Methane leaks, sewage discharges, and the bad hands dealt by failing infrastructure

January 2nd, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

[The following is a simulpost of a piece I published on LinkedIn Pulse. It is written from my semi-professional persona and may not reflect the standards for vulgarity and pigheadedness characteristic of Riffraff and Bugaboos.]

In infrastructure asset management, risk is often defined using a matrix where failure risk is the product of two criticality measures: likelihood of failure and the consequence of failure. These terms mean just what they sound like: likelihood of failure (LOF) is the probability that the asset will fail — whether by rupture, collapse, mechanical breakdown, etc. — and the consequence of failure (COF) is, to put it simply, a measure of how awful it would be if that asset were to fail.

For example, a 65 year-old cast iron water main serving a single suburban block is likely to have a high LOF but a low COF (not that the residents living on said block would particularly agree with the latter assessment). On the other hand, a major transmission main that serves a population of tens of thousands but is only five years old would have a low LOF but an extremely high COF. However, even an asset with a small service population can have a high COF as well if its failure would result in costly externalities; a classic example is a sewer below a railroad — if the pipe collapses, so could the tracks, resulting in not only a costly repair but also stranded commuters, diverted freight, and a temporary loss of rail service.

Assets with the highest risk, of course, need the most attention — whether that’s more frequent inspections, rehabilitation, or repair — and when they don’t receive it, bad things can happen. Two recent events have illustrated, in very real but different ways, how crucial this risk assessment process is and what can happen when risk becomes untenable.

The first, the methane leak at a Southern California Gas Company storage facility that began making national headlines the past few weeks, is a very apparent example of consequence of failure. Further details regarding the cause of the rupture occurred and how well it could have been anticipated or averted will no doubt emerge once it’s been accessed and sealed, but more to the point right now: the leaking well did fail, and the consequences are quite enormous, not only to nearby residents but also from costs extending beyond the facility’s service population.

After the SCGC story flooded the internet last week, I was quick to point out that the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the leak, if contained within the projected schedule, would be about 0.1% of the annual U.S. GHG emissions and only about one-five-hundredth of the methane emissions produced by cattle worldwide, so (unless my assumptions are off, and someone please correct me if they are) some of the histrionics regarding the leak’s solitary impact on GHG and climate change may be unwarranted. That said, if many such failures were to occur within a short time — and indeed, as the Gizmodo story points out, the Environmental Defense Fund estimates that 1.3 million metric tonnes of methane, or roughly six times the expected leakage from the SCGC facility, are lost to the atmosphere from diffuse leaks nationwide each year —  the global impact would quickly become more appreciable.

Climate implications aside, however, the leak already is a huge disaster with very immediate consequences for those living near the SCGC facility. Namely it’s been making them sick and forcing many to evacuate their homes. COF: extreme.

On the stories I’ve read, several commenters have suggested that the system should simply be shut down at the source, and some have insinuated that the only thing preventing SCGC from doing so is profit — a motive so often reflexively conflated with greed in these instances. Putting aside for a moment whether shutdown is even practicable, this argument largely ignores the other side of COF that we talk about with infrastructure — loss of service. Even though there is a global cost to the leaking methane, there would also be major social and economic costs to shutting down the flow of methane, not only to SCGC but to the residents and businesses in the region that rely on the natural gas as an energy source.

This latter half of the COF calculus calls to mind another recent event — the City of Montreal’s painfully difficult decision to divert untreated sewage into the St. Lawrence River to repair a large interceptor sewer. The City, faced with the need to rehabilitate an aging and uber-critical asset of its sewer system, elected to bypass its wastewater flow to the river for 89 hours — taking extensive measures to mitigate the adverse impacts of the discharge — in order to make the repairs as quickly and effectively as possible and to avoid a worse calamity in the future. Had the City not acted, the interceptor or the connected snow chute could have eventually collapsed, resulting in a more difficult and expensive repair and a less controlled sewage overflow. Obviously, the decision to release a few billion liters of untreated wastewater into one of the largest waterways on the continent was met with resistance from water quality advocates and neighboring cities, but in the end, it was the least-worst option available.

From an engineering perspective, the decision was somewhat inevitable. Any efforts to contain or divert that amount of flow would have come at extreme expense, if feasible at all, and when it comes to sewers — especially large interceptors in major cities — extended loss of service for maintenance is simply not an option. A controlled overflow was, in Montreal’s case, the most responsible way of preventing a potential catastrophe while still maintaining service during the operation.

