the official site for the emergency responders, engineers may have found a fix for the problem using methanol injection to stop hydrate formation.

Be sure to check out the official site–it’s a wealth of information, including ways to volunteer. The scope and cost of this disaster, along with its response is mind-boggling.  The  effort includes government agencies from EPA to NOAA to NASA,  top scientists and engineers, fisheries experts, and numerous volunteers. Fourteen staging areas are already in place to protect the shoreline.

I have to admit that before the Deepwater Horizon’s explosion and subsequent gusher, I was a staunch proponent of more drilling in the Gulf. I still believe that Americans need to allow more drilling and reduce our dependency on other countries for our energy supplies. But the impending doom foretold in each day’s news reports make it evident that we need a major upgrade to the engineering controls that prevent such a calamity.

As the oil slick creeps ever closer to the shore, the Joint Investigation initiates the finger-pointing stage of the crisis. Understandably so, as the cost will ultimately be in the billions of dollars, not to mention the bad PR that ecological destruction will bring. Let’s all hope the latest fix will work, and quickly.

Energy supplies are vital, but we should be able to provide power without trashing our environment.

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In the United States it’s hard for us to imagine, but an estimated 3 million to 4 million people–mostly low-income children in developing nations–die each year from cholera, typhoid, dysentery and other water-borne diseases. This happens when people drink contaminated water.

Miches is a small seaside tropical paradise. But the residents of Miramar, a small community in Miches in one of the poorest provinces in the Dominican Republic, have no sanitary sewer treatment–and no drinking water treatment. Their water is a source of disease.

Engineers Without Borders will bring clean drinking water to Miramar

Engineers Without Borders will bring clean drinking water to Miramar

That’s where the Student Chapter of Engineers Without Borders comes in. This summer, these student engineers will travel to Miramar to bring clean drinking water to the 500 residents there.

The project will include a well, pumps and controls, water storage tank and distribution system. After construction is complete, the students will train local residents in the operation and maintenance of the system. Not only will the project improve the lives of the people in Miramar, but the students will get real-world experience in designing and building a drinking water system.

The Florida Rotary Clubs and Florida Section-American Water Works Association both contributed thousands of dollars towards the project.

Here’s a great video about Miches and the area where the project is taking place. Someday, I hope I have the time and opportunity to participate in a project like this.

It’s something I don’t like to think about–but I have to as part of my job.

In the United States, we consider safe, clean drinking water to be a normal part of life. But there are some bad people in the world. People who want to harm us, or cause panic and chaos. Since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security required public water systems to perform risk assessments to find our vulnerabilities. And to take steps protect our water systems.

We’ve made a lot of improvements (I can’t tell you what they are due to security reasons) but nobody has a completely secure system.

Professor Abraham Katzir, a physisict at Tel Aviv University, developed a new system to protect drinking water supplies. Professor Katzir created special fibers that can detect colors in the infared spectrum. People can’t see colors in this spectrum, though certain animals like bats and snakes can, and use them to track prey.

Professor Katzir

Professor Katzir

By connecting the special fibers to a colorimeter, Professor Katzir was able to detect poisons in the water at very low levels.

These sensors could be used in remote locations like reservoirs, pipelines or storage tanks to detect water contamination in real time. Being able to identify threats immediately could save lives and prevent widespread panic. Let’s face it, even a chemical that was harmless could cause chaos if it made the water taste funny.

Special Fibers Can Detect Low Levels of Water Contamination

Special Fibers Can Detect Low Levels of Water Contamination

Currently, water utilities run water quality tests regularly, but no technology is in use today that can detect such a wide variety of low-level contaminants in real time.

While the threat of chemoterrorism is remote, the old saying “better safe than sorry” certainly applies here. Let’s hope Professor Katzir’s invention makes it to the street sooner rather than later.

Photos from the Tel Aviv University website.

I was surprised last month while attending the Florida Water Resources Conference. While finishing dessert at the Awards Luncheon, I heard my name called. It seems I was elected to be a member of the Florida Select Society of Sanitary Sludge Shovelers.

