Delta Resiliency: After an Event

VerdeXchange, which is held annually in Los Angeles, drew some impressive panels on many issues. I was asked to participate in a discussion of “Delta Resiliency: After the Event.” In this case, the event is referring to “the big one”  — an earthquake (or a flood for that matter) that results in catastrophic levee failures, the inundation of delta islands, and the radical conversion of the delta into a vast saltwater lake. Any discussion of resiliency requires a brief description of what it means. I found the definitions in Andrew Zolli’s recent book, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, particularly apropos:

In engineering resilience generally refers to the degree to which a structure like a bridge or a building can return to a baseline state after being disturbed. In emergency response it suggests the speed at which critical systems can be restored after an earthquake or a flood. In ecology is connotes an ecosystem’s ability to keep from being irrevocably degraded.

A System of Systems

Zolli’s comments reminded me that the Delta is a system of systems, each affecting the other in unpredictable ways. Focusing on one of them is generally what we do. But contemplating the outcomes of a seismic event that scientists say is “only a matter of time” demands the bigger picture.

The Ecosystem

First, there’s the ecosystem, the degradation of which has been the driving force behind our interest in the region for decades. It has proven to lack resilience in the face of alterations of its terrain and the extraction of water for agricultural, municipal, and industrial uses. One of the co-equal goals of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) is to recreate the Delta’s ecosystem, protect it against future degradation, and restore its ability to “bounce back” from unpredictable disturbances in the future.

The Physical Infrastructure

The second obvious system is the physical water diversion, storage, and transmission facilities that criss-cross the Central Valley and supply water for cities and agriculture as far south as San Diego. Those physical pipes and pumps are robust but not invincible (they have a useful life and need repairs and replacement). But frankly the engineered facilities can be designed to handle most earthquakes and floods. Their core purpose and real value, however, is entirely linked to the water they store and convey. Consequently, the ecosystem’s fragility has made the water storage and conveyance system increasingly vulnerable and surprisingly fragile itself.

The Emergency Responders

Seeing the connections between these two tangible systems so clearly is largely the result of  a highly complex system comprised of political, regulatory, governmental, utility, environmental, academic and other stakeholder interests throughout California and beyond. While it doesn’t typically characterize itself as such, this institutional system represents the Delta’s emergency responders. In fact, it has proven to be “antifragile” to use a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his new book, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. Our institutional system seems to get stronger through struggle. Not necessarily more satisfying in producing specific outcomes to our liking — but stronger and more robust nonetheless. The people involved in attempting to address the vexing challenges of the Bay Delta have been working on this massively complex problem for decades — as was mentioned to me by a colleague in the midst of the fray.

After the Big One

Ironically, the more devastating the chaos, the better our emergency responders perform. After super-storm Sandy, and in the midst of a hotly-contested presidential election, Governor Christie ends up shaking President Obama’s hand and thanking him for his cooperation and support. So I’m pretty confident that after “the big one” we’ll see everyone come together and help one another address the catastrophic consequences of losing lives, land, property, and infrastructure affecting two-thirds of the population of California in one capacity or another. Not to mention the unpredictable impacts on the ecology.

What’s perhaps just as ironic is that the BDCP has been the result of one of the most globally ambitious, complex, and expensive collaborative efforts that I know of designed to restore systemic resilience — allowing for the bounce-back that resilience implies. It is an integrated plan that reduces risks, strives to repair and restore that ecology, and in so doing improve the reliability of the water system. After the big one, we’ll inevitably come together and reinvent the plan to restore a system of systems that will be more damaged than it needs to be — if we act now.

Champions of One System Only

Most of us are champions of one system only — not the hugely complex and amorphous system of systems. The BDCP, and CALFED before it, attempted to reach the higher altitude perspective that embraced it all — looking for a way to increase systemic resilience for all of our interests. Because we know what we will likely do following the event, and we know that the event will happen, why don’t we start now to improve our chances of success then?