Least-worst choices are not always so inevitable though. More often, they’re the only hands remaining after chronic underinvestment has handcuffed decision makers and taken the best solutions off the table. Reactive measures, such as a deep excavation to repair a collapsed pipe, for instance, are invariably more disruptive and expensive than proactive measures, such as trenchless installation of a liner. COF isn’t always as drastic as a global warming catastrophe or 3 billion liters of untreated sewage — sometimes it’s as simple as added expense or temporary loss of service.

Events like the Los Angeles methane leak and the Montreal sewage bypass remind us that asset management is nothing to take lightly, as the consequences can be very real, and decisions made in crisis mode rarely result in optimal solutions. It remains to be seen whether SCGC’s leak is a predictable outcome of underinvestment or an unforeseeable fluke, but perhaps the most important takeaway highlighted by this event is that methane leakage was (and is) already a chronic problem throughout the U.S., even before this story flooded headlines. And in this regard, the natural gas industry is not alone. Whether it’s our sewers, water distribution systems, roads, bridges, or power grid, the aggregate risk we currently face from infrastructure failures is high, and, in large part, it continues trending upward.

There’s No Such Thing as a Rain Tax: Water Resources and the Uphill Battle Against Deceptive Branding

December 27th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

[The following is a simulpost of a piece I published on LinkedIn Pulse. It is written from my semi-professional persona and may not reflect the standards for vulgarity and pigheadedness characteristic of Riffraff and Bugaboos.]

Water quality advocates have had a rough few years in regard to branding. First, there was “toilet-to-tap” — a catchy term for potable reuse that has often assumed a negative connotation and helped defeat or delay a number of direct (DPR) and indirect potable reuse (IPR) initiatives, even in areas suffering from droughts and water shortages, because many have been led to interpret the phrase literally.

Now we have the “rain tax” — an increasingly popular misnomer for stormwater utilities, or funding schemes that collect revenues designated specifically for drainage infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects. Several states’ appellate courts have already taken on the question of whether stormwater utility fees can or should technically be considered a tax, and I will leave it to someone with a law degree to debate the point. That matter aside though, a rain tax is something that simply does not exist except as a rhetorical trick, and it’s important that proponents make this clear.

For starters, it’s somewhat odd that stormwater utility fees are met with so much resistance in the first place. Drainage infrastructure is something that we all depend on — to keep our homes dry, our roads passable, and our parks from becoming mosquito-ridden swamps — and the public projects being funded by stormwater utilities are increasingly necessary to replace failing infrastructure and to counteract the effects of urbanization and climate change. These improvements will need to be financed somehow, some way, at some point soon, through some source of public funds, and the intent of a stormwater utility is, quite simply, to accomplish this in an equitable and efficient way.

How stormwater utilities generally work is that homeowners and businesses are assessed a fee proportionate to the area of impervious surfaces — typically roofs and pavement — on their property. Impervious surfaces are mainly what generate runoff during rains, and runoff must be compensated with corresponding drainage and storage capacity or offset with green infrastructure in order to avoid an increased risk of flooding. Thus, the fees collected are put into a fund earmarked for spending on such projects. In a sense, the funding model is akin to tollways — the more a driver uses toll roads, the more they contribute to their deterioration and the potential need to expand for higher traffic volumes; tolls, therefore, act as a way to distribute the funding burden more equitably. In the case of drainage systems, impervious area is the nearest analogue to traffic loading — the more one adds to it, the greater a share of infrastructure capacity they consume.

As with any user charge, however, optimal rate structures are difficult to establish, and not every stakeholder can come away satisfied. In particular, many homeowners, realtors, and land developers have balked at these stormwater initiatives — after all, no one wants to pay more for public services, especially where they’d seemingly paid nothing for them before, and those in the business of selling and developing private properties are hurt in the short term by any policy that could impede these transactions. In some instances, even other government entities have questioned whether the rates are fair.

To be sure, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to oppose stormwater utility fees — imbalanced rate structures, lack of public engagement in the legislative process, excessive burden on low-income households, availability of alternate funding sources — but the dishonest notion that governments are taxing rainfall is not one of them. Based on some recent headlines, however, it seems that the “rain tax” smear is gaining popularity among opponents, and in some cases, it’s been effective.

Gainesville, Florida, for instance, recently rejected such an initiative, with detractors brandishing the “rain tax” label throughout the legislative battle. Maryland’s statewide policy, also branded a “rain tax” by conservatives during the 2014 elections, became a critical issue in the gubernatorial race and has subsequently gained some national attention during former governor Martin O’Malley’s presidential campaign. In one Pennsylvania township, opponents pegged the recently-passed stormwater management fee a “rain tax” even though more than a billion dollars worth of tax-exempt properties are also required to participate in the program.

