Talking about water

For the last half-dozen years Francesca Rheannon has been interviewing writers for a range of broadcast outlets across the United States, and she’s also placed the edited interview sound clips on podcasts. The project is titled “Writer’s Voice with Francesca Rheannon”.

Francesca’s a writer herself, and is currently working on a memoir titled “Province of the Heart” based on time spent in Provence after 9/11.

Last summer I felt honored to be interviewed by Francesca for a podcast that also included a session with Paul Rosalie about his work of fiction titled “The Girl and the Tiger.”


That installment of “Writer’s Voice” can be found here. On the home page simply search for the authors’ names.

One of the unexpected delights that came with the publication of “Water Connections” in June, 2019 has been the exchanges with skilled interviewers such as Francesca and people who show up at book-related events with questions and personal stories of their own about fresh water. The experience keeps me current on our changing connections to inland waters.

Common questions: What can an ordinary person do to help assure that rivers and lakes are clean? What about the effect of climate instability on inland waterways? Should the old mill dam be outfitted with modern hydro, or should that dam be taken down for the benefit of fish passage?

Here are a couple of other recent recorded sessions that were related to the book:

A presentation at Bookstock — “The Green Mountain Festival of Words” - provided by Woodstock Community TV

An interview with Dan Mitchell, a host of a talk show titled “Open Mic” at the Monadnock Radio Group in Keene, NH.

Water and soil


Increasingly the news is bringing us dramatic pictures of flooded farmland and, in the other extreme, land that’s little more than parched dirt.

 In these opposite images land is a victim; it’s a casualty of either too much water or too little.

 For a minute think of land in a new way; think of it as soil.

In recent years scientists have been looking at soil not as a passive victim of floods and droughts but rather as a potentially active agent in (a) absorbing water when rains fall especially hard and (b) also storing water for use when it’s needed later by the crops it supports.

The idea is that, when properly maintained, soil can absorb water like a sponge, and it can also better hold onto water in dry periods. Among the benefits during hard rains: reduced runoff that otherwise can cause damaging erosion.

The Union of Concerned Scientists recently put out a publication that’s titled

Turning soils into sponges—How farmers can fight floods and droughts.”

Here’s a particularly revealing passage:  “Over the past several decades, agriculture has moved increasingly toward systems dominated by a few annual crops—typically corn and soybeans—often with fields left bare between growing seasons. This trend has degraded soil structure, leaving it less like a sponge and more like concrete, which exacerbates the damage done by floods and droughts. To combat these impacts, farmers have tried options such as investing in irrigation equipment or drainage systems. But these aren't always long-term solutions, and they can have damaging effects of their own.”

The Daily Yonder, a news and opinion platform, recently carried an article by Stateline, a unit of the Pew Charitable Trusts, that reported a surge in interest in new soil management methods:  “Just this year, 10 states have introduced new soil management policies that call for further research or data collection, or offer tax exemptions, technical assistance or even grant money to, among other actions, plant cover crops, diversify crop rotations and reduce tillage that can tear apart beneficial fungi.”

The implications extend beyond the farm to include climate change. Here are two explanatory pieces: A recent Newsweek article describes how climate change is degrading the ability of soils to absorb water. 

And The Climate Reality Project, an undertaking that was founded by former Vice President Al Gore, which published a report titled “Right Under Your Feet – Soil Health and the Climate Crisis.”

So, when you next look at the ground, don’t think of dirt — inert and vulnerable. Think of soil — a creative and productive substance that, properly cared for, can spare us a lot of woe.



Microplastics in the water


Science that’s put in service to commerce can sometimes bring troubles to waters.

 Decades ago, scientists at Procter & Gamble came up with a phenomenally successful detergent – the washday miracle “Tide” that lifted dirt off clothes in the washing machine and kept it off.

 Only later did the public discover that the phosphate components could harm rivers, lakes and ponds by nourishing algae that caused waters to stink, put rashes on swimmers, clog motorboat props and deprive fish of oxygen.

 It took fights in the halls of government lasting years, but governments got to banning phosphates from detergents. Algae blooms still happen, but not from clothes-washing.

 So, government action can successfully address contamination – but not always. Sometimes there has to be a corrective scientific step.

 Take PFOAs, the class of chemicals that go into a range of wondrous consumer goods such as non-stick cookware and also firefighting foams that effectively douse flames. Those chemicals have also been outlawed but there’s no solid agreement on how to get them out of the water (including drinking water) once they get in. Hence the disturbing nickname: the forever chemical.

 And now take microplastics, those tiny shards and tiny beads of plastic that wind up in oceans, lakes and rivers. They come from exfoliating soaps, beauty products, polyester clothes, discarded plastic cups, and such. Some of the junk winds up in the bellies of aquatic life – meaning, the food chain – and some winds up simply as floating garbage.

 In 2015 Congress passed a law that outlawed the sale of cosmetics that included microbeads, but the stuff remains in waters around the world to the consternation of clean-up experts

That’s worrisome because plastic pollution is seemingly everywhere, as documented by the USGS.

