Friday, May 30, 2008

New Year's Resolution

This year may family gave me the honor to play the Green Man at our Winter Solstice celebration. My family loves theater, in all its forms, and sacred ceremony is high on our list of productions. My daughter, Chrysalis, bought me a green "Santa Suit," for a better name, and she and my wife, Cari, and my son Nick all designed a wonderful Solstice ceremony for the women's circle of friends and family.

Our Winter Solstice, celebrating the longest night in the Northern Hemisphere, starts out in complete darkness. Reading lines from a candle, we end with cheers to bring back the light, which was my cue as the Green Man to appear in the circle and give each reveler a piece of paper to write their wishes or intentions for the new year. This same paper was then wrapped around some blessed sunflower seeds and we then emerged from the house and, with much noise-making, danced out to the compost pile and deposited our intentions back with the great Mother. The Green Man's job was finally done with his shoveling new dirt onto our new resolutions, and we returned to our long night of reveling and merry making.

This blog is the beginning of the fulfillment of my resolution made that fun-filled night.

My adult life has all been spent in San Jose, arriving here in the autumn of 1969 to do my graduate work at San Jose State University in Environmental Engineering. I was hired after graduation to work for a Chicago-based engineering company, that had formed a joint venture with the mighty Bechtel Corporation, to assess the impact of future waste(d) water discharges into all of San Francisco Bay. Part of this study was to examine the potential for water recycling in the Santa Clara Valley, as it was called before the sands of time and silicon replaced our Latino-dominated nomenclature.

In such a grand mental exercise as projecting the growth of population and its excremental load heading for the San Francisco Estuary, I began to see the blind spots the engineering professionals needed to employ to advance their preferred construction programs to build the necessary machinery to allow a megalopolis to thrive and at the same time, try to mitigate the enormous footprint and ecological impact of that mass of humanity and all their baggage. The State and Federal Environmental Quality Acts were just coming out of our Capitols, mandating a more comprehensive approach to projects and a better community disclosure of the full array of impacts and possible mitigations. Elected officials had the final word on proceeding with public works and other projects, and still have the power to plunder the planet with their local decision-making, and also get the funds from tax payers to fund the endeavor.

One presentation of this engineering report was made to the Board of Directors of the Santa Clara Valley Water District at the end of 1971, the same year I found that I had testicular cancer. (After surgery and radiation treatment, this brush with death, gave me the lifetime resolve to DO IT NOW!) The Water District Board and staff found our recommendations for the cost and great potential for water recycling very threatening to their preferred next water project, the San Felipe Division of the Federal Central Valley Water Project. This project was already authorized by Congress, but appropriations had been nil during the time of the Vietnam war, sucking the treasury dry, as it is today with the Iraq war.

The Water District decided they needed to control this aspect of this comprehensive wastewater study, so the consortium was hired to do an "addendum study" As the principal investigator on the recycled water portion of the original study, I was assigned to meet with the Water District staff to launch this extra analysis of recycling. I falsely felt hope that our dialogue could move the Water District toward thinking to include recycled water as part of its supply portfolio, and bring an end to the linear thinking that dominated too many systems in this and every major megalopolis.

Once the meeting began, I realized that the staff wanted us to cook some numbers on a smaller recycling project, which would generate large unit costs for the water, and use these numbers for NOT supporting, and even blocking the construction of a water recycling system in the South Bay.

This became a serious ethical dilemma in my young professional career: Do the assignment and please the corporate client (and save my job/paycheck/mortgage/marriage) or step up for my community and show that the political use of engineering science was a misguided and inappropriate use of public funds??

I chose the later, and still managed to keep my house, but the rest passed on into my resume. My action was quite radical for my profession, but quite conventional from the "establishment's" perspective. In 1972, I challenge an incumbent of the Water District Board and campaigned on a strong environmental platform for stream and watershed stewardship and water recycling, as well as questioning population growth and promoting open space, including local agriculture preservation. I was elected in a runoff election in November, beating the incumbent by less than 1000 votes.

In future posts, I will share much of the deep history of water politics as I have experienced it over the last 35 years, and hopefully give scholars and professionals the knowledge they may find useful in their work for the future of our valley and the planet at large.

Thank you for reading my blog and I hope you will return for more of my thoughts on water and living lightly on our planet.

Never Thirst!


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