Though it sounds funny–and the initiation consists of saying “Florida Select Society of Sanitary Sludge Shovelers” three times fast until the audience approves with applause–it really is quite an honor. The award’s purpose is to recognize water and wastewater industry professionals for outstanding, meritorious service above and beyond the call of duty. I’m in some good company with many long-time, well-respected water environment folks. People that I’ve admired for many years.

I now have a silver shovel pin–if I’m caught without it, I have to buy all the drinks!

But seriously, it’s wonderful to be recognized, and a member of a select group of environmental stewards.

Here in the United States we take clean drinking water for granted. With a turn of the faucet, we have as much water as we need and want–to soak in the tub, wash our clothes after wearing them only a few hours, or sprinkle our lawns so they’re lush and green.

But in the West African Republic of Ghana, some are not so lucky.

At the Tamale Children’s Home in Ghana, contaminated water is threatening the health of the children. The Children’s Home is a non-profit organization on the outskirts of Tamale, the third largest city in Ghana. It houses over thirty children–from infants to teenagers–who have no family to care for them.

Civil and mechanical engineering students from the University of North Florida are part of The Ghana Project 2009.

These students have the opportunity to improve the lives of the children by designing and constructing improvements at the Tamale Children’s Home. They will connect to municipal water where possible, improve the existing rainwater harvesting system, repair water tank foundations and set up clay pot filters to purify the water.

In addition to helping the kids, the project gives the students a chance to put their engineering skills to work in a real-world situation.

The students need additional funding for travel and supplies. If you’re interested, please contact Sean Corcoran at 617-671-8382 or e-mail him at unfghanaproject@gmail.com.

The American Water Works Association recently released their annual State of the Industry report for water utilities.

I wasn’t surprised at the results of this annual checkup, where over 1,800 leaders in the industry identify key challenges. Their concerns about the future of the water industry are the same as mine.

  • Water supply – We’re not running out of water . . . we’re just running out of the less expensive water. As population increases, we’ll be looking more and more at costly treatment methods like desalination. Conservation and reuse are other parts of the puzzle that will be an important part of quenching our thirst.
  • Aging infrastructure – Much of our infrastructure is not only aging, but in many cases reaching the point of failure. There’s a shortfall of funds to adequately maintain and replace old pipes and treatment equipment that runs into the billions of dollars. Starting this month, public television stations will be showing Liquid Assets, the story of our water infrastructure. Don’t miss it!
  • Increasing regulatory requirements – As we gain the capability to measure constituents in smaller and smaller amounts, agencies develop more stringent requirements for removing those compounds. Costs for treatment rise geometrically as we try to remove contaminants down to parts per trillion.
  • Workforce deficit – Most of us baby-boomers will be retiring in the next decade, resulting in a shortage of experienced utility folks. In addition, the number of young people getting into the field is declining.
  • Money – Operating costs continue to climb. As always, there’s much competition for limited funds.

I’m hoping some economic stimulus packages will be forthcoming after the election. Building treatment plant upgrades is a great way to create jobs–at least in my opinion. After all, Water is Life.

 We have the beginnings of a Water War between Central and Northeast Florida.

With an ever-increasing population, Seminole County in Central Florida will not have enough groundwater by 2013, according to the St. Johns River Water Management District. The proposed solution–take surface water from the St. Johns River.

The Water Management District studied the request to determine if minimum flows and levels would be met, and determined that up to 262 million gallons per day could be removed without harming the river.  The St. Johns Riverkeeper, City of Jacksonville, and others filed for administrative hearing.

As a result, a multi-year, $2 million study is underway to determine the cumulative effect of water withdrawals on the St. Johns and Oklawaha Rivers. Fifty scientists with national standing in seven work groups will analyze every aspect of the withdrawals. The work groups include hydraulic modeling, biochemical, nutrients, aquatic insects and crustaceans, aquatic plants, fish and wetlands.

I recently attended a 2-day symposium on the project to date. Phase I of the project is complete, including excellent modeling calibration results. Some interesting findings to date:

  • Average daily flow through the St. Johns River is 5.2 billion gallons per day, with the highest weekly average daily flow at 36.6 billion gallons and the lowest at negative 882 million. That’s right–the river has a backward flow during certain periods.
  •  At the maximum proposed withdrawal rates, the greatest change in the river’s level would be 1.4 inches.
  • At the maximum propsed water level, the salinity change would be 0.7 parts per thousand.