 The National Park Service has also weighed in with a report.

 The first message from all this is that we ought to stop the problem from getting worse by doing such things as improving recycling and discouraging the sales and marketing of single-use plastic products such as bottled water.

But what to do about all the plastic crud that’s in the oceans and lakes now?

There’s not been much good to report until this summer when an 18-year-old Irish lad won first place and $50,000 in a Google science fair by proposing to use a NASA-developed liquid to remove plastic particles from the water.

 Here’s the winning contest entry.

A PROMISING STEP! The winning teen concedes that there’s still a lot of work to do, but he’s got a start, by using science to do good to combat science that, so far as our waters are concerned, has done more than a little wrong.


The other dam-builders

There are two kinds of dam-builders – those that have two feet and those that have four. This report is about the four-footed ones.

Early after Europeans began populating North America beavers here went into decline thanks largely to fashion trends. Their fur was valued largely by hatmakers here and back in the Old Country.

There was also some culinary interest, the ultimate consequence being that the animal was almost entirely eradicated before animal protection and other conservation impulses turned things around in the 20th century – ultimately to the chagrin of settlers, roadbuilders and farmers whose own lives can be disrupted by ponds that show up where they aren’t planned.

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Then, too, beavers tend to spread water-borne diseases, principally giardiasis, a diarrheal affliction carried by microscopic parasites that live in their intestines. Hence the term “Beaver Fever.”

From these inconveniences has emerged an industry in how to control beavers. Search the Internet for “How to Control Beavers” and prepare yourself for a lot of reading and also lessons in how resilient these mammals can be.

A study in Tennessee found that after hundreds of beavers were removed from one wetland area, an equal number moved back in within two years. As for the idea of demolishing beaver dams, the animals are quick to rebuild.

Hence, a wide range of alternative steps, including habitat alteration (meaning, remove the kinds of trees that beavers like to eat), fencing, repellants, frightening devices (firecrackers and strobes), trapping and shooting.

I’m inclined to the non-lethal solutions, among them water flow control devices that consist largely of underwater pipes that people install inside beaver dams that drain beaver ponds without causing any tell-tale noise that can alert beavers to a leak that needs to be plugged. A widely referenced design is the Clemson Beaver Pond Leveler.

Another non-lethal device that I particularly like is the Beaver Deceiver, a fencing system that was invented in Vermont. The New Hampshire Department of Transportation recently approved the use of the device near a busy road where flooding’s been a problem

One of my principal findings while researching the book “Water Connections” is that water’s a place for inventive minds – whether in designing new hydropower technologies or water treatment methods or water-saving devices in household appliances.

Beavers can similarly get the creating juices flowing. So long as they are building dams and blocking culverts for their own purposes – and so long as we’re inclined to non-lethal responses --  there’ll be opportunity for invention.

Water and history

On July 26 author Jim Rousmaniere discussed water and history during a segment at Bookstock, an annual festival of writing in Woodstock, Vermont.

The presentation focused largely on events and developments in the Green Mountain state — including an unrealized New Deal plan from the 1930s that would have installed a great many multi-purpose dams in northern New England a la Tennessee Valley Authority, but the broader messages raised in the presentation can be applied to water beyond that state’s boundaries.

What not to flush


We toss all kinds of stuff down the toilet that we shouldn’t, causing cost, inconvenience and worse.

For example, unused pharmaceuticals. Not all that long ago Americans were instructed to flush unused prescription drugs down the toilet, only later to be told that pharmaceutical residues can wind up in somebody else’s water. The instruction now: dispose of old drugs another way.

Then there’s the trash that winds up clogging waste water pipes – sanitary napkins, needles, condoms, kitchen grease, food waste, supposedly degradable diapers, and, increasingly in recent years, heavily marketed wet wipes.

There’s a word for the clogs that all this flushed garbage winds up causing: “fatberg” – a term now so commonly accepted that in 2015 it was added to the Oxford Dictionaries Online.

The clogging problem was initially reported to be a particular bother in England where it was partly attributed to aging sewer pipes, but the situation apparently knows no boundaries.

In 2018 a fatberg measuring 11 feet wide, 200 feet long and 6 feet tall blocked a city sewer pipe in Detroit.  In Baltimore, a mammoth blockage of fats, wipes and other waste caused a spill of more than a million gallons of raw sewage. New York City, which spends a reported $19 million each year removing fatbergs, runs a public awareness campaign that says that only the following four items are suitable for toilets: pee, poop, puke and toilet paper.

Sanitary wipes, a relatively new consumer product, are a big part of the problem, and are a big focus of an organization called the International Water Services Flushibility Group. Last April Forbes magazine reported that Canadian researchers had studied 101 varieties of single-use wipes and found that not a one passed a flushibility test.

 Pressure’s been brought to bear on wipes makers, but public education is also getting a heavy focus – and occasionally in entertaining ways.

