The contents of “Water Connections”


Chapter 1: The course of a stream — Following a flow of water from headwaters to the sea

Chapter 2:  A drink of water greens the land — How we save land around water…and what can come of that

Chapter 3: How an orchid stopped a river, and other stories — Law and the connection of water and land

Chapter 4: The control of water — What we’ve learned (and not learned) about changing the shape and structure of streams

Chapter 5: It gets in the water I — Counting the ways that pollution happens

Chapter 6: It gets in the water II — Water terrorism, wanton lawbreaking and the battles over fluoride

Chapter 7: The power of it —The remarkable evolution of hydropower

Chapter 8: Inventive minds — Innovation in the water world

Chapter 9: How four artists found their causes in water — In the footsteps of Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School

Chapter 10: Fish stories — Invasives, migrators and the human hand

 Chapter 11: The citizens — How ordinary people have made a difference around water

Chapter 12: Water connections — Conclusions, and the work ahead

Excerpt #1: Lessons from a storm (from Chapter 4)

In late August 2011 a furious storm howled up the full length of the East Coast and into the New England interior. The state of Vermont was especially hard hit. Floodwaters there damaged or destroyed hundreds of bridges, washed out roads, undercut railroad lines and battered or swept away 3,500 homes. A federal fish hatchery at the heart of a decades-long salmon-recovery effort was buried beneath mud and silt. Losses in that one rural state totaled hundreds of millions of dollars.

There were lessons from Tropical Storm Irene, the first being that some storms are far worse than others. Another was that nature, left on its own, can limit the damage from those storms.

Most of Vermont was rampaged by flood waters from the hard rains of Irene, but one town survived the storm remarkably untouched. The protection didn’t come from a particular dam or strategically located set of berms but rather something far more mundane. The town of Middlebury, population 6,500, owed its happy outcome to swamps.

If your image of a swamp is a place that’s wet, scrubby, tangled and no place for a picnic, you have a sense of much of the land just upstream of Middlebury by the side of Vermont’s longest river.

That river, Otter Creek, arrives at these swamps having gotten its start at the bottom of the state and then flowing generally north for about 100 miles, defining town boundaries along the way. The creek’s route takes it past the foothills of the Green Mountains, alternately flat and steep, then to Rutland, the state’s third largest city with 17,000 people, and after that it heads to the college town of Middlebury about 30 miles away. Rutland and Middlebury are located on the same river, but they experienced the rains from Tropical Storm Irene in radically different ways.

Consider the math. At the height of that storm Otter Creek and other streams carried 16,000 cubic feet of water per second through Rutland –- far above the normal seasonal flow and enough to paralyze parts of the city with record floods. Yet downstream in Middlebury the peak flow on this same river in the same storm was by one measure only 6,000 cubic feet per second, barely enough to interrupt the rhythm of life.

Why the difference? Answer: The Otter Creek swamps between the two towns where 1,000 acres of wetlands and unbuilt floodplains essentially sucked up the river’s overflowing waters like a sponge and then gradually released them over the following week; the peak flow of water in Middlebury happened a full six days after the peak in Rutland because the natural processing of floodwaters took that much time.

Several years after Tropical Storm Irene graduate students at the University of Vermont did a study of the economic impact of the wetlands upstream of Middlebury and concluded that they prevented $1.8 million in damages in just that one storm. And that was only the averted damage to homes and businesses; the calculations didn’t include what it might have taken to repair roads and bridges had the swamps not done their job.

All this put swamps in new light for me, having grown up picturing them as smelly insect-ridden places where one-eyed ogres lived –- not by any stretch of the imagination beneficial creations of nature.

There was one other surprising thing about the Otter Creek swamps, and that was that they existed at all in 2011.

From their earliest settlement days Vermonters routinely filled in swamps, wetlands and floodplains for ostensibly productive purposes. Upstream of Middlebury they’d drained some of the wetter areas and built earth berms to create new farmland and support commercial cultivation of cedar forests. Still, for whatever reason, most of those lands in and around those swamps had remained as nature had created them: soft.

Over the years Vermonters in other places had altered the shapes of streams and the lands around them. Upstream of Rutland, for example, they’d filled in floodplains to make room for development; they’d dredged the brooks and streams in the watershed and build berms to keep water off the land; they’d straightened rivers and pushed gravel up on the sides, one effect being to deliver the full force of any floodwaters downstream to the streets and homes and shops of Rutland. These practices, which occurred as recently as the 1970s, were widespread, leaving more than 70 percent of rivers in this one rural state unnaturally straight. There were reasons. Surveyors for roads and railroads that ran parallel to rivers preferred straight lines, not meandering routes. The people who floated logs to sawmills favored straight rivers, not curving ones where logs could easily jam. People who built their homes in low-lying areas near rivers liked their yards and basements dry.

The settlers and their successors used muscle, shovels and machines to cut off whole stretches of rivers from their surrounding floodplains. They had helpers, including the explosives department of E.I., du Pont de Nemours & Co., Inc., of Wilmington Delaware. In 1935 the company took out an advertisement in American Farmer magazine that pitched a 48-page book titled “Ditching with Dynamite” with the following instruction:

“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.”