In each case, the intent of the label is clear: Create a perception that people are being punished for something that is out of their control because after all, we can’t choose the weather, so why are we being taxed for flooding when it’s really the rain’s fault?

This logic, of course, is extremely spurious, as anyone who’s familiar with theRational Formula should immediately recognize. The formula, expressed as Q = C*I*A, is the oldest and most basic calculation for surface stormwater runoff still used in some civil engineering and hydrological applications today. In the formula, Q is the calculated rate of surface runoff; C is a coefficient that increases with the imperviousness of the surface; I is the rate, or intensity, of rainfall; and A is the drainage area, or the area of overland surface being considered. Newer, more commonly-used hydrological methods differ in nuance, but ultimately, the primary inputs are variants of these few basic characteristics.

It should be obvious, then, that a fee proportionate to the amount of impervious area is, in the most explicit sense, not taxing rainfall at all but rather the other key factors contributing to runoff. Rainfall may be the event that can trigger a flooding condition, but the risk is largely built into omnipresent characteristics of a watershed, the most significant of which is impervious area. To imply that stormwater utility fees are forcing residents to pay for unfavorable weather is not only disingenuous but fundamentally incorrect.

When debates like these become public, those responsible for protecting water quality can involuntarily get caught in a bit of a PR tussle. Mischaracterizations like “rain tax” and “toilet to tap” aren’t just frustrating to hear, read, or debunk; they can be significant impediments to more equitable and efficient ways of managing our infrastructure and natural resources. We may like to believe that good ideas speak for themselves and that, ultimately, information trumps salesmanship, but that is not always the case. There are very powerful emotional triggers activated by words like “tax” and images that revolt our most innate sensibilities regarding cleanliness, and opponents to such policies understand that.

In the end, branding is probably not the greatest obstacle to better management of our water resources, but the popularity of misleading buzz terms may be a sign that advocates have been too passive ceding control of semantics in policy debates. As issues like stormwater utilities and potable reuse consume a growing share of public attention in coming years, it may be necessary to push back a bit harder on deceptive language.

Guns vs. Biota

December 18th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Here’s some good news: the just-approved federal spending bill will increase the annual budget for combating antibiotic resistance to $774M, up 64% from its current level. The increase is part of an overall $2B increase (up from $30B) in the NIH’s annual budget, and it appears to be an encouraging sign that the issue of antibiotic resistance — unacknowledged by a majority of Americans — is getting much-needed attention and, more importantly, the resources to act on that attention.

I have been harping on this issue a lot lately — selfishly to some extent, being as it vindicates my mostly vegan diet, but mostly because I think it poses a real threat of undoing a major breakthrough in human evolution and a critical pillar of our current quality of life. (For the same reason, I also frequently harp on neglect of our water quality infrastructure although, probably not so coincidentally, I’m steered by similar biases — professional ones in that instance.)

A couple days ago on Facebook, I posted the following in regard to an article about a strain of antibiotic-resistant E. coli:

Look, we’re merely asking that all manner of preventable death be confronted with proportionate resources and abandon as terrorism is, relative to the probable number of lives saved. This is where it gets tricky, of course, because in the matter of counterterrorism, the resources appear virtually limitless while there remains embarrassingly little data on its effectiveness / ROI and little political will to study the question. Meanwhile, the CDC estimates that, per year, 23,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant infections in the United States alone, and that’s out of roughly 2,000,000 who are treated for such infections. That’s a lot more potential dead people! Given this threat then, isn’t there more than reasonable justification to restrict the number of meat-eaters that we allow into our country and severely limit the rights of those already here? I can’t see how anyone would disagree. ‪#‎vote4me‬

My point, obviously, was to draw a parallel between the very different risks of terrorism and antibiotic resistance. It should be apparent that I hold a strong anti-militaristic bias and low opinion of the dominant values steering the policies of the United States government, particularly in regard to foreign policy and homeland security, and it is therefore in my interest to downplay the risks of human-on-human violence relative to risks like diseases and infrastructure failures.

Admittedly, there are multiple layers of oversimplifications that one must accept to argue, even tongue-in-cheek, that monetary expenditures, in all cases, should be held proportionate to number of lives lost or potentially lost. But I think it’s at least informative to consider the thought; after all, both expenditures have (ostensibly) the same objective of saving (American) lives.

Based on the estimates posted on the CDC website, the new spending level comes out to roughly $34,000 per death by antibiotic-resistant infection and $387 per potential death, assuming the extreme case where all 2,000,000 antibiotic-resistant infections per year are rendered untreatable. (Granted, this figure would no doubt change in a post-antibiotic world, based on incentives to avoid surgeries, limit exposure to risky environments, etc., but I’m not smart enough to fathom a guess as to how much.)