 Notably, the Singing Sewermen of Thames Water (London) have been putting their voices to the problem since 2009.

 The wastewater minstrels from Britain ultimately inspired a single in Keene, New Hampshire, where the energetic style of Bruce Springsteen finds an unusual expression. Listen up. “Pink Cadillac” will never be quite the the same.

For the sake of our water, get the message: Don’t flush that!



A fish passage story

Helping fish return to inland waters is no small thing. For many years – in some cases centuries – dams and culverts have blocked the passage of fish that live their entire lives in fresh water and also migrators such as salmon that move between salt and fresh waters.

During the last 30 years a lot has been done to open up streams and rivers, most dramatically in Washington state where private landowners have reportedly spent more than $300 million opening up more than 5,000 miles of fish habitat, and also where the state has been ordered by the courts to spend as much as $2.4 billion on new road culverts for the benefit of fish

Less widely known is a fish passage project in Maine that recalls the first documented protest of a dam in North America.

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The setting is the Presumpscot River, which flows to the sea. My book “Water Connections” describes a move in the 1730s by British Army colonel Thomas Westbrook to put the first dam in the river to power a mill.

A local Abenaki headman who’s identified in records as Chief Polin complained about the dam to colonial authorities in Boston.  His argument: the dam blocked passage of fish, which were his people’s principal food source

Chief Polin’s protest is eloquently described in a 2010 paper titled “The Reciprocity Principle and Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Understanding the Significance of Indigenous Protest on the Presumpscot River” by Lisa T. Brooks and Cassandra M. Brooks in the International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies.

Colonial authorities ordered Col. Westbrook to provide for fish passage, but he failed to comply. In time, more dams were built on the river, along with more encroachment on Native Americans’ lands – an intrusion that ultimately led to armed conflict.

In 1756, while leading a raiding party down the river, Chief Polin was shot and killed. Still more dams were built, and eventually European settlers began complaining about how those dams were blocking fish migrations. But little came of those complaints until the 1990s when environmentalists began making noise.

It took decades, but eventually the noise caused dams to crumble. Three weeks ago, the owners of old mill dams on the Presumpscot River in the town of Westbrook, Maine, began dismantling the structures – a step that sent water flowing freely over the Upper Saccarappa Falls for the first time in centuries.

Next comes the construction of a ladder-like fish passage system.

There are limits to what people expect will happen regarding fish movements. Salmon haven’t been returning to other Maine rivers where dams have been taken down, but herring, shad and shortnose sturgeon have been showing up in greater numbers.

The dam alterations on the Presumpscot had the force of a court ruling behind them. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state’s requirements for fish passage and minimum water flow standards around the Presumpscot River dams.

And for years the non-profit Friends of the Presumpscot River, among other groups, campaigned for fish passage.

Meanwhile, in a fitting move a year ago, the Friends group announced a fund drive to build a monument to Chief Polin – appropriately in Westbook, the community named after the British colonel who built the first mill dam on the river 250 years ago.

Of the dam removal, Michael Shaughnessy, president of the Friends of the Presumpscot River, is quoted by the Portland Press-Herald as saying, “We always felt like we were picking up the mantle of Chief Polin, so I think he is smiling now.”

Rain gardens make sense

It’s startling news to many people that the main source of water quality problems in the United States today isn’t factory waste or sewage leaks or any of the other usual suspects but instead runoff of rain.

Picture it: stormwaters that wash over pavement and front yards and farmland, picking up chemicals and crud such as pet waste along the way, ultimately washing into streams and ponds.

Increasingly the word is getting out about the polluting potential of rain runoff, not to mention the flooding potential – thanks in part to public education campaigns.


The timing is good, because rains have been getting harder, particularly in the Northeast, and are projected to get worse in a changing climate.

The other day I took in a rain garden workshop in Keene, New Hampshire that showed about 30 homeowners how to cut rain runoff from their properties by creating spaces on the lawn that that suck up rain and rain runoff, and then help it settle into the ground.

The venue was Antioch New England Graduate School – an innovative center of higher learning that’s long been known for its environmental concerns and community engagement. The other sponsoring parties were the Keene Public Library (an institution that’s previously shown that libraries are about more than books) and the Cheshire County Conservation District, which among other activities sponsors a region-wide gardening-education program called “Monadnock Grows Together.

The presenter was a representative of Soak up the Rain, a state-run and federally funded rain garden education outfit.

The setting was right. Antioch’s campus sports a mature rain garden whose varieties of vegetation help cleanse runoff of chemical pollutants as rain soaks into the ground. Keene’s public library also has a rain. Garden, as do half-a-dozen other public places in Keene.

Building a rain garden involves more than digging a hole in the ground and filling it with loam, as this how-to from the Winooski Natural Resources Conservation District in Vermont makes clear.

Likewise this manual from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

In fact, while rain garden concepts are pretty straightforward, it takes a trained eye to strategically locate the right place and then make the land ready – a job that can require a bit of muscle and fortitude in occasionally rocky regions for which New England is known.