 The blasting and digging and straightening of rivers in Vermont had consequences. Storm waters in straight and deep channels tend to flow faster than waters in meandering and shallow streams that can overflow onto surrounding lands; when stormwaters are confined to engineered channels they tend to hurtle downstream with force enough to take out the foundations of roads and lift whole bridges out of place —- just the sort of things that occurred during Tropical Storm Irene. No surprise to those who had done their reading and understood what Gilbert White, a prominent geographer in Chicago, had written more than 60 years earlier. “Floods are ‘acts of God’,” he wrote, “but flood losses are largely acts of man.”

Earlier than elsewhere, Vermonters began looking to nature to help avoid or minimize flood losses. Some of them were likely inspired  by Paul Sears, an ecologist who during the 1950s 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, New Jersey -- “Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth” -- that suggests that he might have a thing or two to say to the duPont explosives people:

 “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.”

 In time, the idea of keeping hands off nature began to make its way into government policy. In the 1990s Vermont’s state government began laying down rules against cutting off rivers from their floodplains; the rules said no to reshaping rivers and streams into rock-lined channels; better to let rivers occasionally soak into their floodplains.

But change can come hard. In the days immediately following Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 local officials in towns across Vermont sent in the bulldozers to clean out streams and rivers. They dug out streams to make them deeper, and in the process harvested gravel to use for road repairs. State regulators, cut off by the storm, were unable to stop the surgery. In a post-mortem, one state senator described Vermont as having been “a lawless state.” . . .

(c) Jim Rousmaniere 2018

Excerpt #2: A laundry idea (from Chapter 8)

In early 2014, three PhD students from Taiwan at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts joined up for a competition run by the school’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

The event was one of an expanding number of technology and entrepreneurship contests at MIT, the first of them going back 25 years and the biggest one handing out $200,000 to ground-breaking innovations in the clean energy field.

The materials science contest, which is underwritten by Dow Chemical Company and Saint-Gobain, the French construction materials giant, is unlike other MIT competitions in that it requires a prototype; other competitions are mainly structured around business plans that are pitched to judges posing as potential investors.

In the materials science contest the team of two women and one man looked first to the idea of capturing methane gas that’s produced by cows. The concept fit the competition’s focus on sustainability. Their idea involved installing the equivalent of a catalytic converter in buildings where livestock are kept and bottling their gasses in liquid form.

That didn’t last long. “We didn’t want to buy a cow,” joked Alina Rwei, a member of the team whose graduate work was in polymer science.

The students shifted their attention to waste and efficiency in the use of water, a subject about which they had some familiarity back home where people and businesses in some regions have to cut back on water use during parts of the year.

Sasha Huang, whose field was materials science, didn’t come from one of those periodically water-short regions, but her household is conservation-minded anyway. Bathwater is saved and put to secondary uses such as flushing toilets and watering plants. “Instead of a single use, we should be able to use water multiple times and in a more efficient way,” she explained. “I would say that this does affect how I think about water.”

As they examined the use of water in households, the three team members got to thinking about water as an agent -- a vehicle, a carrier of soap –- at which point they spotted an opening. Most of the soap and all of the water that runs into dishwashers and washing machines comes out as waste. The challenge: could any of that water and accompanying unused detergent be recycled for another run through the washing machine?

The challenge was to pull dirt and grease from water before sending the water back for another cycle. The subject apparently hadn’t been examined before. “Laundry is not well understood,” said team member Chris Lai, who was in chemical engineering. “We were going into a field that was unseen by the scientific community.”

Lai and his colleagues came up with a filtering system that, when attached to a washing machine, can recycle 95 percent of the initial supply of water and detergent. Their math was appealing. By their calculations, it would cost approximately $52,000 to outfit a laundry in a 500-room hotel with a filtering and recycling device; the savings in water and detergent would pay for the investment in less than seven months.

In September of 2014 the team submitted its idea, now named AquaFresco, to MIT’s materials science contest. It won the $10,000 top prize. Half-a-year later AquaFresco took third place and $3,000 in a water innovation competition at MIT, finishing behind a system that remotely checks up on the performance of water wells in jungle settings and an in-home desalination device for application in India.

AquaFresco still has work ahead, starting with finding a hotel to test out its idea. And the students face still more research and testing to try out other possibilities such as helping factories and car washes recycle the water they use.

Of the students’ innovation, Mike Tarkanian, an MIT instructor who oversees the materials engineering competition, said, “The value is there, for sure.”

It most surely is, given recent water shortages throughout the country. More than just practical, the design is financially appealing for its reduced use of water as rates rise partly to repair old pipes that have been leaking water long enough.

Here, then, is where AquaFresco makes its mark: Unlike innovations that increase the supply of usable water –- inventions that harvest water from fog, that draw drinking water out of sewage, that remove salt from water, and so on -- AquaFresco aims to cut the amount of water that consumers use and, by extension, the volume of water that cities spend money to provide….

(c) Jim Rousmaniere 2018