By comparison, based on documents in the Snowden leak, the U.S. counterterrorism budget was $16.6B in 2013, though I’m interested to know how “counterterrorism” is defined given that the Department of Homeland Security alone has a $55B annual budget, and I’ve always thought that the entire reason DHS was created and continues to exist is to fight terrorism. I will consider the $16.6B figure nonetheless.

About 3,000 people died on 9/11, and since then, there have been (depending on the source of the estimate) anywhere from less than 100 to roughly 400 people who died in what were classified as acts of terrorism in the United States. Let’s call it 30 per year.

If we consider 3,000 to be the benchmark for potential deaths per annum that our counterterrorism spending is preventing, i.e. one 9/11-like event per year, that comes out to roughly $5.5M per prevented death. If we compare the spending to the annual average of recorded deaths from 2002 onward, spending per life lost comes out to roughly $550M.

Terrorism Antibiotic Resistance
Annual Budget (in Billions) $16.6 $0.774
Annual Casualties 30 23,000
Potential Casualties 3,000 2,000,000
Spending Per Life Lost $550,000,000 $34,000
Spending Per Life Saved $5,500,000 $387

Yes, this is a very crude exercise leaning on some generous assumptions, but taken at face value, this would imply that the U.S. spends somewhere in the range of 15,000 times more per life lost on counterterrorism than on antibiotic resistance. I don’t have the slightest idea what this ratio should actually be, but it’s very difficult not to look at those numbers and question whether these two priorities are even remotely near a proper balance.

US Festival, 1983 New Wave Day: The Only Summer Outdoor Music Thing That Mattered

July 25th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Somewhere between the dissolution of Woodstock’s currency in the social conscience and Dollop-of-Losers‘ preeminence over the modern-day music festival market, there was the unequivocal pinnacle of popular rock music known as the New Wave Era, and more specifically, its culmination one Memorial Day weekend in 1983.

Besides being the greatest day of live outdoor music that I wasn’t alive to witness, New Wave Day was the highlight of the US Festival—a two-shot technoutopian recruiting mecca staged by Less-Famous Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak in San Bernardino, California, reverse-bookending the summers of 1982 and 1983. Stars of the CBGB scene, among others, highlighted the Labor Day weekend 1982 installment, but the Youtube-available footage largely concentrates on the 1983 edition.

Wozniak’s contempt for the reneged ideals of the Baby Boomers was at least somewhat shared by the festival’s attendees, as captured in the opening of this Japanese bootleg, most notably Giants Cap Guy’s Joan Baez potshot at 0:19.

Of course the focal point of this video is the amped-up version of one of the era’s very best songs, augmented by the legendary Terry Bozzio’s maniacal shirtless drumming—a performance that tops the one on an already exemplary but slower and less raucous studio version. The entirety of the Missing Person’s set is outstanding, highlighted by this fantastic bit of proto-Instagram showpersonship coming out of “Words”—a song that remains both cathartic and therapeutic to me as I plod through this life—courtesy of Terry’s equally legendary then-wife Dale and her New England accent (13:00 mark).

Beyond the MP’s performance, the highlights are hard to choose because the entire lineup was equally legendary (okay, unequally, but nonetheless great throughout), though it’s odd to think of the Stray Cats as New Wave today, even if the label fit in 1983. But here goes a partial rehash:

In a former life, now-iconic film score composer Danny Elfman was merely the frontman for Oingo Boingo, the band who gave the world “Weird Science” and “Dead Man’s Party”. Here we see a babyfaced Elfman, one day shy of his 30th birthday, sweating through his shirt and jigging around stage while his horn section probably nearly dies from heat stroke.

Before Divinyls were known as The One-Hit Wonder Of “I Touch Myself” Fame, they were actually a highly-esteemed emerging Aussie band with a curious stage presence characterized by private school uniforms and the unmistakable—sometimes unintelligible—lead vocalist Chrissy Amphlett (RIP). A previous upload of their performance included their masterpiece “All the Boys in Town”, but it’s since been DMCA took-down by the Copyright Gestapo.

Similarly, #kidsthesedays fail to understand that before Top Gun and “Take My Breath Away” were even a twinkle in Tony Scott’s eye [on Val Kilmer’s svelte bod], Berlin were one of the most exciting acts of the early ’80s, and few pop songs top the angst or the hook of “The Metro” (5:35 below). The euphoria of the event and the stage it provided such a young group are epitomized by frontwoman Terri Nunn’s post-“Metro” outburst at 10:01.

