Before I get into this interview, let me tell you a bit about me and why did I engage in a water resources career before I move this to the about section. Back in 1985, I was 12 years old, and my little brother was 7. At that time, my father, who is an architect, was also a developer and contractor. He bought about 30 acres of land in a lovely and pricey neighborhood at a low price. He designed and constructed 47 mansions. My brother's best friend's dad was a prominent young doctor. And they were going to live next to us at the brand new hood.
But, on the night of October 7th of 1985, a storm registered more than 24 inches of rain in 24 hours. A bridge foundation at PR-52, the main highway in Puerto Rico, collapsed due to scour. The authorities recovered only 23 of the 29 bodies that drove to the precipice. Among those bodies, the mother and father of my stepbrother.
That is why today, my brother is a structural engineer, and I am a water resources engineer. Back then, we knew what we wanted to do. It got personal! Yes, we design bridges together, and we remember.
Water resources engineering gained a lot of popularity with the development and access to GIS systems during the late '90s and early stages of this century. Yet I was very skeptical and selective to place my career in the hands of anybody.
Every time I touched the subject with my colleagues, there was a name that popped up in the conversation, Dr. Greg Morris. I was about to go back to the University of Miami and continue postgraduate studies when I heard that Dr. Morris was teaching at a local University.
Within a week, I signed up. It took me 3.5 years to do my masters. Because I took all the essential classes with this fellow, I can tell you that it was the best career decision I ever made.
According to legend, a conversation that took place more than 70 years ago between Albert Einstein and his eldest son, Hans Albert Einstein, gives rise to the favorite anecdote of every scientist or engineer working in the field of sediment transport. During this conversation, Hans told his father of his intent to research the mechanics of sediment transport. Albert had done some work in this area, notably on hindered settling in sediment suspensions, and he advised his son not to pursue study in this field, as he felt sediment transport was so complicated that it was intractable. Like many good sons before him, Hans ignored this advice and went on to be one of a handful of prominent scientists that shaped modern sediment-transport theory and practice.
Transactions American Geophysical Union, Volume 80
Albert Einstein's concern was not unwarranted. The movement of sediment by geophysical flows is dictated by complex interrelations between the fluid flow and sediment particle dynamics. The current moves the sediment through the forces of lift and drag on the particles. The motion of the sediment alters the shape of the sediment bed through erosion and deposition. It means that the flow changes by the presence of sediment, and the spatial-temporal changes of the sediment bed.
The general solution of problems in sediment transport theory requires that the driving fluid flow, the motion of the sediment, and the morphology of the stream be solved simultaneously.
I can tell you that this was the most challenging course I took while pursuing my master's degree in water resources. All that I know is what the man in the picture above taught me. His book is the only resource I have used on the occasions that I had to perform a sediment study.
Interview with Greg
Why did you engage in an environmental engineering lifelong career?
"I come from a family of civil engineers (grandfather, father, uncle). I always liked nature (from my mother and grandmother). My father also began manufacturing small wastewater and reverse osmosis water treatment systems when I was in my late teens. Environmental engineering was simply a logical progression."
For you, was it water first (hydraulics) or environmentally driven?
"Water and environment are the same thing. Water is what transports both nutrients and contaminants through the bodies of living things and also our environment. Look at the landscape, and it is also water that shapes our geologic environment through its role as the primary agent in weathering, erosion, and the re-arrangement of sediments to create rivers, floodplains, beaches, etc."
Are you a civil engineer or an environmental engineer?
"I am an environmental engineer. "
If environmental, how much do you think the lack of environmentally sound bachelor’s program affects the decision making? For example, not providing water supply capacity to the island's latest in-line dam, Portugues. I lived in Ponce for 46 years and counting. And I’ve never seen major flooding. And everything is concrete-channelized in Ponce?
"Ponce has historically flooded severely. The Portugues flood control dam was designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s with the option to include additional height to add volume for a water supply component. They also proposed a cheaper option to simply enlarge the foundation to allow for future expansion if needed. The government and PRASA didn’t want to spend the money.
It was a short-sighted political decision. Like so many other short-sighted decisions, has led Puerto Rico to the predicament we now find ourselves. It has nothing to do with an environmentally sound bachelor’s program, but everything to do with the lack of a focus on “long-term sustainability”.
