How safe is safe enough?

November 20, 2009

  

We don’t do very well at dealing with risk and uncertainty. Maybe because it’s so darn scary!  Risk means danger, and uncertainty only adds to our fear, even if the risk, as a quantitative value, is very small!  Here we have an example of small risks attacked with big solutions that cost lots of money!

The marvelous water supply system of New York City brings some of the best tasting and safest drinking water in the world to nine million people, mostly in the city’s five boroughs.  It directs nearly 1.5 billion gallons per day (bgd) from a reservoirs system in upstate New York,  90% of which from the Catskill-Delaware systems about 90 miles from Manhattan.  The City is now spending approximately $3 billion to build an ultraviolet disinfection plant for the water supply, and to build a cover over the Hillview Reservoir, one of the last holding points for the supply.  That’s a lot of money, even in NYC!  What are we getting for it?

Except for the 10% from the East-of-Hudson reservoirs just north of the city, the water is unfiltered.  It is of such high quality, and spends so much time in enormous reservoirs, that it does not require cleaning.  Cities that draw their water from the ground or from rivers, gaaaggg!, must carefully filter the water.  The water is disinfected with chlorine to kill harmful bugs (pathogens), like the ones that used to cause cholera and typhus epidemics.  The water is safe!  Why the UV plant?

With the advance of public health science, new “disease vectors” have been identified.  In water supply, the latest are cryptosporidium and giardia, two very tiny critters that can cause intestinal disorders in humans, and if the victims have compromised immune systems, possibly lead to death.  These bugs are not killed by chlorine, but people can protect themselves by drinking boiled water.  They are very rare in NYC water.  There has never been a documented outbreak of any public health risk in NYC due to these bugs.  They can be serious risk in many small and improperly run water suppliers, especially those in agricultural areas, where farm animals produce lots of manure with the bugs that may get washed into water supply areas.  UV sterilizes the tiny bugs, preventing them from reproducing, which is as good as killing them.  Nobody has found a good way to kill them, other than boiling them, which is obviously impractical for 1.5 bgd.

So, we are spending $1.4 billion on a UV plant to eliminate a bug that is rare and impossible to monitor, which has never caused a disease outbreak in NYC, and from which the few at higher risk can protect themselves by drinking boiled water?  There was a serious outbreak about ten years ago in Milwaukee, but that system had a malfunctioning filter (which would normally capture the bugs) and happened during an extreme weather event that would not have a similar effect on NYC’s huge system.  In addition, NYC has a strict watershed protection program in place, which is why the US EPA does not require it to filter most of its water. 

Well, if you were at risk, you would certainly want to have that UV plant online!  But then, looking at it from the public health perspective, $1.4 billion would buy an awful lot of work in preventing TB, AIDS, veneral disease, and other sourges that are killing people now.  What’s the cost-benefit?

The story with the cover is much the same.  Birds pooped in the reservoir, the presence of E coli bacteria spiked, the EPA noticed it in the report and ordered a cover.  The problem was pretty much eliminated with other programs to frighten away and discourage birds, change the way water was withdrawn, etc, but the ruling was kept in place.  No exceptions.  $1.6 billion to build a cover for a reservoir that will not appreciable improve the lives of anyone but engineers and contractors working on it. 

Ahhh…but we can all breathe so much easier, knowing that at least the risk has been reduced to nearly zero!

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Malthus on my mind

September 14, 2009

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It just so happens that I have been reading Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population these days – another one of those famous books that I’d never gotten around to.  And it just so happens that Norman Borlaug died yesterday.  And it just so happens that T. R. Malthus keeps coming up in discussion about consumption, scarcity, the environment, global warming, etc.  Consider this riposte by Paul Krugman regarding feedback on earlier post of his.  It’s all related.

Some would say that Borlaug, the Nobel Prize winner, showed Malthus the door when he ushered in the Green Revolution.  (He rejected that term, though.)  Food supply didn’t have to inevitably fall behind the growth of population.  Except that Borlaug remained worried about population growth throughout his life and feared that if the rate of increase wasn’t checked, his work would have done no more than bought a temporary reprieve from famine to the world.  Borlaug, who seems to have been a deeply compassionate and extremely sensible man (see this address) was also criticized by many for a narrow technocratic approach to the problem of feeding the world – Simple, we’ll breed more productive wheat! – understood the wider context within which agriculture sits.  He wasn’t trying to get the developing world hooked on Western fertilizer and seed products – he was trying to feed the world.  He regarded such critics as elitists who didn’t worry about where their next meal, or their family’s meal, was coming from.