But most of all, New Wave Day was historical because it immediately preceded the unraveling of two of the most innovative bands of the era. The first was Wall of Voodoo—erroneously characterized today as a one-hit novelty—who had frontman Stan Ridgeway and two other members walk out immediately following their US appearance. WoV and Ridgeway’s strange brilliance are succinctly exemplified by the three-song sequence starting with “Fun Zone” at 19:42 and ending with irrepressible classic “Mexican Radio”.

May 28, 1983 would also be the last time Mick Jones performed with The Only Band That Mattered before being fired by Joe Strummer. Watching Mick’s US performance, it wasn’t a totally unjustifiable decision. Overall, there are much better live Clash videos out there, despite this awesomely and blatantly Wozniak-affronting rant at the 7:55 mark.

The inclusion of The Clash as part of New Wave Day doesn’t make total sense to those of us conditioned to lump them into the British Punk, Inexorably genre, but in the context of 1983—and further deliberation—it’s maybe not so strange.

Anyway, enjoy the show. These videos might not last long.

Coordination is a two-way street (even on one-way streets)

June 3rd, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

[The following is a simulpost of a piece I published on LinkedIn Pulse. It is written from my semi-professional persona and may not reflect the standards for vulgarity and pigheadedness characteristic of Riffraff and Bugaboos.]

One of my favorite bloggers is George Mason University economics professor Robin Hanson, and one of the phrases he often repeats on his blog Overcoming Bias is the simple but under-appreciated truism, “Coordination is hard.”

I thought of Hanson’s words last night while watching a WGN-TV news segment on coordination failures between the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) and the private natural gas utility Peoples Gas that have resulted in several newly paved Chicago roads being torn up for gas line replacement, sometimes just months after the roadway restoration has been completed.

Unfortunately, to those of us who work with underground utilities, this type of situation is all too familiar. Municipalities and DOTs don’t or can’t always give thoughtful enough consideration to the utilities beneath a roadway before ripping it up and repaving it, only to regret the decision shortly thereafter when, say, a water main needs to be replaced or a sewer needs to be upsized. In some instances, the utility issue was unforeseeable at the time of the road replacement, but other times, it was predictable but simply overlooked because of an immediate need and an overly compartmentalized approach to asset management.

There are tools, of course, to address this very problem–Riva, InfoMaster, and Cartegraph are a few that come to mind. The main issue, in my mind, is that these tools remain underutilized by municipal managers, either because they haven’t internalized their value or because they haven’t been financially empowered to explore it for themselves. Even when these platforms are utilized, however, the best-designed software can’t overcome communication gaps that exist between public and private entities or even between departments within the same organization.

Coordination of road and utility projects is difficult enough when both sets of assets are owned by the same agency; when they’re under separate jurisdictions, this difficulty is amplified. My initial impression is that the WGN segment may have skewed a bit toward vilifying Peoples Gas when, really, this is a difficult coordination puzzle for which both parties are accountable. If we were privy to all the information available to each entity at the time these projects were initiated, we would probably find it difficult to point the finger at either entity and see the blameworthiness diluted among multiple parties within each organization and the multi-headed-yet-faceless specter of coordination failure.

So what’s the solution? It would be tempting to say that bringing all of the utilities under the public entity could solve the problem, but this would ignore the fact that these same types of coordination mishaps can occur because different departments or decision-makers operating under the same agency–sometimes even under the same roof–fail to communicate effectively or lack the incentive or directive to work cooperatively. Whether public or private, no organization is monolithic, and even those that communicate exceptionally well among departments are susceptible to oversights and miscalculations.

Just as often, it’s not communication that’s the problem but the economic realities of payrolls and annual budgets constraining the options available the planners and spenders, whether they be municipal managers or owners of private firms. Needs are often lumpy, but budgets and payrolls expect continual temporal smoothing, regardless of need. Financial instruments, in this regard, are usually crafted around the big lumps but aren’t always nimble enough to maneuver the small ones.

Asset management software can bridge the communication gaps by putting conflicting or disparate priorities on a common pedestal, and it can help with the artificial smoothing of resource allocation over a long time horizon. But in the end, software is only as good as the integrity of the input, and good inputs rely on good data, good science, and good communication, none of which are even remotely easy. And yet, we must always strive to be better in each of these aspects.

Because after all, even the best plans need coordination, and coordination is hard.

Can conserving water on rainy days prevent sewer overflows?

June 2nd, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

[The following is a simulpost of a piece I published on LinkedIn Pulse. It is written from my semi-professional persona and may not reflect the standards for vulgarity and pigheadedness characteristic of Riffraff and Bugaboos.]

A couple months ago, I was catching up with an old college friend when, inevitably, the conversation turned toward our careers. Natural progression being what it is, I soon found myself in a familiar place–several hundred words deep into an impromptu lesson on urban hydrology, pantomiming differences in sewer sizes across an imaginary whiteboard. Lucky her.

