Saturday, April 9, 2011

Why the Odana infiltration project is so complicated

The Odana project defies description.  The complication comes not so much in the pipes, but in the concept behind it--swapping water all over the watershed, like a carnival shell game. 

When you see something this complicated, you are probably looking at an obsolete technology.

Like an airplane trying to fly on the edge of space--we've pushed our old concept of infrastructure too far.

Here, the technology I'm talking about is urban infrastructure--water supply, storm sewers, paved streets, and more.  The two University heating/cooling plants, plus the Cogen facility, plus all the other uses of water in Dane County, have pushed our water system to its limits.

The stormwater system makes heavy use of concrete, which is is part of the old technology.  It's great stuff--we built our cities and freeways with it.  But it has a big carbon footprint, concrete wastewater kills soil organisms, and it contains toxic chromium, which is starting to show up in our groundwater.

Graveyard of concrete at Terra on east side of Madison.

The water withdrawals are one half of our water technology.  The other half is how we deal with the rainwater which replenishes our groundwater.

The old urban technology is slowly approaching collapse.  I don't mean things are going to fall down (despite the bridge in Minneapolis).  Rather, the system in unsustainable. 

We're running out of water.  Or, more accurately, we're running out of cheap, healthy water--without sacrificing other things such as the health of our lakes.  And also, we're running out of money.  I think time will show that the old methods for stormwater pipes and pavement are not economically sustainable.  New technologies will prove to be more cost-effective.

So, when you look at the amazing complexity of the Odana project and the water swap deal that underlies it--all those band aids, strings, and gadgets start to make sense.  They are the last, desperate efforts to save the old way.

Isn't green infrastructure more complicated?

I suspect that the current Odana injection concept won, over the rain garden alternative, because injection at a single location seemed easier.  MG&E already had an organization that knew how to build centralized facilities.  They had only to deal with the DNR.  Indeed, not a single person from the public chose to speak at the hearing.  Dealing with many hundreds of rain gardens, and all the homeowners, would seem a lot more complex and unpredictable.

But that's only because we haven't worked out the wrinkles in the new technology of rain gardens and other green technologies.  The main wrinkle is how to motivate people--with the proper incentives, and education.

Usually, society converts to new technologies because of market forces.  With the new-fangled automobiles, you didn't have to feed them all year, only when you drove them.

With green technologies, it's harder for the marketplace to create demand, because our taxes pay for City infrastructure--and citizens don't get to choose which stormwater project they want, based on their pocketbook.  Perhaps one reason the Odana project is so wasteful of energy and water, is that MG&E is a monopoly.  They just pass the cost on to ratepayers as a few pennies increase in your rates.

How technology evolves

I've been reading a book titled The Nature of Technology.  It's about how technologies are invented, grow, change, and eventually are replaced by something better.

The book is more about technology in general, than about any one technology.  But there are some good stories--such as how the boiling water reactors now failing in Japan weren't the best design at the time.  Through an accident of history, this kind of reactor won the race over other designs, even though they weren't the best.

When something like the airplane is first invented, it's pretty simple.  As followup engineers perfect it, and push it to ever higher performance, they add additional features.  Features like reliability, convenience, or adaptability to different conditions.  But finally, as the technology matures, it pushes up against the very limits of what it does.  Pushing it further and further against these limits, engineers add all kinds of complicated fixes and extra gadgets.

Eventually, some new way of doing the same thing is invented.  A new technology, based on a fundamentally new concept, starts to replace the old one. 

Now, there's usually some resistance to the new technology.  People, including engineers, are just used to the old way of doing things. And there are the companies that want to keep using the old way, because they have invested in it.

For a time, the old way hangs on, partly because the new technology isn't fully mature, and still has some kinks.  But sooner or later, there will be a revolution--as when word processing replaced typewriters.

A Titanic mistake

The Titanic was trumpeted as a modern marvel--the unsinkable ship, with many watertight compartments.   It turns out the answer to icebergs was not watertight compartments, but radar and iceberg forecasts.  Better to avoid icebergs than to build more bulkheads.

Better to avoid runoff than to build more storm sewers.  It's better to protect groundwater, than to dig new wells or install expensive equipment to clean up our water supply.

Don't give up the ship.  The technology of groundwater and rain gardens is developing fast, and soon--if the City is willing to experiment a little--we'll get the motivation figured out.

It's only proper that MG&E and the University, among the largest users of water in Dane County, should be in the vanguard of developing our new infrastructures.

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Link to the only Rube Goldberg machine more complicated than Odana.

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