Watersheds and Sustainability

For today’s blog post I wanted to talk about some really interesting discussion I had in one of my engineering classes, in this case Water Resource engineering. So first off for some background one of the major early topics in this class is the delineation of watersheds, basically just drawing a line around a set of rivers following topographic lines to represent the area where if any drop of water falls that drop will end up in one of the rivers. This is very key to planning any kind of project around streams and rivers as it allows you to develop rainfall and flow rates for things such as floods and heavy rainfall events. During this discussion our professor brought up a case study about flood planning in Colorado. In it, a small town was wrecked by a flood one year even though they had many measures in place against such an event. As it turned out the previous year the upper valley of the river running through the town had experienced a major wildfire, decimating much of the plant life and interrupting much of the soil biology. As it turned out this majorly effected the flow rate and evapo-transpiration (rate at which plants take in water essentially) of the basin which in turn caused the amount of water entering the river to be much much higher than any previous year on record. This concept really kind of blew my mind, the idea that you can build something to withstand even 100 year event rainfalls but there are still sooo many other variables to take into account, something as simple as a fire destroying plant life to cause major flooding downstream, is simply incredible.

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4 comments

  1. cbagmu · October 5, 2015

    Hey James! That was a really interesting post!
    It reminded me of what my father mentioned to me recently. The construction field he works in gets flooded pretty often (especially now that it’s toward the end of typhoon season) which caused numerous fatal accidents. So to avoid flooding they plan to start getting a special concrete that actually absorbs the water. I know this is not directly relate to your post but you should look it up, it’s pretty cool.

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  2. andrewwingfield · October 6, 2015

    James, this is a great example of how everything is connected. I suppose that’s why one of the major learning outcomes you see for programs that seek to teach sustainability is systems thinking. A watershed is a great example of a highly complex system in which many subsystems are overlapped and interacting. In your example, it sounds like the engineers didn’t take all of the dimensions of the watershed system into account, which led to disastrous results.

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  3. joshyboy21 · October 6, 2015

    James, Great Post! I have always been very interested in water and especially the way it can flow through a landscape. This still is what drives me in my environmental program here at Mason. I hope to make a larger impact on stream water ecology and help to restore many of the degraded streams and rivers throughout the world. Your story resonates with me in particular because I was in Boulder, Colorado at the time of the massive flooding that occurred back in September 2013. I narrowly escaped Estes Park where we had spent the last 4 days in serene mountain top beauty. The day we left was the day the rain began and I remember driving through the streets of Estes Park only to see news footage of those very same streets flooded in raging waters the next day. I saw first hand the devastating effects of flooding on the landscape from where we stayed in Boulder, Colorado and ascertained first hand the cause of this flooding despite the record rainfall that occurred. You are right it was the logging that caused the major flooding.

    At last I can say I was extremely lucky to have been in one of the few places in Boulder that was not inudated and we were able to exit safely, not trapped, like so many were. Thanks for your post James, I think it highlights a major lack of planning and level of risk that we should not ignore. We need to be more careful about logging and our engineers need to take that into account. So much of our life is about risk and I think the risk in this situation is too great to ignore.

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  4. meghannoble04 · October 6, 2015

    Hello James!

    I wanted to pop in and let you know I share the awe endorsing reaction as you. I find many forget to think how much REALLY must go into the planning of where we can lay our grounds. You can’t build something where it floods every year, or where landslides occur every spring. But it really is mind blowing to think you can do all of the right things to prepare for something or to even prevent disaster from striking and yet again Mother Nature surprises you.

    I guess in a way that is life! We can never fully prepare for what is bound to naturally take its course.

    Thanks for sharing your discussion in your engineering class with us!!

    -Meghan Noble

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