Weakness of Statistical Intuition

Closing thought: our statistical intuition is not very good. We rarely opt for the ounce of prevention. It’s a primary theme of Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  The events we’re discussing will happen. Our sense of urgency is dampened by the our confidence that it won’t be happening today. One day, we will be horribly wrong and ingloriously flipped into another state of being. We should begin doing today what we will struggle to do then. It’s an investment that will serve us well.




Wellspring 2012 Tacoma

Last October, I was invited to address an enthusiastic group of stakeholders in the midst of launching Tacoma, Washington as a technology center for the water industry. While I have spent considerable time in Seattle over the years, this event was my first trip to Tacoma — a city whose history is as interesting as its aspirations. Located on the natural harbor of Commencement Bay, in the shelter of Puget Sound, Tacoma boomed in the late 19th century as the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad, a decision that shocked the Seattle establishment in its day. Today, it is the largest port in Washington state and a major gateway to the Pacific.  And while the city’s fortunes have experienced both highs and lows over the last century and a half, the 1990 establishment of the University of Washington Tacoma campus, in the midst of the historic downtown area, has lifted the prospects for future successes and emboldened the community to redefine its mission. Naturally, water continues to be a central theme in that story.

The Wellspring 2012 Conference was organized by the Economic Development Board of Tacoma-Pierce County and hosted at the University of Washington Tacoma, with the stated purpose of “sharing ideas to build a water economy” in the region. In fact, Tacoma has learned a great deal about the complex water quality issues created by a booming industrial waterfront in the midst of a natural ecosystem of immeasurable beauty and value. It is successfully transitioning its waterfront assets to new uses and purposes, and sees its experience and talent as a worthy example for the broader water industry. In fact, its newly opened Center for Urban Waters, housed in an impressive LEED Platinum facility, is tangible evidence of the serious commitment to water industry leadership that the community of Tacoma represents. Take a look at the Wellspring 2012 website, where other videos from that October conference are offered. As a closing aside, I was told after my presentation that there would be no editing of the videotapes. So my off-the-cuff promotion of CH2M HILL near the end of my keynote remains intact. Let’s keep that among us . . .

Photo: Tacoma Museum of Glass on the Thea Foss Waterway by Canadian architect Arthur Erickson


Recently I’ve enjoyed time with colleagues who have made my transition from CDM Smith to independent consultant a period of recollection and reflection on great and challenging experiences together. I realized that I once promised to pass along a copy of remarks I made to a large group of CDM Smith staff at Disneyland in 2006. I have excerpted portions of it below and provide a link to the entire address. In retrospect, it stands out as one the clearest statements I have made regarding my values and principles. And while it focuses on our organization at that time, its message has broader applicability. Please share your thoughts.

“I want to welcome you to Anaheim. This is the first time that I have come to Disneyland for a business meeting, and I confess that fact was the departure point for my remarks this evening. I have always loved this place and what it taught me about imagination.

So tonight, I want to talk about the importance of imagination and creativity in every aspect of our service to clients. I will argue that imagination is an essential ingredient in achieving our vision of “improving the environment and infrastructure.” I further want to argue that as rising leaders in this firm, you must provide the spark that ignites the creativity of great, diverse teams. You must take responsibility for fostering a workplace setting that engages diverse groups of people to create a better world and a better environment. That workplace is where “total right solutions” and “exceptional client service” come from. And you are the people who must make it happen.

I want to make a strong case that imaginative thinking is a fundamental differentiator between CDM and many of our competitors. That competitive strength results from imagining something new — from the belief that our understanding can be improved, that our intentional and inadvertent acts of destructiveness and waste can be reduced, and that we can successfully improve our environment and infrastructure – more effectively integrating our natural and our built worlds.

