Monday, January 28, 2008

Scraping the bottom of the reservoir

I'm learning new things all the time about reservoir jargon. Today I was exposed for the first time to the "sediment layer" of a reservoir's water supply. Of course I've known that sediments settle and collect behind dams, sometimes to the extent that the volume of water in the reservoir shrinks over time. But more often, much of that sediment remains in suspension in the water, sinking to occupy the bottom level as what we'd recognize as watery mud.

The drought in Raleigh, North Carolina, has just about driven the region to begin providing water to residents from this sediment layer, according to the NewsObserver.

A federal study in the 1990s found that Falls Lake's bottom is filling more slowly than expected, leaving more room for water than first planned. In theory, the lake's bottom layer holds enough water to supply Raleigh and the seven other Wake County towns it serves for two to three months.

Under the proposal, the Army Corps of Engineers would sell up to about 6 1/2 billion gallons of the bottom water in four increments as needed. That's up to 87 days' worth at the lake's current draw-down rate, assuming no rain. That would come after Raleigh exhausts its regular supply, which by the most recent estimate on Tuesday stood at 113 days left.

Raleigh's City Council voted this week to ask the corps to let the city tap permanently into the surplus at the bottom. A permanent reallocation of half the lake's bottom layer would boost the city's supply by more than one-fourth -- until inevitable sediment accumulations erased it.

But once the muddy water has been tapped, there's other local source to draw from. Future planning relies on the return of the rains to refill reservoirs, after which the local and state governments will resolve to maintain higher standing levels to guard against future drought.

In a sense, the best-case scenarios are that drought periods in the future are no longer than a couple years at a time, an assumption that can no longer be considered reliable.

Climate risk management training in Asia

The Asian Disaster Preparedness Center is offering a course (pdf) "to build the capacity of professionals to manage risks associated with climate variability, change, and extremes. " The announcement, which I found on Reuters' Alertnet, describes the course as follows:

It builds upon the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center's two decades of experience in disaster management, facilitating regional cooperation and building capacities of disaster management institutions at all government levels, disaster management practitioners and communities, and a decade of experience in institutionalizing climate information applications for disaster mitigation. It incorporates case studies and sectoral examples from ADPC's climate risk management programs and projects all over Asia. Upon completing the course, participants will be able to: 1) design early warning systems for climate-related risks; 2) design community-based climate risk management, climate forecast applications, and climate change adaptation projects, and 3) develop tools to mainstream climate risk management practices into development programs and policies.
If there is such a training course in the U.S.A. I haven't heard of it. Please tell me if you know of one. I doubt that local planners have been brought up to speed on this stuff.

The price of snow in China

Some places in China are calling it the heaviest snowfall in 5o years with forecasts that it might continue falling for days, even in Shanghai where this kind of weather rarely happens, even to a minor degree. Of course this is increasing energy consumption, and thus coal burning. The government reports that 78 million people are being directly affected and that coal supplies are dropping fast, forcing energy rationing. Transportation during the Lunar New Year celebration has been curtailed, with many trains stranded in place. Air travel and bus transportation have also been restricted.

This is the same country that last summer was suffering both extreme drought and extreme flooding. The weather is not taking it easy on China.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Another Achilles' Heel for nukes - Droughts are Dry!

In early December I blogged about the TVA's power generating capacity being weakened by low water levels due to extreme drought conditions. They were faced with the Solomon's choice of supplying more water where it was most needed or to save water to produce the normal amount of electric power to the region. Of course, TVA had to provide people with water. This meant that, with less water saved behind dams, hydro had less generating capacity, forcing TVA to buy power at higher cost from other sources. And of course passing costs along to customers. End result: emergency water was provided and customers will pay more for light and heat next year.

This was almost two months ago and only barely significant rain or snow has fallen since. Now the focus is on the effects on nuclear power generation.

Again the story features TVA as the owner/manager making the decisions. This article in today's Huntsville (AL) Times does a good job of explaining the problem and how the outcome is similar to the one facing the hydro generators. The Achilles' heel with both hydro and nuke power generation is - that's right - YOU NEED ENOUGH WATER.

