OLMSTED, Ill. –- Engineers constructing the mammoth Olmsted Locks and Dam spent the summer of 2014 lowering colossal concrete blocks in place on the bottom of the Ohio River.
Submerging each piece, which form the base of a half-mile long dam that is largely underwater, is an exacting convergence of digital measurements, floating cranes, groaning towboats, and divers working in murky waters that takes over two weeks to complete.
Like everything else about the two locks and the dam that reaches from Illinois to Kentucky at one of the Ohio’s widest points, the 120-foot-long, 2,562-ton blocks are outsized. Completing Olmsted has involved solving wicked structural and assembly challenges prompted by its experimental design. It’s meant fabricating one-of-a-kind heavy lift cranes that crawl on land and float on a barge.
It’s also caused engineers and skilled craftsmen to candidly accept the criticism that comes with a steadily rising price tag that appears to have stabilized at $US 3.1 billion, and to endure a nearly 30-year construction schedule that no one anticipated.
Still, those are not the only distinguishing features of the Olmsted project, the largest and most expensive inland water navigation installation ever built in the United States. What sets the Olmsted project apart is its uncanny ability to attract consistent funding in an era when most of the other water infrastructure projects in the United States are so desperate for money they generally are not built or are years behind schedule. For example:
– The Army Corps of Engineers, which constructs and manages inland water transport infrastructure, including the Olmsted Project, has a $US 66 billion backlog of projects.
– The American Water Works Association, a trade organization, released a study in 2012 that found that due to deferred maintenance, replacing and modernizing the more than one million miles of water supply pipes in the United States will require an investment of $US 1 trillion over the next generation.
– The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, charged by federal law to safeguard the nation’s water quality, reports that “every year across the country, there are approximately 240,000 water main breaks. As many as 75,000 yearly sanitary sewer overflows discharge three to ten billion gallons of untreated wastewater, leading to some 5,500 illnesses due to exposures to contaminated recreational waters.”
STOCKHOLM — Of all the world’s developed nations, none faces a more urgent confrontation between rising energy demand and scarce water supplies than South Africa. Just as in other desert African nations, parched South Africa is desperate to generate more energy while somehow bypassing ecological limits on its water supply.
One in every ten of South Africa’s 51 million residents do not have ready access to clean supplies of drinking water, according Christine Colvin, a freshwater program specialist for the World Wide Fund for Nature in South Africa. More than one in ten South Africans does not have access to electricity in a nation that has built just 46,000 megawatts of electrical generating capacity, said Martin Ginster, a land, water, and environmental manager at Sasol, the big South African coal and fuel producing company.
That’s the same level of generating capacity as Illinois, a big American industrial state with about one-fifth of South Africa’s population. Ninety percent of South Africa’s electricity is fueled by water-gulping coal.
During two programs convened by the World Resources Institute, and held here on the third and fourth days of World Water Week, Colvin and Ginster described the conflicting paths that South African authorities are considering to respond to their nation’s thirst for water and energy. In one scenario, which the nation is pursuing with modest resolve, is to tap the country’s deep shale reserves for new supplies of natural gas. That involves fracturing the reserves with millions of gallons of water, though it is not certain that the fluid needed to frack those wells needs to be fresh water.
The other new pathway is to build more than 18,000 megawatts (18 gigawatts) of new generating capacity from wind and solar photovoltaic plants, both of which require far lower amounts of fresh water. South Africa has set 2030 as the year it wants to reach that goal.
Neither Colvin nor Ginster knew what it might cost to build 18 gigawatts of renewable generating capacity, though it’s not a terrifically large amount of power. Yet what was striking about their comments to an ample audience of executives, scientists, activists and government officials from around the world was the agreement both shared about the need to actively pursue the clean energy program and be exceedingly cautious about fracking South Africa’s desert.
Circle of Blue, where I’ve worked since 2007, and full-time since 2010, is steadily earning a reputation for best-in-class reporting, photography, and data design graphics on the global contest for clean water. This week, Circle of Blue’s trendsetting reporting on Western water issues in the United States and its scintillating photography on the contest for fresh water in India, California, and the Great Plains were honored with two awards from the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), the premiere professional trade organization representing 1,400 journalists and academics in 27 countries.