Lisa Loosigian, the principal presenter at the workshop who works for the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, said, “We’ve put in rain gardens where we’ve had to hire an excavator!”

The effect, in the end, can be quite striking, not only in controlling local flooding but in enriching otherwise monotonous lawns with plantations of shrubs and flowers. Take a look.

Pipes under the road

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As Congress and the White House go back and forth (or nowhere) on infrastructure spending, our attention goes mostly to things that we can see: highways, bridges, dams and so on.

But there’s also reason to look beneath our feet to the condition of infrastructure down there. By this I mean pipes that deliver stream waters and stormwaters from one side of a road to the other.

There are several reasons to check out the condition of these pipes, which are commonly called culverts.

For one, many of them have been in service long enough to need patching up or replacement lest they crumble or get washed away when the next big storm hits. That’s particularly worrisome when it comes to culverts beneath heavily travelled Interstates where the costs of repair and interrupted commercial traffic can run many hundreds of thousands of dollars.

For another, the frequency and magnitude of hard storms is rising, particularly in the Northeast. That means that the 18-inch culvert that worked perfectly well 30 years ago might not be big enough to handle the next big rain today.

Finally, most of these pipes – there are literally millions of them – were installed long before our environmental sensitivities got us worrying about the impact of culvert design on the health of streams and the animals that live in them. (The accompanying image is a clear example; no fish or turtle is going to make it through that pipe !)

In short, there’s more to these lowly pipes than you might think, and that helps explain why you’re beginning to seeing more headlines about them.

Headlines such as:

The Economic Costs of Culvert Failures , a report that documents how the economic disruption from a culvert failure, including rerouted commercial traffic, can exceed the cost of actual culvert infrastructure damage.

Swanzey brook restoration project aids fish habitat, helps to mitigate flooding, a report in The Keene (NH) Sentinel about a culvert conversion project that involved a collaboration of different groups

Culvert Crisis in Berrien County, A news article about a culvert replacement project that was published in The Herald-Palladium of St. Joseph, Missouri |

 Repairing New Hampshire’s at-risk culverts, a report on the subject on New Hampshire Public Radio

So, when and if Congress and the administration get down to serious talks about spending on infrastructure, look not only to how much money will be set aside for fixing roads, treatment plants, dams and bridges. Look also to how much goes into fixing and upgrading those pipes the run beneath roads.


Chemical contamination

Americans owe a lot to chemistry for what it’s brought to medical treatment and the invention of wondrous consumer products.

But not all chemical advances have been entirely beneficial. For example, the addition of phosphates to detergents in the 1940s led to good washes – yes – but also the pollution and spoilage of lakes. In more recent years, the addition of a particular gasoline additive to reduce air pollution – MTBE – led to contaminations of well water.

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Those problems were eventually pretty much reined in by court verdicts, financial settlements, new laws and government regulations.

But chemistry continues to surprise with unintended consequences, lately including a class of chemicals that’s generally called PFAS that have gotten into drinking water. The compounds have been used in the making of such varied products as non-stick cookware and firefighting foam.

Use of PFAS by manufacturers ended more than a decade ago when pollution worries began to mount. But the extent of contamination is still being discovered, even as long-term health effects are still being gauged. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the substance fouls drinking water in 43 states, subjecting millions of people to heightened risks of cancer, infertility and cholesterol problems.

The situation is very much current news in my state of New Hampshire. Here’s some background.

Two months ago, the state government filed suits against PFAS makers and the producers of fire-fighting foam. The actions are unusual because, unlike litigation in other parts of the country that sought (and won) substantial payments to remediate and otherwise clean up specific sites, the New Hampshire suits seek compensation for statewide contamination.

Here’s one compliant. Here’s the other.    No specific dollar figure is named in the suits, but, if they lead to any settlements or court judgments, financial penalties could be big. Several years ago New Hampshire won a court judgment against Exxon-Mobil for contamination of well water by MTBE that approached half-a-billion dollars.

Meanwhile, next week New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services will be looking for legislative approval to impose new restrictive limits on PFAS contamination of drinking water.

The makers and users of PFAS say the state is going overboard. Said a spokesman for DuPont, one of the named producers, “We will vigorously defend our record of safety, health and environmental stewardship.”

However these events turn out, one lesson is clear: Americans know little about the long-term health effects of new chemicals that are being put to use every day and, in disturbing fashion, winding up in their water.

Fresh water beneath the sea

It’s long been known that water is a finite resource — a harsh reality on a planet where human populations are on a constant rise.


Now it appears that the supply of water is far greater than previously thought. A report coming out last month describes the discovery of a massive body of mostly fresh water beneath the ocean off the eastern coast of the United States.

The discovery of the undersea lake – which the journal Scientific Reports says could be as large as 15,000 square miles, almost the size of Lake Huron, one of North America’s five Great Lakes – isn’t entirely new to scientists.

