Posted by: waterworks | October 14, 2008

39. Are You Resilient? (3)

Technology is capricious.  It helps humanity take one step towards tackling flooding before promptly upping the ante on the value of what will be lost if the levee breaks. In an attempt to reduce losses, we adapt to flood risk by building better meteorological models and GIS that can predict storm events and run-off levels more accurately.  But then we site a sensitive nuclear weapons processing plant on an active flood plain.  As one might imagine, such contradictory practices make building resilience a tougher task for Britain in the long run.

Environment Agency  Flood Plain map

Environment Agency Flood Plain Map (the majority of buildings belong to the AWE site)

A new report by UK TV Channel 4 suggests that the extreme rainfall of July 2007 came closer to causing a nuclear “criticality incident” than facility managers admit in their official report on events at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) in Burghfield near Reading.  83mm of rain fell in just 5 hours.  The monthly average for this region is just 59mm, making this an estimated 1 in 215-year return event.  The plant was left out of action for nearly nine months after water “came close to overwhelming” buildings and bunkers where Trident nuclear warheads are assembled and maintained.  Eighty-four buildings were flooded, some to a depth of two feet.  

Water vapor accelerates the oxidation of plutonium by oxygen and reacts directly with the metal. For this reason, plutonium metal is routinely handled in a very dry atmosphere. The Channel 4 report logically argued that “full or partial flooding” could have led to the release of radiation across nearby towns.  Yet AWE say that “at no time was there any threat to the nuclear safety of the site.”  However, confidence in what AWE actually say appears to have waned following another important disclosure.  It appears that after previous floods at Burghfield in 1999 and 2000, a programme of nine separate flood remediation measures was ordered – none of which had been completed at the time of the latest flood. Resilience rating? Must try harder.

Posted by: waterworks | September 24, 2008

38. Dirty water

An effective new consciousness-raising short film courtesy of World Vision defibrillates our geographical imagination by showing what life would be like if nice people living in clean countries still had dirty tap water.  It’s a memorable little vignette, a reminder of what drinking supplies looked like – even for the rich – in Nineteenth Century London (before Joseph Bazalgette’s sterling sewer work ended the city’s dependency on a closed water cycle wherein the Thames served simultaneously as both an open sewer and as the principal source of drinking water).

A postcolonial dissertation could easily be written about the unabandoned dance of dirty water across unblemished white faces that features so prominently in this film (the sprinkler moment is especially arresting).  But the factual lesson learned – that over one billion people worldwide continue to tolerate water of such unacceptably low quality on a daily basis and for all their needs – is salutary nonetheless.  

Watch the short film here.

Posted by: waterworks | August 27, 2008

37. Dirty Beaches

Intense rainfall in seaside areas (twice as high as summer 2006 for many locations) has recently brought a reported marked rise in the surface run-off of rainwater into coastal Treatment Works.   As a result of which, the same Works have often found themselves releasing a combined sewage and storm water overflow directly into inshore waters – bringing with it a choice selection of tampons, condoms, cotton-wool buds and excrement, much to the dismay of bumper numbers of ocean bathers (sadly, these unsavoury leakages have coincided with cash-stressed Brits swapping exotic holidays abroad for a trip to the local seaside). 

Almost a third of Britain’s beaches currently breach European standards and according to The Guardian newspaper (Saturday August 23, 2008), around two-thirds of the 488 designated bathing beaches, rivers and inland waters in England and Wales have suffered recent increases in peak sewage pollution.  “Some sewage overflow pipes are discharging constantly when they shouldn’t be,” Thomas Bell, coastal pollution officer for the Marine Conservation Society, told The Guardian.  “We know these overflows will be discharging more often now with the rain we have had this summer.  The sewage is heavily contaminated effluent and big pieces of debris, which includes sanitary items, plastic and organic waste which is flushed down the toilet.”

Data source: The Guardian (23 August 2008) 

Posted by: waterworks | August 8, 2008

36. Happy Trout 2 (Don’t Forget Paris)

British newspaper The Guardian reports:

‘For the first time since records began a healthy-looking sea trout has been discovered in the Seine, prompting Paris authorities to claim a resounding success in their bid to clean up the river after years of pollution and neglect.  The discovery of the migratory fish was “crucial evidence” that water quality was higher than ever, insisted the SIAAP, the public body in charge of cleaning up the river.  “This is the first time this species has been identified in the Parisian region,” a spokesman said yesterday.  The sighting is particularly significant, experts say, because the water trout is highly sensitive and demanding about the quality of water in which it swims.  The fact that it is now able to live in the Seine is proof of the river’s constant improvement in quality, they said.’