Those impacts might not sound impressive, but the scientists are now embarking on Phase II of the project and how withdrawals will affect the ecosystem in greater detail.

More information is on the St. Johns River Water Management District’s website. Should be interesting!  Surface Water Withdrawals–Get the Facts.

In my business as a utility director, chlorine has been getting a bad rap. Regulators, and some legislators are putting the pressure on utilities to get rid of chlorine–especially chlorine gas, used to disinfect drinking water and treated wastewater.

They’re concerned about its safety. Terrorists in Iraq used the cylinders in “dirty bombs.” And it can mix with other constituents in water to form harmful byproducts.

Well, the month of September marks 100 years of water chlorination, with the first full-scale chlorine disinfection system in Jersey City, NJ. Within 10 years, the number of cities using chlorine for disinfection reached 1,000. In 1941, 85% of cities in the U.S. were using it to treat drinking water.

Chlorine has been responsible for virtually eliminating many infectious diseases and revolutionizing our country’s health. This chemical has saved millions of lives by killing bacteria, parasites and viruses in the water, and I think it deserves some appreciation. Before the use of chlorine, thousands of people died each year from waterborne diseases like cholera and typhoid fever, with over 27,000 deaths from typhoid alone during the Civil War.

In 1989 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began requiring a residual chlorine level in drinking water distribution systems, and that requirement remains today. Chlorine is the most effective, least costly, and reliable ways to keep us healthy.

Check out the American Chemistry Council’s website, 100 Years of Safer Lives for more information about chlorine and how it benefits us every day.

And raise your glass (of water) to wish a Happy 100th Birthday to this remarkable chemical.

In one of my previous posts I discussed emerging drinking water contaminants that were causing environmental groups and legislators to raise their eyebrows. Trace amounts of pharmaceuticals were found in some drinking water supplies and even in the treated water in certain areas.

Now, with pressure from legislators and environmental groups, there is a push to regulate these substances.

But what are the actual health effects of these micro-constituents–if any? Will we be happier if anti-depressants are in our drinking water–or are men going to develop feminine traits from drinking water with estrogen compounds?

The American Water Works Association conducted a four-year study and found that the highest concentration of any drug detected in a drinking water system was 5,000,000 times lower than the therapeutic dose. Even people most susceptible to harm could safely drink 50,000 glasses of water per day with no health effects.

Part of the problem is our ability to measure ever-smaller amounts of contaminants in the water. When I started working in the water business in the 1970’s, most contaminants were measured in parts per thousand and parts per million. Now we’re able to measure substances in parts per trillion and in some cases at even lower values.

Logical ecology dictates that just because a substance is present in incredibly small concentrations, does not mean it is a risk to our health. Certainly we should continue to do research, but there are many more important problems that need our immediate attention and funding.

I would put replacing our aging infrastructure at the top of the list.

A copy of Dr. Shane Snyder’s Statement before the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation Safety, Infrastructure Security and Water Quality provides an excellent discussion of this topic.

There’s an invasion underway in Florida.  Deadly lionfish have invaded the Atlantic Ocean. Below is a photo from the USDA website, taken by Paula Whitfield, NOAA, Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research.

Lionfish about 40 miles off the North Carolina coast

Lionfish about 40 miles off the North Carolina coast

They’re natives of the Pacific Ocean, where they have natural predators to keep their numbers at bay. In the Atlantic, with no enemies, the lionfish population is exploding. Not only do they eat Florida’s natural reef fish and harm the local ecosystem, they can injure or even kill people swimming or diving in the Atlantic Ocean. A lionfish’s sting is extremely painful and serious, and there’s no anti-venom.

So how did the lionfish get all the way to Florida?

They’re beautiful fish–and people want them in their aquariums. But when they get too big, they’re often dumped right in the ocean or local estruaries. 

Banning the sale of these lovely-but-deadly invasives is one way to help. 

After all, that’s how many invasive species get their start. People bring plants or animals from other locations without realizing the potential consequences.

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