Ever since offshore oil drillers picked up pockets of fresh water off the coastline in the 1970s, there’s been awareness of some water trapped in  porous undersea structures 75 miles off the shores of Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey.

But the magnificent size of the aquifer 1,000 feet below the ocean floor is new information.

The huge lake of water off the East Coast is believed to be a remnant of the Ice Age, and experts believe that runoff from land might also be a source.

The discovery sheds important new light on the function of aquifers.

The finding might also prompt serious new thinking about groundwater and its perilous condition in an ever-changing world.

The finding is fueling thoughts that there could be other such undersea supplies in other parts of the world – and in that a possible solution to water fresh water shortages that have been the bane of millions of people.

One’s first thought reasonably goes to how all that water can be accessed. Let there be an accompanying thought about what sorts of environmental effect(s) might result.

The future of an old dam

By one estimate there as many as two million dams in the United States. They were built for water power, flood control, public water supply or irrigation and in some cases multiple purposes.

This blog posting is about those older dams that are no longer doing their original jobs of providing industrial power. I recently had an awakening about what to do with one of these ancient structures.

The dam in question spans the Ashuelot River as it flows south through Keene, New Hampshire to meet the Connecticut River.

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Alternately called the West Street Dam and the Ashuelot River Dam, it provided the source of power for the milling of lumber and the production of textiles in the Faulkner & Colony Mill in Keene beginning in the 19th century.

The dam, made of stone, is 160 feet wide and about 16 feet high. It stopped sending water to turbines long ago. The mill itself was shuttered in 1954, and in the 1980s its handsome brick buildings were repurposed as a shopping mall; the buildings are currently undergoing another repurposing to office and residential condominiums.

Today the dam and the smallish impoundment behind it are surrounded by parkland that resulted from an energetic fund-raising campaign a couple of decades ago. It’s a place for picnics, an annual art festival, gentle hiking and photo shoots for high school proms.

In 2011, citing concerns about the dam’s stability, the New Hampshire state government ordered the city of Keene, which owns the structure, to either fix it up or take it down.

Not long afterwards, a group of local green-leaning citizens proposed to bring hydro back to the dam by installing two turbines. They had a plan: The operation would be mainly educational since the estimated output would be sufficient to serve only about three dozen homes. Eventually the group lost interest.

The city, then, was left with what to do about the dam. Several weeks ago, it organized a public discussion through the services of the Rhode Island School of Design. The Providence-based institution not long ago shared in a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to help communities decide what to do with out-of-service dams or dams that were undergoing relicensing as they balanced such concerns as historic preservation, fish passage, safety and renewable energy production

I attended the session in Keene, where I participated in a small-group discussion around a table.

At the outset, when asked about my preference and priorities, I unhesitatingly said “historic preservation.” The dam, I said, represented a daily visual reminder of our water-powered industrial heritage, and therefore should be restored and kept in place

Forty-five minutes later, following an illustrated presentation about various options that included demolition, restoration and provisions for fish passage, I was asked again about my preference. I replied, to my surprise: take the thing down.

The difference resulted from several reflections, including but not limited to:

(1) Restoration and continued maintenance of the dam could involve serious taxpayer money forever;

(2) Humans have an historical claim on the river, but fish have an earlier claim that, if the dam were to remain standing, would involve the construction of expensive fish passage structures that one way or the other would deface the dam or render it invisible;

(3) Demolition of the span of the dam could leave visual mementos in substantial parts of the bulwarks on both sides of the river;

(4) Public education about the dam and its place in local history could possibly be conveyed in new ways that incorporate new methods and approaches.

It might well be that the city of Keene ultimately settles on a decision that’s different from mine. I won’t complain. Over the years this community has shown a remarkable sensitivity to environmental and historical matters; its decisions commonly reflect a lot of thought.

That inclination is infectious. I’m now thinking freshly about how we remember and honor our history, all the way down to what’s happened in a river over the years. What would you do?

Citizen action

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We look out for our rivers, streams and lakes through laws. To a remarkable extent we also look out for our waters through organized citizen action.

By one estimate there are as many as 6,000 nonprofit lake associations, river councils and watershed coalitions in the United States that campaign to conserve watershed lands and lobby to take down dams that block the passage of fish; their volunteers also haul trash out of rivers and test the quality of local waters.

All this action, which also includes the advocacy and clean-water campaigns of national groups such as the Izaak Walton League and Trout Unlimited and American Rivers, comes at a time when Americans are said to be receding from public life – not joining the PTA or running for local office, for example.

Evidently, inland waters have a different pull.

For example: 

In Central Maine members of the nonprofit Friends of the Cobbossee Watershed campaign to teach waterside property owners what they can do to prevent run-off into streams and ponds.

Since 2003 volunteers from the Shadow Lake Association in northern Vermont have been washing down trailered boats with 140-degree water to keep invasive weeds out of the lake.

In 2005, alarmed about polluting run-off, a group of residents in southern Connecticut formed a group they called Save the River Save the Hills to protect local waters from contamination. Among other things, the 400-member organization runs a boat pump-out station that annually keeps 6,000 gallons of sewage from getting into the water. 

