Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Atmospheric Rivers: How Urban Infrastructure Contributes to Weather's Desperate Measures

**Update: California has had record breaking rain and snow fall in the weeks after this article was originally written. NBC News did a short piece confirming that modern infrastructure wastes as much as 80% of the water Southern California receives in a year. These wasteful improvements were and continue to be promoted by the Amry Corp of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency. Protecting the environment is not the goal. Protecting economic development and wealth are.  Had California been set up to capture is rainfall instead of send it back to the oceans, its drought would have been over long ago and other states would not have had to give up water to support California. 


For all the hype, neither scientists nor journalists do a good job of explaining weather events. What they now label as an atmospheric river is not a new phenomenon but one that has been predictable and understood for centuries. With a bit of clear communication, this belief that the Earth's climate is changing might resolve itself in short order.

What is an Atmospheric River?

The jet stream (the way weather flows around the planet) has always moved along the same west-to-east path in the northern hemisphere. In like fashion, the southern hemisphere has a similar east-to-west flow.  Nothing has changed in that regard. 

What seems to have changed is the volume of water in the atmosphere, although concerns based on historic records is a bit dishonest since detailed records are rare and unverifiable. So if the jet stream has always been the train tracks for global water distribution, then what has change that requires such drastic action by current weather patterns.

At this point it is good to remember that those with the power to make great changes to the human experience rarely understand HOW their actions will impact the environment.  With only themselves to answer to, they assume their choices are safe and  effective for the planet.  Human initiated change is a much more likely culprit for causing drastic weather as we will see.

So What Has Change to Cause Atmospheric Rivers

Climate change anxiety is based on the premise that the environment is the same and only weather has changed. That is fundamentally false. Every scientific study or media report that compares similar historical numbers is breaking the first rule of Scientific Inquiry - Control all Variables. In other words make sure you are looking at the big picture instead of jumping to conclusions to get on the evening news or be more opular in the right political circles.

Think about it. A hundred and fifty years ago, all energy was based on the use of fossil fuel, now considered to be the cause of climate change. Does that make any sense at all?

There was no large scale use of electricity. Wind and water were only used for specific mechanical applications such as steam engines and gear-driven machinery.  ALL other energy used for heat, cook stoves and lights came from some form of carbon emitting fuel source.  If it didn't destroy the planet in the previous 5000 years of recorded history, why would it suddenly cause problems now? 

While the move to electricity is the primary environmental change that has occurred over the last 150 years, there are others that have also taken a toll as well.

For this post we will look at how improving urban life worked against Nature's way of hydrating a sustainable land mass.  Maybe then we can all see that a small change in our behavior can make a big change in planetary health.

Urban Infrastructure's Hidden Environmental Costs

Since California seems to be at the center of whether today's weather is normal or a sign of ecological disaster, we will use that location for this explanation. 

Certainly, the early days of San Diego and San Francisco had their challenges. The problem of too many people and not enough water has never been overcome. Sanitation is another ongoing challenge.  But, could this be a man-made problem and not a natural one? 

Back then, short  rain showers washed away the smell of animal waste and open sewers.  Ditches, cobble stone streets and brick or plank sidewalks allowed the rain to soak into the ground and do the job Nature intended.  Cisterns and rain barrels collected water for washing and other uses. Well water was used sparingly. All was good  until it wasn't.

With more people and heavier traffic, dirt roadways needed constant maintenance.  Paving stones and wood planks were used in some areas but eventually a mixture of tar and gravel offered a hard surface that was water resistant and durable. With public water, indoor plumbing and underground sewers soon to follow, water conservation was quickly passe. Now, concrete and asphalt separate rainfall from the ground it is supposed to reach.

But for all their efficiency, what these improvements did to the environment could not have been anticipated.  As California and other parts of the United States deal with strange weather and geological events, laying blame on carbon gases seems more finger pointing and desperation than scientific proof.  Isn't it time to fess up and admit mankind put comfort ahead of environmental protection.  Now with eight times the global population, nature simply cannot carry the burden of as urban locations make it harder.