It is not unusual for fish to be held up as harbingers of post-industrial progress.  Britain’s Mersey Basin Campaign achieved phenomenal success cleaning up rivers in north-west England during the 1990s – and found its own touchstone for success with the first sighting of salmon in 2001.  Europe-wide, urban rivers are now undergoing chemical and biological restoration.  The un-fondly remembered days of heavy metal soup – topped with ripening rafts of rotting human excrement – are increasingly distant memories for the continent’s old industrial waterways.  Point-source emissions from headwater farms may still bring minor levels of chemical discomfort to rivers like the Seine and Mersey – but at nothing like the intensity that Simpsons TV star Blinky’s forbears must have been exposed to across the pond in Springfield.

TV star Blinky

Posted by: waterworks | July 9, 2008

35. When flood management becomes rocket science

As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to save me. 


Mindful of a yawning data gap currently found in the flood risk analysis for Great Britain, the Environment Agency (EA) has swiftly set about mapping areas where a significant probability of repeated pluvial flooding can be identified – using new hi-tech laser measurements of local topography and land use.  £3 billion of flood damages last year were mostly caused by heavy rainfall exceeding the capacity of local hydrological systems to transmit the water quickly towards a river.  In urban districts such as Hull, precipitation intensity exceeded infiltration and percolation capacities of local drainage basin surfaces.  As a result, ephemeral lakes grew at localities where concavities in the relief collected water.  In populated areas, the rising waters seeped under doorways, initiating a series of unfortunate events for home-owners.  “Over half the property was flooded by water on its way to the rivers, not coming from the rivers.  It’s flash flooding, urban flooding” explains the head of the EA. 


Now, a highly detailed series of three-dimensional topographical maps is being generated to alert unsuspecting surface-hollow-dwellers to the potential risk they face from pluvial flooding.  EA scientists are currently hovering above the UK in aircraft carrying LIDAR units. These fire a laser beam downwards 100,000 times every second, scanning a transect of land up to 600m wide.  56% of England and Wales has been surveyed so far, with an early focus on urban areas most at risk from torrential flows of surface water during heavy storms – more of which can be expected in the future, according to many climate change models.  The results for Hull can be viewed here.  LIDAR can be read about here.



Right: It’s all very Tracy Island – Environment Agency boffins use lasers to save Britain from floods

Posted by: waterworks | June 18, 2008

34. Weird water stories (floating feet update #2)

Stop press!  A trainer containing a decomposing left foot has been washed up in Vancouver.  Discovered in close proximity to the four right feet that have become a cause célèbre (et macabre) in British Columbia over recent months, the new find weakens Prof Ebbesmeyer’s original hypothesis that we are witnessing a natural phenomenon – namely, the selective migration of left and right footwear (albeit containing feet), as conveyed by ocean currents.  Speaking to UK newspaper The Guardian, Ebbesmeyer admits that: ‘This is such a highly improbable situation it begs the question of foul play’.  He and other oceanographers are now suggesting that the feet have most probably been carried down the Fraser river – which flows from the Rocky mountains before reaching the Pacific Ocean at Vancouver – swelled by the spring snow melt.

The map below (courtesy Vancouver Sun) shows where the fifth (left) foot was washed ashore in relation to the other four (right) feet.  It can be explored more fully here.  Read more about the latest developments (including a hoax ‘sixth’ foot) here.



Posted by: waterworks | June 17, 2008

33. Happy trout

Trout are fussy fish.  Continued residence in any given stream is conditional upon the provision of a wide variety of river channel features for their use and enjoyment.   Deeper meander pools are just the ticket for adult fish to lounge around in, while riffles   are an essential habitat during those times when spawning and feeding urges cannot be denied (point bars aren’t too bad a place to spawn either, report the trout).  Oxygenated gravels make a good nursery, associated as they are with high egg survival rates.  Ox-bow lakes that connect with the main river channel will serve as an important refuge from predators – they also offer relatively warm water temperatures to young fish during their crucial first winter.  Indeed, such is the intimate connectivity between different landscape features and river ecology, that if even one vital component of their highly selective habitat is missing, then so too are the trout. For this reason, river management schemes that do not protect or restore a variety of landforms-as-habitats are usually looked upon as something of a disappointment by trout.


Read more about wild trout here.

