Hard Choices in Flood Management: The Flooding of Buffalo Bayou

Bloomberg has another great feature story up today with relevance for ‘water’ people. It discusses the U.S. government making the difficult choice to flood a Houston neighbourhood during Hurricane Harvey to prevent a potentially much more deadly reservoir failure event.

That evening [of August 27, 2017], the Harris County Flood Control District held a press conference at which it announced that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would begin controlled releases at the Addicks and Barker dams surrounding West Houston. The two massive reservoirs retain water that gathers in the prairie west of the city, forming Buffalo Bayou, which runs down the Energy Corridor, through downtown, out the Houston Ship Channel and, finally, into the Gulf of Mexico. The water behind the dams was rising more than 6 inches an hour, and the flood control district said residents should be prepared to leave the next morning.
But the water level rose even faster than expected that night—Harvey brought 51 inches of rain, all told. The Army Corps won’t confirm exactly when the releases began, but legal complaints and residents say the floodgates opened at about 1 a.m., sending a rush of water toward Buffalo Bayou while many people were sleeping. Just after 1:30 a.m. the Corps posted a press notice on social media stating that the dam releases would amount to 8,000 cubic feet of water per second. “If we don’t begin releasing now, the volume of uncontrolled water around the dams will be higher,” Colonel Lars Zetterstrom, the Corps’ Galveston district commander, was quoted as saying. “It’s going to be better to release the water through the gates directly into Buffalo Bayou.” The danger was that the water would flow uncontrolled into homes located upstream from the reservoir, crest the reservoir walls downstream, or crack a section of the Barker dam that was under repair. Had either dam failed, the Houston Chronicle later wrote, West Houston would have been left with “a week of corpses by the mile.”

[…]By Friday, Sept. 1, with water still gushing through the floodgates, conditions in the Energy Corridor had worsened to the point that Mayor Sylvester Turner issued a voluntary evacuation order there. “I know people are staying because they want to protect their property,” he said. “But if you are living in a home today with water in your home, that situation is not going to change for 10 to 15 days.”

[…]On Saturday, as floodwaters elsewhere in Houston were receding, Turner had no choice but to make the evacuation mandatory for the 4,600 Energy Corridor dwellings “already flooded by water.” Three hundred people, his office said, had remained in their flooded homes. Turner also cut off electricity to the area and established a midnight to 5 a.m. curfew to help police isolate anyone looting evacuated homes. “Put your own personal safety above your property,” he said in the order, explaining that “the floodwaters there are caused by the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ controlled releases of water.”

As the article makes clear, the resulting lawsuits are beginning to get underway.

The Big Business of Bottled Water

Bloomberg has a story up about the how and why of bottling water in Michigan.

The article is of a reasonable length and provides specific information about Nestle’s Mecosta County operation as well as a discussion of some common themes surrounding the bottled water business in general.

Definitely worth a read!

Sri Lanka’s Mangroves

CNN has a story up today about the importance of, and efforts to conserve, the mangrove forests in Sri Lanka. The article features some nice photojournalism as well.

From the article:

Education is key as mangroves play a crucial role in Sri Lanka’s — and the world’s — coastal ecosystem that extends far beyond the aesthetics they bring to a boat tour. They provide critical shelter for young fish (replenishing coral reefs and fisheries, thus facilitating the livelihood of Sri Lankans who fish for a living) and sequester up to 50 times more carbon dioxide than other kinds of forests, making them indispensable in combating climate change.

They also act as a buffer against tropical storms, reducing damage to coastal communities. (Some studies have shown that areas with more substantial mangrove forests fared better during the 2004 tsunami than did communities without them.) But for all their virtues, mangroves are also at risk, having been dangerously depleted in recent decades thanks in large part to the country’s shrimp-farming industry.

Various members of my research group have been in discussions exploring the use of systems like mangrove forests as a coastal defence option for some time, both at Cambridge and in Liverpool. It’s now made it into our undergraduate curriculum/seminars as well.

Water Challenges in Jordan, Israel and Palestine

Back in September I was invited to participate in a 3-day conference/workshop titled ‘Sharing innovation to address water challenges in the Levant’ .

The conference was hosted at Wilton Park (which is, incidentally, a very unique and nice and venue) and brought together stakeholders from across the region to discuss challenges and possible solutions, in particular through research collaboration

The report is now publicly available here.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the merits of Audacious Endeavours

Fareed Zakaria had a segment with some predictions and thoughts for 2017 on his show GPS this week. Tyson was on the panel and started his response with a point about investment in basic science, but what I found really resonated was this response to a follow-up question from Zakaria:

[W]hat happens is — if you go big and audacious, you can attract the best people because you’re challenging them to the limits of their intellectual abilities, which people like to have happen.

So, for example, if we went to Mars and we announced that, what do you need? You need, like, the best engineers of all stripes. You need biologists, if you’re looking for life. You need chemists if you want to till the soil. And there will be patents; there will be innovations; there will be discoveries all along the way.

In Mars, you might want to extract the water from — submerged in the soil. There won’t be much, but someone who wants to do that might invent some device that you bring back to Earth and extract water from the deserts of Sahara. But if you told that person, “I need you to get the water out of Sahara,” that might not excite them as much as doing that on Mars.

So if you want to — from my experience and my read of the history of innovation, if you want to turn — if you want to transform a sleepy country into an innovation nation, the large projects tend to galvanize everybody’s energy and everybody’s capacity to think about the future.

Transcript here.