 In 2014 the Ashuelot River Local Advisory Committee in southwestern New Hampshire organized more than 100 college students to pull 1,800 pounds of trash from local waters.

This inclination to citizen action is apparently in our DNA. Here’s how Alexis de Tocqueville saw it during his inspection tour of the American scene in 1835 when he came upon countless volunteers getting together in citizen associations for the common good:

“Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.

“In America I encountered sorts of associations of which, I confess, I had no idea, and I often admired the infinite art with which the inhabitants of the United States managed to fix a common goal to the efforts of many men and to get them to advance to it freely.”

No doubt there’s a river council or lake association near where you live. And no doubt there’s a place for you in their ranks.

Water and climate

 Climate change is commonly described as having a coastal consequence, namely rising sea levels.

But there are impacts on and around inland waters, too. Among other things, they include where rain falls, when it falls and how hard it falls – variables that bring floods, droughts and all their associated costs and disruptions.

In the Northeast, where much of my fieldwork has taken place, the frequency of extreme weather events is up, as illustrated in the accompanying photo that was shot not far from where I live in New Hampshire.

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Heavy rains that carve roads to pieces, sweep away bridges and damage culverts aren’t the only disruptions that are tied to a changing climate, however.

Ice-outs on lakes in the region are occurring earlier, shortening the seasons for recreation industries such as ice-fishing. The phenomenon is widespread; earlier this year The New York Times reported that thousands of northern lakes across the globe that previously iced up are going ice-free through winters.

Meanwhile, rising temperatures are affecting what lives in rivers and lakes,since some fish prefer cold waters and others prefer warm.

Even if you aren’t into fishing, I recommend this recent study of salmon and climate change by a Copenhagen for its easy-to-digest report on the many ways that changes in temperature can affect a single species of fish that migrates between marine waters and freshwater streams –  changes to how they migrate, when they spawn, what they eat, what infects them, and what preys on them.

That report leaves unanswered some questions regarding climate change on fish life. There are knowledge gaps that need to be filled, and that shortcoming isn’t likely limited to impacts of rising temperatures on fish.

Still, in some quarters, enough is known about climate change and water to stake out hard positions.  But even among those who value science and scientific inquiry, differences can exist.

Consider, for example, the subject of dams.

International Rivers, a California-based research and advocacy group, argues that dams – particularly large dams – are part of the climate change problem and should be taken down. “River-wrecking dams are the wrong choice for a warming world,” the organization says, partly for the greenhouse gasses that they produce.

From the precisely opposite side is the argument that the storage capacity of large dams is what, in fact, is needed to assure adequate water supplies in a period of rainfall instability. The argument is made in a paper published in the Journal of Hydrology.

Bottom line: The subject of climate change and water isn’t only about sea levels rising; it’s about a great many dimensions of Nature, and it’s also about us.

Water as a battery

Water’s a substance of many uses. We use it to irrigate gardens, boil potatoes, bathe the dog, wash the car, put out fires, swim in, fish in and generate power. Add to the list: act as a battery.

We store energy with compressed air, flywheels, electrochemical capacitors and lead or lithium batteries, but none of these technologies does the job in such volume in the United States as pumped storage.

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It works this way: water’s sucked out of a river or a lake and pumped up to a reservoir, where the water sits until a certain moment when this same water is sent rushing back down the same pipes through which it came where it turns turbines.

The energy storage part of this equation is the lake at the top, to be drained only when the marketplace needs more electricity.

There are about 40 pumped storage plants in the nation today, and more coming. The industry behind them is facing two big changes – one involving the electricity that pumps water up to the elevated reservoir and the other involving environmental sensitivities about where the water comes from.

More than a few pumped storage plants were built decades ago when nuclear power plants first went into service. Nuclear power plants, like coal-fired power plants, run steadily day and night, leaving the question what to do with all their output when market demand for power is slack, say at 2 o’clock in the morning?

Answer: use the excess electricity at that hour to pump water from down below to up above. Later, when factories are running and people are up and demand for power is peaking, release the water in the elevated reservoir to generate electricity for the marketplace.

It’s a supply-and-demand economic equation: electricity is way cheaper at 2 a.m. when it’s purchased to run the pumps than it is at 2 p.m. when demand for electricity is high and pumped-storage operators can charge high prices.

What happens, then, when the source of electricity to power the pumps changes, as it has been happening when nuclear power plants with their steady production shut down and electricity increasingly comes from intermittent producers such as solar and wind? How might that change affect the daily operations of these plants?

The second big change has to do with where the water for pumped storage comes from. All 40 plants in the United States today suck water out of rivers or lakes that are fed by rivers. That means that the water level in those sources can rise and fall by many feet over the course of a day.

Who cares about that? Answer: Most people who care about fish life and riverbank erosion. They say that pumped storage operators are harming the environment by constantly sucking water out of rivers and later shooting it back in.