For every location where a new nuclear power plant is being considered, you'd better hope that climate change doesn't land a big drought on you. And while I'm at it, all those nukes built on th coastlines at sea level to make use of the ocean's voluminous water supply - you'd better hope the sea doesn't rise. How, I wonder, are those plants assessing risk these days?

Stewart (Whole Earth Catalog) Brand has been promoting nukes as the one renewable and "green" electric power source that can be put online fast enough to allow us to cut loose of coal burning plants in time to avoid the atmospheric carbon tipping point. I have an inherent fear of nuclear accidents, one of which could kill and dispace so many people - not to mention destroy gobs of infrastructure and whole local economies - that it's hard to see how benefits could be worth the risk.

But these real, climate-determined limits on operability are what adaptation planning is all about. We won't be functioning under the conditions we're used to. Climate variability will make many of our assumptions unstable and our solutions temporary. Adaptation won't be a one-time adjustment ("OK, we'll just replace the roses with cactus and that will be that."), it is likely to be an ongoing accomodation to whatever our carbon-soaked atmosphere heaps upon us, in each of our unique local environments.

Adaptation may be like what we tell people visiting us and asking how they should dress for our local weather. No matter what time of the year, we tell them, "Wear layers."

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Adaptation Discussion in the City of Toronto - Take 1

This description in a column by Dale Duncan in provides a good example of the complexities we face in addressing "adaptation" in a civic context. Duncan attended a meeting of Toronto's Parks and Environment committee where presentations were given, including two by representatives of the insurance industry and public health. Duncan's takeway from it?

Is the City of Toronto ready to adapt to a new normal of increased floods and droughts, new pests and vector-borne illnesses, and a possible influx of environmental refugees? After sitting in on a series of presentation on climate change adaptation given to the Parks and Environment Committee yesterday, I can tell you that the answer to this question is a resounding "no." Toronto may have a plan to help mitigate climate change, but there’s no plan for how the city will adapt to it, and the consequences of that could mean severe economic, social and health problems in the years to come.
So, in a nutshell, what's the problem? Let's start with insurance. I've blogged about that topic numerous times. They're the ones, after all, whose whole business model relies on accurate risk assessment. One of the municipal councillors brought up infrastructure, which Duncan reminded readers was already a sore point, with a backlog of $123 billion (Canadian) in repair to roads, bridges and pipes. Adaptation of the infrastructure would involve not only making those repairs, but also strengthening those facilities to endure more extreme weather. The insurance guy responds:
“We need to be ready for more severe weather more frequently, which means greater risks due to weather-related events than we have ever faced before,” said Mark Yakabuski, president of the Insurance Bureau of Canada.
He reminds the council that the 1998 ice storm in Quebec consumed 20 percent of all insurance premiums paid that year. Ouch. Will climate change bring more ice storms? The insurance guy continues:
“It is not good enough to simply say we’ll maintain pieces of infrastructure at the standard for which they were built. It’s not going to be adequate,” argued Yakabuski. “We need to rebuild our infrastructure at a significantly higher standard in order to try to deal with a threat that’s higher than we’ve ever faced before. We have to review building codes and be as strict as possible in enforcing land use decisions. We don’t have the luxury to take our time to get it done. We need to find innovative ways to fund these investments now.”
Another councillor tries to turn the dilemma on its head by proposing that the national government provide the money to upgrade the infrastructure to avoid prohibitive insurance premiums in the future. This assumes, of course, that the national government has that money. But beyond infrastructure there were health threats to consider.
Dr. Monica Campbell, manager for Toronto Public Health, spoke about preparing for heat waves like the one in Europe in 2003 that killed nearly 70,000 people. In Toronto, heat-related mortality will double by 2050 and triple by 2080, she said. Furthermore, air pollution mortality will increase by 20 per cent by 2050 and 25 per cent by 2080. Campbell also reminded the committee that vulnerable populations are more likely to be negatively affected by climate change. In California, she said, research has been conducted to construct a Social Vulnerability Index to help ensure these populations don’t get left behind.
The potential of growing masses of climate refugees arriving on Canada's doorstep was brought up. But at least they held such a meeting and at least they've begun to consider these imposing issues. And - as a good example to all localities - they have provided a Climate Change Adaptation page on the city's Web site. Bravo to that!