My friend and I both went to school at Marquette, and after college, she stayed in Milwaukee for several years. During our conversation, she told me that while she was living in the Good Land, she would refrain from using water in her apartment during heavy rains so that she wouldn’t contribute to overloading the sewer system. Milwaukee, like many older cities, has a combined sewer system, and similar to other large metropolitan areas, the agency that manages their sewers, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD), has addressed the problem of combined sewer overflows (CSOs) using an underground storage system known as the Deep Tunnel.

The Deep Tunnel, since its initial operation in 1994, has been very effective at reducing the incidence and volumes of CSOs, but in extreme storm events, it can fill to capacity, causing discharges of untreated sewage into Lake Michigan. When CSOs happen, they are highly-publicized, and it is probably common for socially conscious (habitually collectivist?) Milwaukeeans to want to play their part to help avoid them.

Since the conversation with my friend, I’ve heard similar concerns expressed elsewhere. It is, to say the least, encouraging to know when the public is in tune with matters of water quality and the infrastructure that supports it, and it’s even better when they want to have a positive impact on it. That said, is abstaining from water use during storms actually a good way to do that?

The answer, it turns out, is not really, but maybe sometimes, depending on context. Let me explain.

First, we have to distinguish separated sewer systems from combined sewer systems because the difference has a lot to do with the answer. Combined systems, of course, collect both wastewater and stormwater runoff whereas in separated sewer systems, storm sewers collect the stormwater runoff, and sanitary sewers collect wastewater. Rainfall, however, still impacts sanitary sewer systems in the form of inflow and infiltration (I/I); in the worst cases, as much as 5% to 10% of rainwater can end up as I/I in the sanitary sewer system.

If you live in a community with separated sewer systems, the primary risk of an overloaded collection system is that the pipes will surcharge–that is, they will become full and flow under pressure. When this happens, usually during a heavy rain when I/I overwhelms the system, pressure can build to the point where wastewater overflows from the system into basements and out the top of the manholes, resulting in sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs).

But can too much domestic water use also cause an SSO? Generally, no, at least not in a properly designed sanitary system. SSOs can occur when it’s not raining, but this is nearly always the result of a pipe blockage or collapse obstructing flow, not a glut of water use overloading the sewer. That’s because sanitary systems, to accommodate for the inevitability of I/I, are designed to convey a minimum of three times as much flow as the peak dry-day wastewater flow. In practice, sanitary sewer mains usually have more like 5 to 10, sometimes even 20-plus times as much capacity as the average wastewater load–a ratio commonly referred to as a sustainable peaking factor.

In absolute terms, even the smallest public sewer main–that is, an 8-inch diameter pipe at 0.4% slope–has a full-pipe capacity of 330 gallons per minute (gpm). To put that in perspective, the average residential household produces around 250 gallons per day (gpd) of wastewater, which equates to about 0.2 gallons per minute (gpm).

But of course, domestic water consumption isn’t a constant, and the amount of wastewater produced by a single household varies greatly by source and by time of day. At the high end, the discharge from a washing machine is typically around 10 gpm, and modern faucets and shower heads use 2.3 gpm. So at the extremehigh end, let’s say you’re doing laundry and washing dishes while your spouse is taking a (probably very uncomfortable, temperature-erratic) shower; thus, your sewer lateral is kicking out 15 gpm of wastewater to the public sewer main–roughly 5% of the main’s capacity and about 75 times your daily average.

Now, if every neighbor on your block were doing laundry, showering, and doing dishes at that very same time, suffice it to say, the sewer main running below your street could have some issues. In reality, though, it doesn’t happen this way. In fact, an area of just a few hundred homes, taken collectively, will produce a peak wastewater load only 50% to 150% above its daily average, and even the most conservative guidelines for projecting peak diurnal flow recommend a maximum 4.5 peaking factor–far less than the 75 in the extreme example.

However, in communities with severe I/I, it’s not uncommon for peak wet-weather flows to exceed wastewater flows by 10, 20, even 30 times in the worst cases. That’s because I/I sources like deteriorated lateral connections and illegally connected downspouts can dump more than 10 gpm into the sanitary system, exceeding that laundry discharge, quadrupling the 2.3 gpm shower head, and dwarfing the 0.1 to 0.5 gpm average that you and your neighbors are collectively producing at any given time.