In response, the industry is increasingly looking at what are called “closed loop” systems in which water simply recycles between a contained lower reservoir and a contained upper reservoir, meaning no intrusion on the flow of rivers or river-fed lakes. In some parts of the country pumped storage promoters are looking at filling up abandoned coal mines with water to use as reservoirs.

That would be an interesting and pleasing turn of events – using the remnants of a polluting fossil-fuel operation to sustain the operations of a renewable-energy generation.

More on the topic:

Energy Storage Association

Energy Storage News

Subsurface pumped storage projects

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licensing

A study of environmental impacts of pumped storage

Studying water

 Among our many fascinating activities around water is all the research that we put into it.

We study the science of water treatment. We examine how streams relate to their surroundings. We investigate how aquatic organisms respond to chemical pollutants. We analyze the environmental impact of increasingly hard rains.

A particularly impressive player is the Water Research Foundation, a not-for-profit outfit in Colorado that serves water utilities and manufacturers.

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Since 1966 the organization has directed more than $700 million to scientific studies of drinking water, wastewater, the reuse of water, lead in the water, and so on.

The range of research topics runs wide, but one of the more interesting recent developments in water research isn’t about the subject of study but the method of it. The innovation involves the pooling of research from different places. It’s network science.

A striking example is the Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network – GLEON for short – that remotely collects data from more than 100 buoys on lakes in six continents. The buoys send information into a shared body of knowledge about such things as how winds can variously roil the waters of deep lakes, shallow lakes, big lakes and small lakes.

One early GLEON participant was the Lake Sunapee Protective Association, a member-supported nonprofit that since 1898 has been looking out for the lake – a 6.5 square mile vacationer’s paradise in western New Hampshire. Its buoy is the one pictured with this post.

The buoy collects data every 10 minutes around the clock on such subjects as air temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity, sunlight energy, water temperature at various depths, water conductivity, chlorophyll, and dissolved oxygen in the water.

The data is accessible by researchers anywhere. And also, promisingly, the data is also of use to a student group whose leaders – profiled in a recent blog posting -- might well be important contributors to water science down the line.

The book arrives!


I’m very happy to report that the book has arrived!

 It’s Water Connections – now available at the click of a link to the publishers.

 And see what people are saying!

Physically the book arrived from Versa Press, Inc., a printer in Peoria, Illinois.  But in fact Water Connections arrived from multiple places. Such is the nature of a book.

The introduction says that Water Connections got its start in 2012 when I went looking into how watershed protections around two drinking water reservoirs and a federal flood control dam had helped keep my tiny town of Roxbury, New Hampshire permanently green.

That inquiry was for a short article for the town’s bicentennial booklet. But I stayed with the subject afterwards to scout out other ways that water has influenced human society; I looked into water power, floods and flood control, pollution, water technology, water terrorism and so on.

So, it would also be fair to say that Water Connections arrived from the water’s edge.

But philosophically there was yet another point of origin. It was a high school classroom in Keene, New Hampshire about 15 years ago.

The occasion was a writing project for American Studies students that entailed getting the students (they were juniors) out of the classroom and into the community to research and write about local aspects of the built and unbuilt environment.

At the time I was editor of the local daily newspaper, and I agreed to print the best essays in the paper after they’d been edited by a group of collaborators principally from Antioch New England Graduate School and the Historical Society of Cheshire County, both in Keene, and the Monadnock Institute of Nature, Place and Culture at Franklin Pierce University in nearby Rindge.

The students picked all sorts of topics – a statue, a pond, a park, an abandoned mansion, etc. -- as the writing project continued over the course of three years. The first year we asked the students to pick a name for the project. They came up with “Tracing Places in the Monadnock Region.”

The name resonated. Academically, the project fell under the umbrella of what’s called “place-based education” – a practice that immerses students in their community surroundings.

I have friends who are at the forefront of this discipline, some of whom are associated with a master’s degree program at Antioch university in Keene.

The underlying idea is that we become better citizens if we understand our surroundings, and what better way to improve that understanding than to get out of the classroom and into the real world.

Back to the first words of this blog post. They were about where Water Connections came from. You could safely say that some of Water Connections arrived from an educational innovation that had nothing explicitly to do with water at all. The innovation had to do with becoming aware of – and actively interested in – your surroundings.

Make sense? Now, about that river that you cross on the way to work every day…


Water personhood

 In all the readings that helped inform “Water Connections,” one of the more interesting included a statement by a Native American headman who lived along the Presumpscot River in Maine.

The setting was a hearing before British authorities in Boston in 1739. The headman, who is identified in the transcript simply as Chief Polin, had traveled to Boston to complain about a water power dam that had been built on the river that blocked the passage of migrating fish.


It was the first documented dispute regarding a dam in North America.

Here’s how the chief introduced his complaint:  “I have something to say concerning the river which I belong to. It is barred over in sundry places…”

That he would “belong to” a river shed important light on indigenous thinking. A European would say that the river belongs to humans, not the other way around; a European would say that a river is an object to be used.