Friday, January 25, 2008


Maps will prove to be one of the most powerful tools for local adaptation. Here in Marin, MarinMap is a membership supported business for integrating GIS data into special purpose maps. As they describe themselves:

MarinMap is a consortium of public agencies (local governments, special districts) organized under the legal authority of the Marin General Services Agency. The Executive Director is Paul Berlant. The Program Director for MarinMap is Wayne Bush. He also serves as the Chair of the Steering Committee.

MarinMap is dedicated to building and sharing a geographic information system (GIS), cooperating to improve each agency's business processes, improving public service and providing a forum for collaborative decision making. MarinMap has built an Internet-accessible GIS, bringing the best available information to the Internet.

Here's WildMap, which can show you where different kinds of wildlife are reported to live in the county. Mostly, everything lives everywhere because we have so much open space and wildlife corridors crossing the county.

So, it's a collaborative service and the County of Marin is using it to provide a range of maps to its agencies. Cool and all, but I can picture using Google maps to provide much more useful information for identifying key locations that adaptive planning would need to identify. Floodplains, slide risk areas, fire danger paths - these are all contained in separate maps and databases now. Citizens could help mark up a very useful Google map and could integrate some of the GIS database if MarinMaps let them.

An abnormal wind hits home

Literally and figuratively. Just after I posted the last article asking when "disaster" becomes accepted as normal, what has been a normal serious Alaskan front winter storm here in Mill Valley became a hurricane force monster with gusts up to 75 mph blasting across the flatlands that run in alignment with the wind, straight off of Richardson Bay. The big eucalyptus trees across the road were being pushed to angles we'd never seen in 14 years. Then, around 10:30 AM, the whole building (it's an 8-unit, 2-story apartment) shook as if hit by a 2-ton pillow, and there was a loud explosive sound. Not like the electric transformers up the road, that were popping off every ten minutes. But like the building had been whacked with a giant trash can lid.

I put on my Precip jacket and waterproof boots and stepped out the door to see this:

That black shape draping over the trees is a 3o-foot square, 1500-lb chunk of insulated roofing.

Now, I'm not about to claim that this unprecendented wind gust is the spawn of the devil-global-warming. I'm just telling you that the weather has got my attention here in Mill Valley. We're also averaging about 47 degrees for our temperature over December and January. That's down by about 8 degrees from the historical average.

Right now, we're having one of our more familiar winter storms, with minor flooding all around and some slides being reported on area roads. Our reservoirs are still below the level they should be at in late January, but with another storm or two like this one, we should be catching up.

And meanwhile, the workers are still repaing the two units that were flooded when the roof fkew away in the midst of a wind-powered torrential downpour. Just a taste of what storm damage is all about - four of the eight units had to be vacated.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Judgement call - when does disaster become normal?

I ran across this article in the Orlando Business Journal - Drought disaster loan deadline approaches.

So I'm wondering, if the climate actually changes in a place and drought becomes the norm, when does the government decide that the losses due to drought are no longer a disaster? Same with flooding - if the hundred-year flood becomes the 2-year flood, does flood insurance still work?

Should be interesting to see how such matters are handled in the future.

Another way of describing adaptation

I get tired of writing, uttering and thinking the word. Many people tell me it's way too early to even suggest that we be talking about it. To suggest that we begin planning how to adapt to climate change implies that we've given up and surrendered. The climate wins. We lose and submit. So I was glad to hear someone NOT use the word while making the point I seek to make.

Today's editorial in the online version of the Huntsville (Alabama) Times does not use the word adapt in any form - not adaptation, nor adaptive, nor even adaptable. We are spared by John Ehinger of the editorial board.

Northern Alabama is, of course, living through the same extreme drought conditions as northern Georgia. What's interesting to me is how the writer frames the issue and - as he puts it - "What's to be done?"

The year 2007 was the driest of three straight dry years locally.

Because the fractions don't count for much, let's just round the numbers off a little. In 2007, Huntsville's rainfall was just over 28 inches. That was almost 30 inches below normal. The same thing, though sometimes to a lesser degree, occurred over other portions of Alabama and the Southeast.

