By Deborah H. Lee, P.E., D.WRE, Past President of American Society of Civil Engineers’ American Academy of Water Resources Engineers
Nutrients in the water supply sound like a good thing, right? Unfortunately, rather than making our water supply nutritious, excessive amounts can lead to algae blooms that suffocate our waterways. Water engineers and scientists are on the cusp of a major breakthrough to better predicting algae blooms. This advancement is on par with how meteorologists have improved weather forecasts by observing weather patterns over the past century. As water quality becomes an increasingly important issue in the U.S. the ability to more clearly understand why algal blooms form in water and see trends emerge puts us in a position to better manage these challenges.
This is just one example of how engineers and scientists are harnessing data and technology to improve people’s lives and ensure that our water resources continue to offer us life, goods movement, and enjoyment.
Here in North America’s Great Lakes, people tend to think issues only impact the surrounding states of Michigan, along with Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York but they provide a service vital throughout the nation and connector to Canada through the Soo Locks—a major link in the nation’s inland waterway system.
The inland waterways themselves are an often-overlooked resource that moves bulk goods from ports to market, and farms to factories. Despite their significance, they received a “D” grade in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2017Infrastructure Report Card.
As a gateway for goods, the Soo Locks move $500.4 billion worth of iron ore each year, crucial for the nation’s economy to build automobiles, appliances, and equipment. Over the past few years there has been much discussion about the need to upgrade this key link in the inland waterway system, and rightly so. This “hard” physical infrastructure plays a pivotal role in our economic competitiveness. But “soft” natural infrastructure places an equally important role that should not be overlooked. We must appreciate the significance of natural infrastructure and manage it in the same way we manage its physical counterparts.
In addition to managing algae blooms, the water of the Great Lakes faces other challenges including watershed management and combined sewer overflows (CSOs). CSOs occur most often during and after major rain events, precipitating the need to combine untreated human and industrial waste, toxic materials, and debris with storm water because the heavy rainfall produces a volume of water that exceeds the capacity of a combined sewer. Many older cities throughout the U.S. have sewer systems designed like this, including Metro Detroit, evident in the 2018 Report Card for Michigan’s Infrastructure’s ‘D-’ grade for stormwater. While the City of Detroit Water System is in compliance with EPA regulations, it is still dumping untreated sewage back into the water source, causing contamination issues that closes beaches, and costs more to clean before being delivered as drinking water.
To address these issues, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, in conjunction with the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, Great Lakes Observing System, and other partners, combines data collected from buoys, boats, satellites, autonomous gliders, an underwater “lab-in-a-can”, and creates models that predict currents and water temperature. This data informs the decisions made about soft infrastructure, and even more valuably provides benchmarks that indicate if new efforts are effective toward making progress to mitigate an issue.
This all does not happen in the vacuum of a research laboratory, but rather gets implemented into the operational sector, a guiding principle of the work of the NOAA. Through transitional guidance offered by NOAA, we ensure that this research and technology gets deployed. Our progress trickles down and out, including to the private sector and other organizations and regions facing similar challenges.
As water challenges from flooding to scarcity becomeless a distant threat and more a reality, ensuring that we have sufficient clean water sources is critical to life and livelihoods. To ensure a water-secure future, we must make managing our natural infrastructure a core value and incorporate its principles into engineering and resource management, planning, design and policy.