But I will come back to that. First, I want to talk about my own introduction to the “speculative imagination,” as a third grader, living for a summer in Santa Monica. Let’s make the wild segue from Albert Einstein to Walt Disney, from theoretical physics to “Imagineering.” I want to see if I can effectively illustrate what I mean by the concept of imagination and progress in our industry at this time. Again, not Fantasyland, but Tomorrowland. And just to make it more complicated, not the Tomorrowland of today, but the Tomorrowland of 1958 – because it was different then. I believe that many of my most basic ideas about progress were sparked by the Imagineering of that now lost Tomorrowland.

In Bob Thomas’ biography of Walt Disney, he quotes from the original description of the park developed during its initial planning:

The idea of Disneyland is a simple one. It will be a place for people to find happiness and knowledge. It will be a place for parents and children to share pleasant times in one another’s company: a place for teachers and pupils to discover greater ways of understanding and education. Here the older generation can recapture the nostalgia of days gone by, and the younger generation can savor the challenge of the future. Here will be the wonders of Nature and Man for all to see and understand.

I was the younger generation they were talking about. I was fascinated by the TWA Moonliner that towered over Tomorrowland and provided the gateway to the “Rocket to the Moon” ride. Disney’s Man in Space exhibit was developed with the help of real science pioneers like Willy Ley, Heinz Haber, and Wernher von Braun. The monorail system, that unfortunately for me didn’t open until 1959, wasn’t just a ride, it was a real attempt to apply cutting-edge transportation technology and make the “future” real in the present.

And then there was the Monsanto House of the Future. Open from 1957 to 1967, this house looked like a sort of square plastic mushroom, comprised of four white fiberglass wings resting on top of a wide central column. It was designed in collaboration with M.I.T. and celebrated the miracles of plastics. Inside, it displayed such futuristic innovations as electric toothbrushes, a wide-screen color television, bathroom sinks that adjusted themselves to your height, an ultrasonic dishwasher, and a microwave oven. That house and its architecture fascinated me. It was the first time in my life that I saw creations of the imagination made part of real life. That’s when I learned the most important lesson I needed to know in order to contribute to the Tolt Water Treatment Plant DBO team.

By the early nineteen sixties, Walt Disney’s visions of the past and future took over four show pavilions at the New York World’s Fair of 1964-1965. The President of the New York World’s Fair, Robert Moses, a remarkable public servant who held at one time or another almost every public works position in New York City, described his vision of the World’s Fair as “an Olympics of Progress.”7 What a wonderful concept. Later in the sixties, attractions from those pavilions, which included General Electric’s “Progressland” and Ford Motor Company’s “Magic Skyway,” would be relocated to Disneyland.

What a great time I had at this place. And I wasn’t alone. By 1963, James Rouse, speaking at a Harvard School of Design Commencement:

I hold a view that may be somewhat shocking to an audience as sophisticated as this, and that is, that the greatest piece of design in the United States today is Disneyland. If you think about Disneyland and think of its performance in relationship to its purpose – its meaning to people more than its meaning to the process of development – you will find it the outstanding piece of urban design in the United States. It took an area of activity – the amusement park – and lifted it to a standard so high in its performance, in its respect for people, in its functioning for people, that it really became a brand-new thing.

The possibility and the reality of the “brand-new thing.” In 1958, Walt Disney made me a nine-year-old believer that we could put a man on the moon if we put our minds to it. I am very grateful for that naïve optimism. I grew up in an era that fostered confidence in the concept of “progress” and the power of “imagination.” Much has changed.

Tomorrowland today is largely a tribute to nostalgia and fantasy, where nineteenth century futurists like Jules Verne are honored in rides designed to look like antique scientific instruments with old-fashioned brass fittings and useless mechanical clockwork. Only the world of computers and information technology (and possibly pharmaceuticals) survive as a potential source of hope for the future. Today, the Fox Network airs documentaries “proving” that NASA’s moon landings were a conspiratorial, government hoax. The late nineteen fifties and early nineteen sixties are themselves a subject of nostalgia.