That said, wastewater flows representing a third, a fifth, or even a twentieth of a sewer’s capacity are significant enough that concerted water conservation could potentially shave enough flow off peak wet-weather loads to lower the risk of an SSO, even though the I/I component would still be several times larger than the wastewater component in SSO-producing events. So while excessive I/I is the primary cause of SSOs during rainstorms–in most cases, overwhelmingly so–it would be overly dismissive to say that variations in water consumption during these events are without impact.

Now if we consider a combined sewer system, where wastewater comprises a much smaller fraction of wet-weather flows, water conservation efforts come out looking far more futile.

In a well-functioning combined sewer system, it’s usually not the capacity of the collection system itself that acts as the primary constraint–combined sewer pipes are, on the whole, significantly larger than sanitary sewer pipes–but rather, it’s the treatment capacity on the downstream end that’s exhausted first. That is, while the sewers may have more than adequate capacity for peak flows, the treatment plant typically only has capacity for a fraction of that flow, thus the need to store the remainder in reservoirs or tunnel systems like the Deep Tunnel or, in the worst case, bypass the excess flows untreated into natural waterways, resulting in a CSO.

In these types of heavy rain events, it’s typical for stormwater runoff to exceed wastewater production by about two orders of magnitude. It’s sometimes hard to comprehend just how much water actually falls from the sky when it rains, but consider that during a heavy rain, a quarter-acre residential lot can produce a peak stormwater runoff in excess of 100 gpm, far exceeding both extreme wastewater loads and the worst I/I sources in a sanitary system.

That is to say, even Milwaukeeans’ most heroic attempts to shut off the water during a downpour would reduce peak flows by maybe 1 or 2 percent at best. Now, it’s true that if Milwaukee imposed a moratorium on water use during rainstorms–let’s imagine for a second that this were actually possible–any bypassed flows would contain virtually no wastewater*, thus reducing the pollutant load of the discharge. Volumetrically, though, the impact would be minimal; the wastewater component during CSO events is–as I’m fond of saying–a quasi-literal drop in the bucket. A very large and dirty drop, indeed, but nevertheless a drop.

*This also assumes that the first flush has run its course and fully scoured away any settled wastes by the time treatment capacity is exhausted, which isn’t entirely possible either, but neither is the main premise of this hypothetical, so let’s forget I brought it up.

So should you try to abstain from water use during storms? On the margin, if you live in a separated sewer community, water conservation could reduce the risk of SSOs but only if the rest of the town were also cooperating and only if the system’s I/I is generally under control. On the other hand, if you live in a combined sewer community, even the most dedicated water conservation efforts are unlikely to make a measurable difference.

Catalysis, Countervalence, and the Luxury of Platform

April 28th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Social media affords all of us the luxury to express positions—sometimes strong positions—to a partially captive group of dozens to hundreds (or more) individuals on a whim—something only priests and presidents, if they were lucky, had the privilege of doing a century ago. And whether one considers the reactions of their interlocutors (both real and imaginary) in these exchanges to be fair or justified does not change what they, in fact, are. It is extremely, often frustratingly, maddeningly, stupefyingly difficult to get anyone to consider a dissenting point of view; to change one’s mind is nigh impossible. But to help someone reify their priors, unintentionally, is all too easy. No matter how righteous the cause or aims, blunt objects are unreliable weapons, and outcomes contradict intentions with frightening regularity.

Given that, it seems worth considering, before fighting fire with low-cost signaling, the individuals with the forbearance to defend a position peacefully and rationally—nudging it along with measured reason and well-crafted incentives, often with more tangible risk facing back at them—and how, ultimately, those signals could undermine the hard-earned incremental gains made by others. This isn’t to say that all reactions to strong signals are countervalent, nor is catalysis a total unicorn. Just where the balance lies, however, is hard to say, and the sooner we see more serious effort into quantifying the net effects, the better.

I count myself among those inclined to be swayed by the forceful, contrarian, and radical—not always for the better, mind you—but bludgeons seem only effective when the idea is novel or scarcely considered prior. More often, our views are like cooling wrought iron—hot and pliable upon initial consideration but more rigid with every further rumination until nothing short of a spiritual epiphany or life-disrupting event can make it warm again, and the more we feel we personally have at stake in a matter, the more we’re inclined to consider it through the lens of our self-interest. Subjects like nationalism, race, and gender receive great consideration early on in our lives, gaining even greater share of our consciousness as we get older. By the time we’re rent-paying, procreating adults, the thought that we can bash someone’s gargoyle into a lovely meadowlark is a great way to break the hammer; at best you might get the wings to look okay, but security will come turn the hose on you before you can finish.

All this is to say that there are ways to nudge humanity toward better behavior, though few measure up to attrition. This is why “hook ’em young” remains the surest strategy for teachers, evangelists, environmentalists, and advertisers alike. However, browbeating recalcitrant adults with jarring positions is, more often than not, a super-ratchet up the crazy pole.

