Monthly Archives: December 2012

Throwing Water in the Trash

I was walking through Barre today, admiring the massive dump of snow Vermont picked up over the last 36 hours, and I came across this trash can overflowing with over a foot of snow.


The scene brought a silly mental image of someone piling soft, clean snow in the trash can, hoping to send it to a landfill. Setting aside a few choice moments yesterday when I was shoveling salt-encrusted snowplow leavings from my driveway, the idea of throwing away Vermont’s beloved snow, or any fresh water, is preposterous.

Especially in a time where most of our country is experiencing very severe drought – the worst since the Dust Bowl.

The photo was good for a laugh on the Slow Water Movement facebook page, but the truth is we do treat water like garbage, in our cities and suburbs, along our highways, even in our parks. We dump it into drains meant to rush it away as quickly as possible. In some cases, we literally dump it into the sewer with our feces. During big storms, when there is too much water for our sewage treatment plants, this water is hastily dumped into rivers, lakes, and the ocean – feces and all.

Any water draining from this drainspout is being flushed down the toilet. (We also flush treated drinking water down the toilet which is in many ways even more ridiculous, but is a subject for another time). Sometimes the big water toilet overflows. The water is not used or enjoyed.

I’ll bet just about anyone, even the engineers who build gutters and drainspouts, would stop to enjoy a babbling brook in the woods… maybe even stick their feet in. There has been a neat movement over the last decade or so to invite nature – native plants, animals, and such, back into human-created landscapes. But I don’t hear a lot about water. You can divert rainwater from a rain cistern into a little landscaped stream after the rain is done, and enjoy a little clean babbling brook right in your yard. You can then route the water into a little wetland like this and let it soak in and replenish the groundwater:


That neat little wetland was at CMU in Pittsburgh. The water gets a chance to slowly soak in or is used by plants and wildlife. And despite what you hear from some people, it is incredibly easy and inexpensive to keep mosquitos from spawning in your little wetland.

Pragmatically, I think dumping water down the drain is a waste, but I’m more compelled just by the aesthetic issue. I absolutely love flowing water and think it is a shame to waste the potential created when water falls on a roof or parking lot from the sky. Heck, you can even have fun with icicles…

My least favorite ‘use’ of water is lawns in dry climates. Water is removed from rivers elsewhere, treated so that it is suitable for human consumption (something many if not most people in the world don’t even have reliable access to), then dumped on a manicured monoculture of mutilated foliage. I’m not talking about soccer fields here (which can be irrigated easily with reclaimed water). I’m talking about the silly square lawn in front of every house and business in southern California. These ‘features’ use up to 70% of LA’s water.

See this white stain in the desert?


It used to be a massive lake. If everyone in LA got rid of 2/3rds of their lawn, including businesses, and all of the golf courses and sports fields were shifted over to reclaimed water and rainwater cistern irrigation, we could probably almost completely restore it. If people gave up on having their own swimming pools and switched to community pools instead, we could probably restore the whole darn thing. If you live in a dry climate, replacing a lawn with native plants, cacti and succulents, or a vegetable garden (uses water but produces food, reducing the need for farmfield irrigation) is one of the most important things you can do to lessen your negative impact on the world around you. If you live in a wet climate like Vermont, lawns are less of a problem, but consider an unmanicured meadow that provides habitat, and don’t over fertilize… fertilizer often ends up in nearby waterways rather than in the grass blades of your lawn.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here. Still… that trash can full of snow really brought it to mind. I still am so transfixed by running water that I can’t help but poke at water running down the gutter. I wish the first few hours in the city after a heavy rain resounded with the rush of water in every corner and crevice… just as it does in the rocky canyons. I know not everyone is as obsessed with water as I am, but I think if we tried it, dug our water out of the garbage and put it back where it belonged, we’d really like it. A city without flowing water would seem to be missing something.

And now I am wishing I had knocked that pile of snow off of that garbage. Maybe tomorrow…

A Welcome to New Readers

It is with great excitement and enthusiasm that I join the network.  On that note, I thought it would be fun to create a summary of some of my favorite posts of the last three years, so people would be able to see at a glance what Slow Water Movement is about.

This blog started as a companion to my graduate project, where I worked in Pittsburgh to increase knowledge of runoff issues that were leading to sewage overflows and pollution in the city’s three rivers.  From this came the idea that what we needed was a movement to appreciate, celebrate, utilize, and slow down the water flowing through human-constructed landscapes, reducing runoff and storing water in rain barrels or as groundwater for drier times.  A Slow Water Movement!  These ideas have been recently investigated from many angles, and the blog was created as another way to explore how we relate with our stormwater.