What's to be done? Start with what's not to be done.

The lack of rainfall - at times characterized by the phrase "exceptional drought" - was not the result of some bureaucrat's oversight or an ill-conceived government policy. Human beings in the 21st century are the beneficiaries of (and the victims of) the same cycles of nature that have long influenced both human progress and, over the eons, life on Earth.

But, again, what's to be done? What has to be done is coping. We have to find ways to manage in years of exceptional drought as well as in years of excessive rainfall.

In other words, we have to use resources wisely and plan for contingencies. Trouble is, people define such ideas as wise use differently. Georgia defines it differently than Alabama. Developers define it differently than conservationists.

The rain comes or it doesn't come. We simply have to find ways to deal with it, and the notion of assuming the annual average is what we'll get every year doesn't suffice - because it doesn't hold up.

Huntsville's water system is in better shape than most. But the challenges it faces are the challenges faced by water systems across the region.

Here's an example. Huntsville's system can pump up to 80 million gallons a day. And how much do we use? In winter, for example, the daily usage is about 40 million gallons. That leaves a cushion for growth and for breakdowns.

But in summer, particularly last summer when watering systems had to make up for the chronic lack of precipitation, actual usage reached about 76 million gallons on some days. If a treatment plant had failed or some other misfortune had struck, we'd probably have ended up under mandatory conservation measures.

I sure sounds like adaptation to me, but by avoiding using the word, the writer appealed to good old common sense in the face of natural forces. What's to be done? "Use resources wisely and plan for contingencies."

What's glaringly missing, of course, is any acknowledgement that human beings in the 21st Century are influencing those natural forces. Without that - and the changes in behavior it should prescribe - we're not truly adapting; we're just trying to survive a little longer.

The Storm of Our Residency

Maybe not the storm of the century, but over the 16 years we've lived in our building today's onslaught of wind and rain has outdone the many Pacific storms that have blown through this location. The ground has not become saturated yet - that usually happens after a couple frog-chokers like this one - and yet one of the nearby eucalyptus trees that has withstood many a stiff gale finally went down this morning.

The tidal inlet that reaches into Mill Valley up to Blithedale Avenue rose, with storm surge and high tide, to within a foot of overflowing onto the street.

And to top things off (so to speak) about a third of the roof of our building blew off with a thunderous BOOM, landing on the patio.

So I think I've finally had my AHA moment where I realize what increasingly intense weather is all about. Batten down the hatches! It ain't over yet.

Who'da thunk that we'd need a roof that would stand up to 70 mph winds? Now we know.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Riding the drought-flood cycle

Well, folks, worries about extended drought conditions in Northern California are easing a bit with the arrival of this energetic series of storms. They're predicting 4 inches at sea level and 8 inches in the bay area hills over the next 3 days. Ten feet of snow at Lake Tahoe and more at higher elevations. Until now, for this rain season (which began measuring last July) we've been at between 40 and 60 of normal. We should make it back to normal by next week.

It's coming down pretty steady right now, with winds gusting up to (my estimate, based on the large eucalyptus trees across the street) 40 mph. We're supposed to see gusts of up to 75 mph tomorrow, especially in the hills.

There's nothing extraordinary about this storm; we've seen at least 2 of these every winter that we've lived here. Sometimes enough storms link together that the sustained rains and ground saturation cause slides and flooding. Ground saturation is not a problem at this point. We'll just wait and see what the skies actually deliver. Weather prediction on the Pacific Coast is still a dicey proposition.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, the downpours of December - in spite of their intensity - have barely made a scratch in the ongoing drought conditions afflicting the state.

Heavy rain and snow earlier this month may have turned streets into rivers and allowed Arizona Snowbowl to open on time, but they did little to stop a 13-year drought.

National Weather Service forecaster Valerie Meyers said it would take numerous storms to replenish aquifers and get river levels back to normal.

To end the drought, Meyers said, "give yourself three good (storm) events like that each month during the winter, then carry that forward to having good precipitation over the summer months, and then let's repeat it for another year or two.
The rain that fell on Arizona replenished reservoirs to their 2006 levels, making it the third wettest December since the state began keeping records 108 years ago.