Our firm is founded on principles of service and progress – on the belief that there is something that can be done. Frankly, if you do not imagine that you can make a difference, there is little reason to do anything at all. I imagine that we can, will, and are making a difference.

But for today’s third graders, the exhibits that prove progress are no longer in Disneyland. They are at less exciting places like the West Basin Water Recycling Plant or the TreePeople’s demonstration project in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles. These are examples of innovation and progress that should be as compelling as the House of the Future was in 1958. And while they do not enjoy the corporate sponsorship of General Electric or Ford Motor Company, they offer tangible evidence of our ability to imagineer new solutions, to improve on the past, to realize our dreams. We need to promote and celebrate them because we lack the broad cultural messages of hope in the future once delivered by Walt Disney, and Robert Moses, and John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.

In my view, we must have blind faith in our ability to discover a brand new thing, to find a way towards a sustainable future that provides for both human needs and the environment. We must believe in and tell that story wherever we can. Perhaps it’s not realistic, but it is the foundation of our firm’s vision of itself and its role in the world. That unrealistic optimism, that old-fashioned Tomorrowland view of progress, is what sets us apart from the vast majority of people who surrender to the realities of the present and assume that the future will be the same as the past — or worse. We can see a future of improvements to the environment and infrastructure in LA. Others see the desperate, degraded Los Angeles of 2019, as depicted in Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi film “Blade Runner.”

In 1793, William Blake, the British poet and visionary wrote, “What is now proved was once, only imagin’d.” Everything we see around us, our exceptional quality of life and personal freedom, is the product of the imaginations of millions of creative people who have preceded us. We need to be the source of future proof that it can still be done. That starts with optimism and imagination. Bennis says, “Great Groups don’t lose hope in the face of complexity. The difficulty of the task adds to their joy.”

Big Data and the Water Industry

IWA Congress Dublin 2012Last May, at the inaugural IWA World Congress on Water, Climate and Energy held at the impressive new Convention Centre in Dublin, I presented a keynote address on big data analytics and its impact on the water industry. Since then, I have received a number of requests for a transcript of the presentation:

Over the last several years, I have been introduced to a realm of science and technology that many of us in the water industry don’t know much about – and really should pay closer attention to. In fact, it is a field of new science that barely has a name. Let’s just call it “big data analytics;” and let’s focus on how it can make our cities “smarter.”

New Science without a Name

It’s interesting that when The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI) surveyed data management professionals on this topic in May 2011, 7% of respondents hadn’t “seen or heard of anything resembling big data analytics” – they knew nothing about it. Most respondents (65%) didn’t have a name for it but generally understood its meaning. The remaining 28% (roughly a quarter) both understood the concept and had named it – most calling it “big data analytics” but including names as well, like “advanced” analytics, “discovery” analytics, or “exploratory” analytics.


And while twenty years ago, I/T professionals used to struggle with the cost of data storage and management, today the storage of massive amounts of data is virtually free, providing for increasingly sophisticated approaches to mining it, analyzing it, discovering relationships within it, and ultimately utilizing it to predict the behavior of the complex systems (and systems of systems) it represents. This is an emerging technology which will no doubt touch every aspect of our lives (and already has if you shop with a credit card or over the internet). But for our purposes it’s the management of . . . [Click to view the full PDF]

Coastline Thoughts: Del Mar

Coastlines are where the give-and-take of land and water is a real-time display of fluid borders and ambiguous boundaries. On the Pacific coast at Del Mar, California the land and water accommodate surfers, bathers, boogie boarders, strollers, joggers, bicyclists, Amtrak trains, million-dollar homes, life-guard jeeps, stormwater runoff, crumbling bluffs, and disappearing sand. The beach is a place where the concept of property ownership is regularly challenged by the fluidity of water and land enjoined.