I investigated the historic creek channels buried under Pittsburgh, inspired by the LA Creek Freak blog. I ran around in a silly shirt and talked to people.  I became interested in the benefits and pitfalls of using web and smartphone technology in conservation, and created this Google map of the ‘lost channels’of the Junction Hollow watershed in Pittsburgh:


This spilled over into my excitement over iNaturalist, an app which allows you to document biological sightings, both for fun and for use by scientists.  In my opinion this is the website and app that holds the most promise for conservation and citizen science, and I have become a heavy (some have said obsessive) participant in the site and have also been able to offer some minor beta testing help to the people who run the site.

Over time the blog became more varied, as I began an ongoing art project involving coloring icicles,  created a silly (and very basic) video game to illustrate issues with invasive species, and then discovered Minecraft, a very neat simulation/’sandbox’ game, and wrote a bit about how water was simulated in the game and how it relates to real landscapes.

One of my most popular posts has been this post about how the lack of Arctic sea ice may be affecting the jet stream.  I’ve heard more on this subject since that time, in particular from Jeff Masters.  Unfortunately, however, I think a lot of the hits this post gets originate from sadly confused individuals who actually think the north pole is moving – which of course is impossible (the magnetic pole moves, but we don’t know of any way that this affects weather).  In retrospect the dot on the photo below should have said ‘Pole of Cold’ instead of New North Pole:

Jet Stream 2010

I also made a post about atmospheric rivers as possible agents of extreme flooding on the US West Coast, after a similar event devastated part of Australia.  A small scale version of this happened this winter, thankfully nothing close to the massive floods California experienced during the 1880s.

I experienced severe flooding firsthand in Vermont when Hurricane Irene hit the area.  Thankfully we experienced no damage, though many others were not as lucky.  I’d posted about the storm a fair bit before it hit, so I was prepared.  Unfortunately, many who were understandably terrified by the rage of their normally calm rivers began calling for gravel removal, a practice that has not been shown to help reduce further floods and can in fact make them more dangerous.  A lot of damage was done in Vermont, but as a resident of East Middlebury I became involved in the political process and hopefully was a small part of slowing or stopping these harmful operations.  This was also my first introduction to Vermont small town politics, which was an adventure to say the least.

Above: a gravel bar right in the middle of East Middlebury.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh also experienced more flooding, in this case a totally avoidable flood that filed the basements of quite a few good people with raw sewage.  I was a part of a push to get some infrastructure maintenance done in Junction Hollow, and things are looking a bit better for now in that neighborhood. Unfortunately a similar tragedy did recur in another part of Pittsburgh, in August 2011, and this time included loss of life.  There is a good chance that runoff control in the upper watershed could have prevented this.

Above: Historic Negley Run is gone from sight, as it has been drained into the sewer system, but sadly it is still capable of experiencing flash floods that result in loss of human life.  Most didn’t even know the little brook had ever existed until it rose from the manholes in a terrifying flood of sewage-stained water.

On a small encouraging note, the major US weather disaster of 2012 – Hurricane Sandy – was predicted up to a week in advance by several weather models.  Hopefully my blog post helped a few people prepare for the storm, but the real heroes are the hard-working meteorologists at NOAA, who offered reasonable and accurate weather forecasts well in advance of Sandy.  It sends a chill down my spine to think what would have happened if the subways had not been closed when the storm surge flooded those tunnels.  I saw someone mention that perhaps rather than Obama or  the European Union, the National Weather Service probably should have won the Nobel Peace Prize.  I couldn’t agree more.  Sandy was still a horrible tragedy, but it could have been much worse.  And, hopefully people learned from the tragedy of Katrina (which was also predicted well in advance by NWS as well as Jeff Masters but too many people ignored the warnings or were unable to evacuate)… as a person who myself has been evacuated from both floods and fires, but has also been too close to both of those on a few occasions, I will gladly back up the NWS that you absolutely need to evacuate if at all possible.

But not all is tragedy in the twin worlds of hydrology and watershed ecology.  The most recent blizzard has dumped over a foot of snow on our little New England town, and I’ve spent too much time indoors on such a beautiful day.  In the words of Calvin, or more accurately Bill Waterson:
“It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy… Let’s go exploring!”