Rainfall: The Unwanted Necessity

It has been a hundred years since California persuaded the Federal government it was economically necessary to take water from a river  approximately 300 miles away. The Federal government complied and built the Hoover Dam to solve California's water problem.  But what was California's water problem? Was it really a lack of rain or was it how they managed the rain they got. Now we do the math.

Here's how it works.  

For every inch that falls, 17.4 million gallons of water is distributed over each square mile of land (www,weather.gov). Happening over several hours, the process is very effective and without danger to property or life. Urban infrastructure, however, blocks such rainfall from getting to thirsty ground and instead sends it back to the oceans without much benefit.   Can this simple wasting of water REALLY make a difference to the environment? Obviously science does not think so or the Environmental Protection Agency would have banned it decades ago.

For the purpose of exploration, let's assume that California's cities send half of their annual rainfall back into storm drains and out to sea within a few hours of it falling. Exactly how much of an impact can there be?  Here's your answer.

*San Diego - With annual precipitation of about 10 inches, losing 5 inches would cost the city proper 87 million gallons per square mile. The city of SanDiego is 372 square miles in size so the amount of rainfall lost into the ocean in one year is approximately 32.4 BILLION gallons.  if you add a frugal 100 gallons of water per person per day to the flow, SanDiego flushes just less than 78 billion gallons of water back into the ocean each and every year.   That's enough water to provide each resident with half a million bottles of water annually. (please check the math because it seems a bit unrealistic to me too!)

* SanFrancisco City - Even though SanFransisco proper has a much smaller footprint and population, its annual rainfall amounts are 2.5 times that of SanDiego.  Annual rainfall loss would be 9.75 Billion gallons.  Daily wasted water at 100 gallons per resident would add another 30 billion gallons for total water loss of approximately 40 billion gallons or 3.3 million bottles of water per resident per year.  (again, feel free to check the math)

Certainly, these figures seem too large to be factual but this is simple math and not computer manipulated data.  Could these examples indicate that storm drains, sewers and erosion control, while an important part of urban growth, may be a contributor to the drought conditions that nag the state. Doesn't it seem that the discussion needs to turn towards civic responsibility for water management and away from current climate rhetoric that allows bad environmental habits to continue and fester? But then blaming a tiny molecule which can't defend itself does seem a good political maneuver to distract citizens from the truth.

Nature's Response

Divergent thinking always has value.  Let's look at this from Nature's perspective. If every coastal community in the world, unnaturally forces billions of gallons of water back into the seas could this explain why they appear to be rising even though the polar ice caps remain comfortably below freezing.  Can mankind not see that leadership's obsession with building an artificial lifestyle is at the heart of Nature's desperate measures to rehydrate every continent. 

The Threat of Old-School Infrastructure

At the beginning of this piece, we talked about what had changed in the world. For those not up on their history, it was called the Industrial Revolution and along with world wars and global economic woes, it has been 150 years of changing the environment to suit one species -- humans.  Now, we need to decide if we are smart enough to keep the lifestyle while adapting it to be environmentally friendly.

Unfortunately, President Biden, and several others before him, see infrastructure as being the same as what it was in the late 1800s.  Creativity, problem solving and forethought have no place where the economy makes the rules.  Perhaps the greatest gift the environment will get over the next two years is political gridlock. 

 Environmentally sound infrastructure is not hard. Consider these options, not just for coastal cities but for all communities. 

1. Recycle gray water (dirty water that has been used but not contaminated) by having property owners install drain fields or plumbing for washing cars, watering the lawn, etc. Why use potable water for anything but personal use and food. Change will also come faster if individuals take the lead rather than wait for decisions to be politically sanctioned.

2. Encourage plant growth from which water evaporates to increase humidity levels reduce atmospheric volatility. Air can only retain so much moisture. Dry air is a great place to dump huge amounts of water from the atmosphere.

3. Revert to septic tank use for new construction so that water is continually returned to the ground and underlying bedrock.

4. Use gray water for public use such as fighting fires, washing planes and runways, operating steam driven boilers and machinery.  Using potable water for such operations not only is expensive but questionable for the environment. Nature loves its dirt. 

That's enough thought for one day.  Look for some more postings to get politicians to think first and spend last.  Good luck Mr. McCarthy.