The concept of sustainability it not limited to the environmental community; it is important in every aspect of society and our own lives. For example, on an individual level when you buy a house you ask yourself if the mortgage payment will be “sustainable” over the life of the loan, within the context of your anticipated future economic situation.
Who buys a house with the intent to default on the loan and lose their money? But if you were overly optimistic about future income, or you encounter an unforeseen situation (such as medical problems, getting laid off in a bad job market). Then, all of your plans may come undone.
Concerning sustainability decisions, an interesting approach is to seek the "path of least regret." Sure, you can buy the expensive house, but if your financial projections are off, you might lose it, generating a lot of regrets.
The other option, the smaller and cheaper house will:
- allow you to continue making lower mortgage payments if the future doesn't work out the way you expect,
- give you comfortable savings account if your income stream does advance according to plan.
It is the path of least regret.
For this reason, when we seek to define a sustainable future. It is not a question of what we studied in college, but how we approach long-term decision making regardless of our level and area of academic achievement."
Do you attribute the excessive use of grey-engineering as opposed to Low Impact Development techniques as well as Best Management Practices to the lack of emphasis in sound environmental education at the bachelor’s level? Let’s face it. nowadays, people engage in masters and PhDs well into a midlife crisis, which means that the damage is done or they are just too corrupted already?
"People frame solutions to environmental problems in the context of concrete, steel, and mechanical systems for several reasons;
- Engineering companies are increasingly running businesses with the primary objective of making a profit. Therefore more expensive projects with more engineering components mean more money for the firm.
- We can achieve more precise engineering with concrete, steel, and machines.
- The environment is less well understood, so the further you move away from a purely "engineering" solution, the more uncertainty there is. If there is one thing that a client or a regulatory agency doesn't want, it's uncertainty. Having the option, they will go with the guaranteed result even if it costs more.
- The issue of people getting graduate degrees during their midlife crisis, when their attitude is already "corrupted," is not the real issue. I see people getting graduate degrees at all stages. But most typically well before the 40-ish midlife point."
Why do you enjoy sediment transport so much and enough to not just write a book on it but write the Handbook of Sedimentation Engineering?
"I started looking at reservoir sedimentation problems in 1974 when I arrived in Puerto Rico. One day in the early 1980s, I had a sudden realization. Reservoir sedimentation was going to be a huge problem that would threaten water supplies, not just in Puerto Rico, but worldwide. Yet, it wasn't on anybody's radar.
There was no information on combating the problem other than watershed management, which doesn't work. Yet alternative techniques known before 1950 were being ignored. Nobody ever presented papers on this topic at conferences. Sedimentation was not a "today" problem, and the professional community was kicking the bucket down the road.
I searched worldwide for an expert on reservoir sedimentation to help me work with the problems in Puerto Rico. And the only one I came up with was Prof. Fan, who became my co-author. He organized my first study tour in China in the 1980s. And between us, we were able to access the limited professional literature plus the gray literature unpublished reports in 5 languages: English, Spanish, French, Chinese, and Russian. I proposed the book to Fan, and we undertook the task because a topic does not become real within the engineering community until a technical book exists on the subject.
McGraw-Hill suggested the handbook format, and the final version came out at 748 pages. In the McGraw-Hill contract, executed in in 1994 I was able to include a contract clause that the copyright would return to the authors if the book went out of print in hard copy. It was before anybody had the Internet, a fast telephone modem could give you less than 1000 bits per second. And digital publishing was still over the horizon. By the time the book did go out of print, the Internet had arrived, so I converted it to electronic format and put it out for free here .
The process of sediment transport is a complex aspect of the hydrosphere. I am always learning. Being able to support renewable hydro-power energy development, and to convert sediment-threatened infrastructure into sustainable infrastructure, is also personally rewarding."
How close are we getting to experiencing significant saline intrusion into our aquifers? Explain, and what can be done?
"Consider a porous geologic deposit in contact with the sea. In Puerto Rico, this geology is sand on the south coast and limestone on the north seashore. If you have zero freshwater inputs, this porous formation will be full of seawater. As you start introducing freshwater through rainfall, stream-flow percolation, irrigation seepage, pipe leakage, or septic tanks, the freshwater will displace the saltwater, but because freshwater is lighter, it will always be on top of the seawater.