This story is all the more interesting today due to some relatively new thinking about the status of rivers and other water bodies.  In this new thinking, rivers and lakes are people, and therefore are due the legal rights and protections of persons.

Interest in formally assigning personhood to water bodies is growing around the world. Among others, scholars at Yale have stayed on top of the movement.

 Here’s more from the American Indian Law Review.

 The move toward assigning rights to rivers isn’t limited to any one country. The Christian Science Monitor recently reprinted an account of water personhood in New Zealand and Ecuador.

The point of all this is to grant water bodies (and their designated representatives) legal standing to pursue claims against polluters and challenge plans to build dams on rivers.

The reasoning behind this rights-of-nature movement is that, if corporations in the United States can have personhood status, why not water bodies?

 Earlier this year voters in Toledo, Ohio passed the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. The action is being challenged in court by people who fear the consequences including farmers whose fertilizer run-off has been blamed for recent massive algae blooms in the lake. What would Chief Polin say to all this? I suspect that that he’d say, “About time!”

Staying on top of water

 Safe water doesn’t come easy.  How else to explain the crowds at an annual conference about what it takes to assure clean drinking water?

Each spring upwards of 200 water works superintendents, well water managers, hydrology consultants, emergency management directors, conservation commission people, teachers and federal and state experts from around New England show up to talk safe water in Concord, NH.

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The setting is the annual Drinking Water Source Protection Conference put on by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services and the Concord-based American Ground Water Trust, a nonprofit with a national reach that aims to supply independent scientific perspectives on such issues as contamination.

Here’s a sampling of workshop topics at the next session, which is slated for May 16:

  •  A report about a new program that samples 500 wells in New Hampshire for more than 100 potentially harmful chemicals.

  • A presentation about a new approach to reduce in-lake loading of phosphorous, thereby reducing cyanobacteria blooms.

  • A discussion about emergency planning for when something goes wrong with a local public water supply.

  • Updates on steps to conserve land in watersheds around public water supplies.

I’ve attended more than a few of these Source Protection conferences, and I can report that the educational benefit isn’t limited to the workshops and speeches. I’ve picked up more than a few insights about water supplies at the coffee breaks and lunch sessions just by talking to other attendees.

Despite all the threats to water that come up in the formal and informal settings, the conference has an upbeat feel. It’s about solutions as much as it’s about problems; it’s about people staying on top of an immensely important topic. It’s a credit to the sponsors for putting on the show.

Floods and flood damage

This year’s devastating floods in the Midwest, followed by predictions that 25 states will see flooding through May bring to mind an oft-quoted statement by Gilbert White, a prominent geographer in Chicago in the 1930s who wrote that “floods are acts of God, but flood losses are acts of man.”

Based on recent news reports, the Creator has been busy: heavy rains last summer, frozen ground last winter and big snowmelt this spring have filled rivers to bursting.

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At the same time, humans have lent a hand, according to a study of climate change by Yale.

As for damage from floods, White was right to blame humans. We’ve built homes too close to rivers, exposing them to danger. We’ve paved over floodplains and drained wetlands for various purposes, one effect of which has been to prevent rain from soaking into the ground and instead wash into streams and rivers – ultimately to channel stormwaters downstream to do damage there.

In the course of researching “Water Connections,” I came upon all sorts of ways that humans have invited floods. One of the more fascinating discoveries was an advertisement in American Farmer magazine in 1935 by E.I. duPont de Nemours, the chemical company, for a 48-page book  that was titled “Ditching with Dynamite.” Here was the pitch:

“Crooked streams are a menace to life and crops in the areas bordering their banks. The twisting and turning of the channel retards the flow and reduces the capacity of the stream to handle large volumes of water. Floods result. Crops are ruined. Lives are lost. Banks are undermined, causing cave-ins that steal valuable acreage… Dynamite may be used most effectively in taking out the kinks in a crooked stream.”

Most hydrologists and flood experts know that straightening a stream in one place merely speeds up the flow of water downstream to wash out roads, soak homes, and lift bridges off their footings. Meandering streams, on the other hand, check the rush of stormwaters. And floodplains, if they aren’t paved over, soak up floodwaters and then gradually release them later on, effectively checking the blunt force and effects of floods.

This fact – that, left to themselves, rivers and surrounding floodplains can handle heavy rains and snowmelt quite well – has been known for some time by some people, notably Paul Sears, an ecologist in the 1950s who chaired one of the country’s first graduate programs in conservation, at Yale.

In 1955 he presented an ambitiously titled paper at an international symposium in Princeton, N.J. -- “Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth” – that contained the following passage:

“Far greater funds are expended upon efforts to control flood after water has reached the river channels than are devoted to securing proper land use on the tributary uplands to retain the water where it falls. This is an interesting aspect of a technological culture where emphasis is on engineering rather than on biological controls.”

The floods this year may cause some people to go looking into what Professor Sears had to say, and then adjust their laws and flood-control practices accordingly.