Amtrak Train at Del Mar Bridge

Amtrak Train at Del Mar Bridge

The coastline at Del Mar is an overlay of engineered landscape and natural dynamics. There are three planes of activity, each happening at elevations separated by from 10 to 100 feet. At sea level there is the beach, where the tide advances and recedes, periodically enlarged by Pacific storms, and very effective in stripping clean the sand dune surfaces that visitors expect to recline in. At the highest plane, atop the bluff, are single family homes and apartments, built within a lattice of transportation, sewer, water, power, gas, and drainage infrastructure. In-between, the railroad right-of-way winds among the bluffs from north to south, intersecting occasional culverts built to intercept stormwater and direct it under the tracks and onto the beach and bridges conveying people and goods overhead.

Protecting the terraced railroad right-of-way from erosion above and the crashing waves undermining the bluffs from below is a constant challenge — managing the engineered and the natural systems for as long as we’re here. Every now and then, a portion of the bluff between the railroad and the beach sloughs off and collapses onto the shore below, awakening public concerns about hikers on the cliffs and unsuspecting beach-goers below.

Abandoned rail on the beach exposed by winter tides

Abandoned rail on the beach exposed by winter tides

Few places offer such a beautiful spot to see the tension between human aspirations and the reality of nature’s most powerful forces. For a spectacular series of aerial photographs covering the entire California coastline over multiple years, checkout And to see a slice of the coast at Del Mar, here’s a photo near 8th Street.

The Role of Water in Urban Planning

Several years ago, a distinguished international group of urban planners issued a joint position paper entitled, “Reinventing Planning: A New Governance Paradigm for Managing Human Settlements.” It addressed “the challenges of rapid urbanisation, the urbanisation of poverty and the hazards posed by climate change and natural disasters.”

What do they identify as the most important contributions that this reinvention can produce? First “Reduce vulnerability to natural disasters,” and second “Create environmentally-friendly cities.” Who are the experts most qualified to participate in that dialogue? I would offer that those of us in the water industry should be among them.

Have we been equally ambitious in reinventing our role in shaping the future of rapid urbanization worldwide? Will we remain leaders in lagging technologies – following the parade with brooms and shovels, cleaning up environmental damage and compensating for the impacts of economic development and climate change? There is clearly an opportunity for us to re-invent our role in the future of sustainable urban development. To help environmental decision-makers incorporate economic and social ends in their pursuit of environmental and public health protection. We cannot be accused of ignoring the environment. We may be guilty, however, of being isolated from the economic and social issues related to urbanization and land use.

If it is fair to say that virtually all the problems associated with water quantity and quality in urban watersheds are significantly impacted by land use, doesn’t it follow that we could have a huge influence on the future by directly engaging as a stakeholder in the planning and decision-making surrounding those land use decisions?

This would not put the environmental engineering community in charge. On the contrary, it would merely establish parity with the other drivers affecting land use. What would change if the aquatic ecosystem in the urban watershed served as the starting point for planning tomorrow’s cities? Those scientists, planners, engineers who have followed development with sophisticated plumbing would have to take into consideration many new issues that are currently handled by others.

Of course, the process isn’t linear and no one really leads in the complicated process of urbanization. And yet, if for a moment, the urban watershed came first and every other profession, institution, agency, and law was designed to protect its long-term integrity (while allowing for increasing population and economic growth) would we see more green roofs, porous pavement, solar energy, recycled water, rapid transit, and innovations in technology and conservation too numerous to quantify?

If there was ever a time to step forward and contribute to our understanding of what “sustainability” in urban infrastructure means, now is it. Again, this doesn’t mean “taking over” from the developers, architects and planners who have largely driven the form or our urban landscape – in those fortunate cases where planning is discernible. It means joining with them as leaders (not followers) in the creation of something brand new.

Evolution of Urban Water Management

My colleague Vladimir Novotny has done a good job condensing the several thousand years of water infrastructure history into four distinct stages – or paradigms as he calls them.