The rate of freshwater inflow, together with the geologic characteristics, determines where the interface between the salt and freshwater is. The more fresh water you put into the aquifer, the further the interface will be displaced toward the sea. And this can even produce freshwater springs discharging discharge from the shoreline or beneath the seabed.
As soon as you start pumping fresh water out of the aquifer, this interface will move inland, which is called "saline intrusion." Still, you won't see it until it moves far enough to enter wells.
We already do have saline intrusion which has affected drinking water wells in some of our coastal aquifers. Saltwater intrusion can also occur as a result of changes in the rate of recharge.
Until the 1970s, the stream flow, other than floods, plus deliveries from reservoirs, were used for sugarcane irrigation, and 30% of that water leaked into the aquifer. However, this recharge had diminished dramatically as irrigation acreage declined. Both reservoirs and wells were used increasingly for municipal supply. And coastal treatment plants were built to discharge the once-used fresh water to the sea. This is the problem on the south coast, declining recharge.
To combat this, we can use "managed recharge," which would capture water that would otherwise flow to the ocean and use it to recharge south coast aquifers. Do an Internet search for "managed recharge California," and you will find many examples."
How is climate change affecting our water resources in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and South Florida, particularly the river deltas, and how does this will impact the geomorphology of streams?
"In analyzing long-term stream flow data sets in Puerto Rico, I have not seen any impact of climate change to date. In eastern Puerto Rico, the most severe drought of record occurred in 1967-68; for almost two years, it was not possible to fill the Carraízo reservoir.
Recent professional literature reports that long term rainfall data sets in the Caribbean do not reflect significant changes to date. Remember, the biggest impacts on climate change are in the Arctic, which is losing its ice. In contrast, effects are lower in the tropics.
That said, just because we have not perceived climate impacts to date, it doesn't mean that climate change won't eventually have catastrophic consequences. When the Arctic Ocean loses its ice cover and begins to absorb a lot of heat instead of reflecting sunlight off the ice, that will indeed be a tipping point.
If you want to understand the difference between the ability of a white and a dark surface to absorb solar energy, as you walk through a parking lot on a sunny day, touch the top of a white car, and then touch a black one. You will be amazed.
The other big climate unknown is the release of methane hydrates from the permafrost and seafloor. Because methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, there is a lot of scientific controversy on the issue of methane release. Still, if large volumes release in a positive feedback loop, the consequences would be catastrophic everywhere.
Concerning fossil fuels and climate, we are literally "playing with fire." It is not a question of if we will get burned, but how badly. Decisions to take a societal path of least regret is highly relevant here."
Correct me if I am wrong. I saw you on a consortium or organization regarding hydroelectric power. Is that right? If Hydroelectric power is the largest source of renewable energy, why is it not expected to grow all that much as wind and solar? Yes, wind and solar are easier alternatives, but they take a lot of real estates that we desperately need for other resources. Explain:
"I have been very active in international hydro-power consulting for more than a decade. Growth in hydro-power is limited to sites with high slope and lots of water. And these sites are limited. In the USA, we already developed potential locations. And the same is true of Puerto Rico. Most of the new projects are in the Andes and Himalaya. Hydro-power is limited by water.
Look at Puerto Rico, mountainous and with a lot of rain, yet hydro-power supplies less than 2% of our energy. And the construction of dams for the development of new hydro-power projects is neither economically nor environmentally feasible, except for pumped storage. Which uses hydro-power as a larger battery.
Pumping water up to a higher reservoir when solar energy is in excess during the day and releasing it to produce power after the sunsets uses a lot of energy.
Even though hydro-power supplies nearly 20% of the world's electricity, as the energy demand increases, the relative contribution from hydro-power will diminish. Merely due to the limited amount of water available and the environmental consequences of hydro-power in some areas.
High mountain hydro-power has a relatively smaller environmental impact because top mountain rivers have low biological productivity and diversity, and few people live there. But as you drop lower into the watershed the environmental consequences grow.
For example, in the Mekong basin, downstream of the border with China, over 130 hydro-power projects are planned or are underway. And this is the world's most biologically diverse river system. Trapping of sediment behind dams contributes to the sinking of the Mekong delta, already threatened by sea-level rise. The delta is home to over 20 million people and the most critical rice production area in Vietnam."
What is your take from a professional environmental consultant point of view and fracking or hydraulic fracturing?
"Fracking definitely has environmental consequences with respect to water contamination."
Thank you Greg, you are a great influence, indeed!