Oh dear, so much comes together here, not the least of which is just how great those 18th century thinkers were.  Did Malthus forsee it all?  Now we associate him with Carlyle’s remark about economics being the dismal science:  nothing but famine, war and pestilence bring production and consumption into balance, that’s the future.  Dismal, yes, but that’s not what Carlyle was talking about anyway. And Malthus was just trying to introduce some hard nosed good sense into a discussion too much dominated by optimistic good feeling of people like Condorcet.  In situating ourselves within Nature, the universe, we have not advanced much beyond Rousseau and Voltaire’s argument of more than 200 years ago.

Krugman’s gripe was with people calling him a (neo) Malthusian when he rantedabout congressmen being treasonous to the planet and the sky falling and all that climate change stuff.  But he was way off base, as this commenter pointed out:

“[Krugman wrote] We only think Malthus got it wrong because the two centuries he was wrong about were the two centuries that followed the publication of his work.”

Only an economist could say that with a straight face.

Shorter version: “Malthus was wrong because his theory had zero predictive ability”.

Yes, I thought of that too.  If only Malthus had published his work in 1598, he would be looked upon as an undisputed master of analysis and prediction!   On the other hand, just this evening, here at a conference on water resources and climate change, a speaker remarked that maybe bringing the Green Revolution to India wasn’t such a “wise idea” because a significant consequence has been unregulated and unrestricted pumping of groundwater for irrigation, which is bringing the nation to the point of  massive water shortages.  Maybe Malthus should have written about water supply instead of grain supply, although it comes to the same thing in the end.

Or does it?  The same speaker said we should never underestimate our ability to adapt, an intellectual mistake that neo-Malthusians make a lot.


The facts come back to bite RFK…

June 16, 2009

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About a year ago, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. made some statements in an article in Vanity Fair magazine about energy, the economy, and the future of the world.  So many people make predictions, so few are checked.  In the excerpt below, he didn’t fortell – he just assumed the future would resemble the present and the past.  Such statements accumulate in the great dead-letter file of improbable prognostications in the sky .  I have highlighted a few statements that struck me as sadly, or amusingly, out-of-date given the news as it stands in June 2009.

Today, we don’t need to abolish carbon as an energy source in order to see its inefficiencies starkly, or to understand that this addiction is the principal drag on American capitalism. The evidence is before our eyes. The practice of borrowing a billion dollars each day to buy foreign oil has caused the American dollar to implode. More than a trillion dollars in annual subsidies to coal and oil producers have beggared a nation that four decades ago owned half the globe’s wealth. Carbon dependence has eroded our economic power, destroyed our moral authority, diminished our international influence and prestige, endangered our national security, and damaged our health and landscapes.  [I guess he saw the crash coming.  Forget about derivatives, it’s carbon’s fault.]   It is subverting everything we value.

We know that nations that “decarbonize” their economies reap immediate rewards. Sweden announced in 2006 the phaseout of all fossil fuels (and nuclear energy) by 2020. [Let’s take some bets on whether or not they will come close to this goal!]   In 1991 the Swedes enacted a carbon tax—now up to $150 a ton—and as a result thousands of entrepreneurs rushed to develop new ways of generating energy from wind, the sun, and the tides, and from woodchips, agricultural waste, and garbage. Growth rates climbed to upwards of three times those of the U.S.   Iceland was 80 percent dependent on imported coal and oil in the 1970s and was among the poorest economies in Europe.

Today, Iceland is 100 percent energy-independent, with 90 percent of the nation’s homes heated by geothermal and its remaining electrical needs met by hydro. The International Monetary Fund now ranks Iceland the fourth most affluent nation on earth. [Iceland is now bankrupt.  Affluent, perhaps, but not exactly a growth model to imitate closely.] The country, which previously had to beg for corporate investment, now has companies lined up to relocate there to take advantage of its low-cost clean energy.

It should come as no surprise that California, America’s most energy-efficient state, also possesses its strongest economy.  [I believe RFK is related somehow to the Governator, who could give him an earful.]


Nature’s soft passementerie

May 3, 2009

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Today, in rainy weather, I went for a walk in this nature preserve in my town, a scant 5 miles from Manhattan.  In the photo, it looks like a park with large soft lawns, but it’s actually a swampy marsh with a path constructed through it.  In the rain, I can see how the water fills the channels and where it flows, and the colors look soft and rich.  The birds act differently too.

The essence of a garden, or park, is the joining of the path and nature.  Nature has no paths; they are for man.  Of course, this area is “restored”, and has been much abused by man, and the path through it is carefully built, but still, one has the feeling, especially in the rain, of tramping through a place without humans.  Even though residential quarters are often only a few yards away!

Here are those soft passementeries I was thinking of.  Inviting us into it, to rummage and grope and get lost.  As in a woman’s closet of dresses.  Sloththrop gets lost in just this way with Katje, but he’s always getting lost…

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A profusion of leafy things, none of them with names that I know.