Chipotle’s bold stand for essentialism

April 28th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Consumer choice is, ceteris paribus, a good thing, though it too often competes with sustainability and public health, making it less of a good thing. Thus on the one hand, kudos to Chipotle for expanding consumer choice by providing diners a GMO-free option among the lot of chain establishments and in the process, ostensibly providing a healthier and more sustainable alternative to the norm. On the other hand, curse Chipotle for validating naturalist, anti-corporatist agitprop and catering to the essentialistic sensibilities of brainwashed wackos.

So lemme backtrack a bit. There are certainly valid reasons to be cautious in regard to GMOs—golden rice is but one glimmering success; fuck ups, too, will happen—but I’m not interested in rehashing them here. Let me say, however, that “They’re banned in Europe” and “I heard the scientists at Monsanto won’t eat in their cafeteria!” are not among them. Enter popular burrito-maker’s hard-line stance, and I’m afraid “They won’t serve them at Chipotle” becomes another arrow in that same quiver.

The problem with Chipotle’s new policy is the same one raised by the rest of the GMO labeling and prohibition movement—that is, it seeks to render a thorny-among-thorny area of scientific discovery as monolithic. When the perceived vanguard of conscientious food-made-fast puts a full moratorium on them, the reverse-halo around* GMOs will only glow brighter**, regardless of what the literature says.

*Do reverse halos encircle? Maybe they embed.

**But certainly they wouldn’t glow, would they?

Now here’s the part of the post where I confess that I’m neither an expert in genetics nor in agriculture nor in nutrition, and thus my opinion is approximately worthless. (Read all this, and you’ll know roughly as much as I do.) However, one field where I can claim some modicum of expertise is water resources, and it is by that spirit of essentialism that effluent reuse gets branded “toilet-to-tap” and shot down by water utilities and city commissioners, much to the detriment of the hydrological cycle and all who depend on it. Why? Because river water good; toilet water icky.

Asymmetrical expertise aside, I’m pretty certain that water quality metrics are far easier to measure and quantify than sustainability metrics, which makes the analogy all the more discouraging, and the science of nutrition is even flakier yet. Adherents to this-or-that “lifestyle” very often do resemble zealots of other stripes, and as someone who’s spent a substantial portion of his adult life managing some variant of eating disorder, I’m all too aware of both the allure and the wickedness of the valuation-by-categorization approach to subsistence. That’s not to say nutritional wisdom is all doctrine and neurosis, just… a lot of it might be, and we should be very, very skeptical of any claims regarding the effects of GMOs on our bodies when we can scarcely narrow down which foods—GMO or not—might give us and/or prevent cancer.

Which brings us back to thorniness and the fact that some applications of genetic modification do, can, or will, in fact, promote sustainability and health, and by shunning GMOs wholesale, Chipotle is taking a stand for essentialism over empricism. As an observer, one has to question their motives, and the CEO makes it rather easy, more or less providing the answer (loosely translated), “I know this is bullshit, but it’s what our customers want.”

On the spectrum of bad reasons to argue a point, “They’re just out to make a buck” is roughly a notch below “They ban it in Europe” and maybe one ahead of “I heard it from my friend Steve”, so let me be clear that I don’t consider Chipotle’s profit motive a grounds on which to judge dissonance in their business ethics. I mention this angle, however, to make the bland and uncontroversial point that Chipotle is merely reading a trend and needing to placate a loyal and vocal subset of its customer base–one that tends to conflate the concepts of cruelty-free, organic, healthy, sustainable, and GMO-free.

Is that a good thing? Again, hooray for consumer choice. But I do genuinely worry that we’re on the road toward GMO prohibition in the U.S. and E.U., if not globally. And while GM may not hold the great panacea to end all scarcity, there’s no reason to deprive it of that chance. Chipotle’s moratorium alone can’t and won’t unify public opinion in opposition to GMO; on the other hand, it’s certainly a data point in that direction.


May 20th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

This is “Jackals.” I originally wrote this on the piano, and it was bouncier and not quite as fast. What piano remains is the best of that effort, but really, this was meant to be a punk song. My brother ran with that and added the drums, guitar, and bass. Vocals are a combined effort.

(For further explanation, go here. And please subscribe to the Replica Imposter channel if you like what you hear.)


Creative Destruction

May 20th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

This is “Creative Destruction.” Lyrically, I was trying to write a Talking Heads song, and musically, a Pixies song. I wrote the skeleton on piano, but my brother gave it more appropriate instrumentation.

(For further explanation, go here. And please subscribe to the Replica Imposter channel if you like what you hear.)