Posted by: waterworks | May 26, 2008

32. Weird water stories (floating feet update)

A fourth right foot has now been discovered washed ashore near Vancouver.  In common with the three other misplaced appendages – all discovered on British Columbian beaches since August 2007 – it was still wearing a   sock and trainer.  According to ABC News, one man believes the feet may be remains   of his two brothers and two other passengers who were in a plane that crashed in waters  off Quadra Island three years ago.  ABC reported Kevin Decock as saying that he may have stirred up ocean floor remains during a search last summer: “I was out on the water conducting some surveys trying to bring up the engine from the plane crash, and I was dragging a hook.  And two weeks after that the first foot showed up.”

The theory has legs, so to speak.  Information released by police confirms that all of the feet most likely became detached from their decomposing owners’ legs as a result of (relatively) natural processes – there is absolutely no forensic evidence to support a more colourful scenario involving punitive severance.  It is entirely possible that the plane’s passengers’ right feet, buoyed by plastic trainers, floated towards Vancouver of their own accord, albeit after Mr Decock stirred the water.  And what of the four left feet?  The selective migration of right feet towards Vancouver lends possible support to Prof. Curtis Ebbesmeyer’s theory that left and right footwear – and on occasion the feet in them – float in entirely different directions.  But if that is indeed the case, then where are the left feet headed?

Posted by: waterworks | May 21, 2008

31. When Chelsea Flower Show lessens flood risk

The UK’s annual Chelsea Flower Show (CFS) is doing its bit for flood damage limitation.  Too many lawns, it seems, have falling foul of a popular fashion for paving and decking – thanks to a hydrologically disastrous decade of TV garden makeover shows championing all surfaces impermeable.  CFS is therefore promoting a fresh paradigm for landscape gardening that is far more sensitive to the twin bedevilments of urban flooding and (as sure as day follows night) urban drought.  A new template for water-conscious garden design called Urban Rain has been unveiled at Chelsea.  It comes well ahead of planned legislation for the autumn which will leave British home-owners in need of local authority consent when paving over existing gardens with non-permeable materials, such as stone tiles.  However, use of semi-permeable surfacing will be permitted without any of the tedious clerical bottlenecking that is usually synonymous with the dreaded phrase “planning application”.

Rightly recognising the benefits accruing to homeowners from avoiding all forms of potential interaction with their local government, the Urban Rain designers have wisely promoted deployment of a permeable surface that can accommodate a scooter or small car but which does not need planning consent.  The blueprint also diverts rainwater from the porch for irrigation purposes and has a number of special compartments, all under cover of a rather smart porch, which are intended to house the proliferating number of different recycling bins that modern families are now required to upkeep.  According to James Doyle, Urban Rain project manager: “We are saying a garden can look fantastic, be porous and hide the wheelie bins.”  The overall theme is one of “structured informality mixing tints of brown, orange, purple, cream and white with harmonising greens” and can be viewed here.

Posted by: waterworks | May 14, 2008

30. When dogs drink bottled water

Thanks to its logic-defying global networks, the bottled water industry provides no shortage of insightful perspective on contemporary trends in superfluous consumption.  Retailing at $1.39 a litre, FortiFido – fortified bottled water for dogs with a hint of spearmint (addressing the doggy bedevilment of halitosis) – certainly opens up whole new vistas of critical thought about aspirational living and emerging global markets.  The story of how beef, chicken and liver flavoured water were originally trialled (but rejected by canine consumers in favour of spearmint) goes well beyond the remit of this blog but is certainly worth a read over at New Statesman or the FortiFido website.  


Bottled water brand Fiji Water has often been singled out for harsh criticism by consumption conchies (conscientious objectors) on account of its very existence constituting an  act of quite utter audacity.  Travelling 10,000 miles to reach UK markets, Fiji Water clocks up an enormous carbon footprint in comparison with ordinary tap water.  But surely FortiFido can now claim Fiji Water’s crown and take its rightful place as the #1 object of derision amongst environmentally-conscious people? Not necessarily.  Sold mostly in the US, FortiFido is also bottled locally in North America, resulting in less miles travelled to markets and a relatively medium-sized carbon pawprint.  Fiji Water cannot make a similar claim. Given that UK-citizens-drinking-Fiji-Water and US-dogs-drinking-FortiFido are both entirely unnecessary forms of consumption, then Fiji Water can retain its crown for now – given that, per litre, its transport needs are far more extravagant.


Older Posts »