Opportunistic Utilization of Readily Available Water

They proceed from the initial use of easily accessed surface water and shallow groundwater, and the use of streets as the primary means for directing stormwater flows and disposing of every kind of human and animal waste imaginable. It’s a situation that conjures up Jonathan Swift’s poem “A Description of a City Shower”:

Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell
What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell…
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.

This first paradigm persisted in many cities well into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and can still be found as the norm in squatter settlements surrounding the world’s burgeoning megacities – life-threatening quality water, haphazard drainage, regular flooding, and no sanitation.

Engineered Storage and Conveyance

What emerged as the second paradigm was the engineered construction of water storage facilities, aqueducts, and drainage facilities – all of which were well-developed technologies in Roman times and earlier.  The word “drainage” in this case means the stormwater runoff and stream flows resulting from rainwater and snowmelt – although the contamination of drainage systems with the addition of human wastes is an important accidental “innovation” that developed in Roman times as well.

Addition of Water Treatment Technologies

The degradation of water quality resulting from the growth of industrial cities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries drove the development of the third model, which added water treatment both at the source of potable supplies and at the point of disposal to receiving waters, dramatically improving health and water quality.

Non-Point Source Pollution Control

And finally, in the fourth paradigm, which is in progress, efforts to reduce and control the pollutants that result from stormwater runoff, which can affect water bodies from sources that arrive either through pipes or flow directly into rivers and streams –– have been added to the end-of-pipe, command and control, fast-conveyance systems approach that has evolved over four thousand years.

So, over time, we have successfully designed urban water systems that keep land relatively dry (i.e., properly drained) and provide a reliable supply of potable water for human and commercial needs. And then, as a matter of convenience, we use potable water as a means of carrying away human and industrial wastes for subsequent treatment and disposal.  These systems have always been integrated into the built environment of buildings and streets – relying on properly designed streets as one of the means of providing adequate drainage.

The Fifth Paradigm

In our book Cities of the Future, we explored the connections between urban water quality, hydrology, and broader aspects of urban land use planning. We concluded, as others have, that there would need to be fundamental changes in order to get to what Vladimir has characterized as the “fifth paradigm” of urban water management.  As suggested, the previous four have a few things in common. They look at water as either a resource to be utilized for potable, commercial, and waste disposal purposes, or a nuisance and threat to be protected against.  Centuries of engineered systems have been designed to move water rapidly from where it is to where it’s needed, and from where it’s not wanted to someplace else.

We address the need for fundamental change in our Preface to Cities of the Future:

Cities of the Future“the fifth paradigm of urban water management . . . adopts a holistic, systems approach to the urban watershed, rather than a functionally discrete focus on individual components (drinking water, sewage, stormwater) characteristic of earlier models.


“[In] This fifth paradigm . . . all the components of water supply, stormwater, and wastewater will be managed in a closed loop.


“One of the goals of the fifth paradigm is to develop an urban landscape that mimics but not necessarily reproduces the processes and structures present in a predevelopment natural system… (H)ydrological mimicry . . . relying on reduction of imperviousness, increased infiltration, surface storage and use of plants that retain water . . . interconnected green [spaces] . . . around urban water resources . . . (and) storage-oriented drainage with less reliance on underground conduits and more surface storage, infiltration and flow retardation.”

Progress in the direction of Vladimir’s fifth paradigm will require fully coordinated management of water and land in a manner that has few precedents.  Instead of a system that provides water, sewer, and drainage to individual parcels of land, we will be designing an urban landscape that utilizes integrated systems of plumbing and land use to reduce the need for more pipes, pumps, and treatment plants, as well as the imported water to fill them. More importantly, design objectives will be different as well – transitioning from the utilization of natural resources to fuel urban development towards managing urban development to preserve natural systems for growth and renewal.  When we examine the process of land-use planning and development, the prospects for this kind of radical redesign of the urban landscape present some challenges.