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The object of my walk.  I took a sample of the water for examination under the microscope.

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Et tu, Oxygen?

April 22, 2009

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…Or should that be “O – 2, Oxygen?” 

The EPA is set to receive comments on CO2 as a harmful pollutant, a major greenhouse gas.  Perhaps we should inititate a similar process for oxygen.  Consider this bill of particulars:

  • When inhaled in high concentrations, oxygen induces dizziness, light-headedness, dangerous behavior, and disorientation.
  • In the presence of materials containing carbon, oxygen is highly combustible, and can produce dangerous explosions.
  • Oxygen is responsible for widespread and continuous deterioration of important infrastructure through the process of rust and corrosion, often leading to failure and deaths. 

Silent Sea, Salton Sea

March 27, 2009

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When I was in school, I picked off the shelf a copy of Oriental Despotism:  A Comparative Study of Total Power by Karl Wittfogel and learned of his thesis, not widely shared today, that this sort of government has its foundation in something he called hydraualic civilization. These are societies that depend for their existence on huge, government directed irrigation works.  My imagination was set on fire by the notion of what I later termed “Hydrologic Radicalism.”

Today, this sort of radical engineering is not in favor, not after the disasters of the Aswan Dam, the killing and disappearing of the Aral Sea, and the use, re-use, and use-again of the Colorado River until the unfortunate Mexicans are left with only a salty, meagre trickle into the Gulf of Baja California where once a life-giving torrent flowed.  Treaty be damned!

My interest in Big Water, most familiar to the general public via Roman Polanski’s film “Chinatown,” led me to the Salton Sea.

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This enormous inland lake lies east of San Diego on the other side of some mountains the make that entire region a desert.  The Salton Sea submerged the Salton Sink, which was the lowest point in North America before that, a place of honor now held by Death Valley.  When I was a boy, the Sea was still a resort destination in the winter, a place for the Rat Pack glitterati to boat and fish and drink when they tired of nearby Palm Springs.  My interest in it was piqued recently when I read about Albert Frey, an architect who designed in the Desert Modern Style, and built the Salton Sea Yacht Club.

salton_sea_yachtThis modernist paradise has seen better days.  You can see a very nice val_kilmer_deborah_kara_unger_salton_sea_001assortment of ghost town photos of the area on flickr, here.  The decay of the area, precipitous since the 1970s, made it a good setting for the neo-noir film, “Salton Sea,” with Val Kilmer in the lead.  Vincent D’Onfronio plays a meth lab monster who lost his nose to drug snorting and earned the nickname, Pooh Bear.  He’s pretty creepy.

 

caljsiol_sio1ca175_113_017So how did this dead sea come to be?  The satellite image at the top tells the story.  The dense patchwork of rectangles at the north and south end of the Sea are irrigated agricultural fields.  The southern area is known as the Imperial Valley, one of the most productive industrial agricultural sites in the world.   Desert soil is often very rich growing material – to make it bloom, just add water.  Some real estate types had been eyeing the locale for decades when a successful canal building venture was finally launched, and settlers were drawn from across the world to settle and farm the valley.   In the course of building this Garden of Eden, there was a slight miscalculation regarding the construction of the hydraulic gates and barriers.

There was unusually high water in one of the tributaries, and the works failed.  Water will seek a low point, and the entire flow of the mighty Colorado River rushed in with a torrential vengeance.  The cascade created some low waterfalls which were washing away the soil “like powdered sugar,” and they began backcutting the stream bed at nearly a 4000 feet each day, i.e. , the falls were moving upstream at that rate.  Crowds turned out to watch this “cosmical plunge of a great river.”  Parallels to the Biblical Flood and the results of man’s hubris were on everyone’s lips.  The Sink was filling up at a rate of  a half-foot a day.  More than four times the volume of soil removed for the Panama Canal was washed away.  Radical, man!  You can read all about it in this paper I wrote for a master’s level class in geography.

When it was filled, everyone thought the Salton Sea would just evaporate away on its own, but it didn’t.  The drainage from the vast irrigated fields surrounding it, and from some springs to the north of it, kept it filled.  Someone had the bright idea in the 40s to turn it into a desert resort after WWII, and it flourished for a while.  Like the Dead Sea in Israel, however, it has no outlet, and stuff just accumulates in it over time.  This includes salt, fertilizer, pesticide, and other chemcials that feed algae and make life for fish unpleasant.  The large population of fish that grew from some initial stocks began to die off, and the Sea became the stinking stagnant mess it is today.  Plans are floated now and then to clean it up, but prospects are dim as it would be a very big and expensive job, with uncertain results.

Stop by sometime when you’re cruising through So. Cal. and you want to see and smell something different!

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