Brett Walton, Circle of Blue’s Seattle-based correspondent, won third place for “outstanding beat reporting” in a small market for five articles encompassing drug disposal in California, water scarcity in the Colorado River Basin, water pricing in 30 American cities, drought in Texas, and disinvestment in water infrastructure.
J. Carl Ganter, Circle of Blue’s Traverse City-based co-founder and managing director, joined Choke Point: Index photographers Matt Black and Brian Lehmann in winning second place honors in environmental photojournalism for five compelling photographs of the competition between water, food, and energy on two continents.
SEJ said that it considered 313 entries for the 2013-2014 awards and chose 21 winners in seven categories. Circle of Blue is the only news organization to win two awards in this year’s contest.
It is the second time in two years that Circle of Blue’s reporting and photography on the global contest for fresh water has been recognized for its excellence. In 2012, the Rockefeller Foundation honored Circle of Blue with its $US100,000 Centennial Innovation Award.
“It is with humility and gratitude that we thank our colleagues and peers at the Society of Environmental Journalists for these honors,” Ganter said. “The story we are telling about the shrinking global supply of clean fresh water is critical to the security of every nation, every economy, every community. It is an honor to work with our exceptional Circle of Blue team. With these awards, it’s very gratifying to know such an esteemed group of environmental journalists thinks we are on the right track.”
Circle of Blue joined a prominent list of mainstream and online news organizations that also won SEJ awards this year. They include: The Baltimore Sun, Climate Wire, High Country News, the Miami Herald, National Geographic, Natural History, The New York Times, Scientific American, and The Seattle Times.
The contest judges made these comments about Brett Walton’s work:
“Brett Walton’s stories on the timely topic of drought brought out the calculations and competing interests for water in three major Western states, and he spun the issue out to the international level. The judges liked his easy, digestible writing style.”
And the judges said this about Circle of Blue’s photographers:
“From India to the Midwest to California, J. Carl Ganter, Matt Black, and Brian Lehmann capture in both intimate portraiture and dramatic aerials the changes to lives and landscape brought and wrought by the world’s quest for water.”
Brett Walton’s Award-Winning Stories
- — “Who Will Pay for Disposal? Drug Companies Lose Against Local Governments in California and Washington”
- — “Fortune Telling: Colorado River Teeters Toward First-ever Shortage Declaration”
- — “The Price of Water 2013: Up Nearly 7 Percent in Last Year in 30 Major U.S. Cities; 25 Percent Rise Since 2010″
- — “Texas High Plains Prepare for Agriculture Without Irrigation”
- — “Bad Report Card: Low Marks — Again — For U.S. Water Infrastructure”
Circle of Blue’s Award-Winning PhotographyCredit: Photo © Matt Black / Circle of BlueKettleman City resident Maria Salcedo’s ten-month-old daughter, Ashley Alvarez, died from complications stemming from multiple birth defects during a rash of such occurrences between 2007 and 2008 in this small farmworker town in the Central Valley. Contaminated drinking water is viewed as one of the potential causes. Photo © Matt Black / Circle of Blue. Click image to enlarge.Credit: Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of BlueDesraj Khai, 57, has worked the Sekhon family’s land for nearly five decades, since the start of the Green Revolution, when Western crop scientists introduced Punjabi farmers to hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, and chlorine-based weed and insect killers. Click image to enlarge.Credit: Photo © Matt Black / Circle of BlueJohn Burchard, General Manager of the Alpaugh Community Services District, walks a ditch bank on the outskirts of town. The small farmworker community in California’s Central Valley suffers from high levels of arsenic and other contaminates in its drinking water.Click image to enlarge.Credit: Photo © Brian Lehman / Circle of BlueA golden circle, this one near Edson, Kansas, is the tell-tale sign of an irrigated corn field ready for harvest. Farmers in the Great Plains produce some of the highest corn yields in the world thanks in part to abundant water supplies from the Ogallala Aquifer. The aquifer, however, is draining away because more water is pumped out than filters back in.Click image to enlarge.
View the complete list of winners at Society of Environmental Journalists.
– Keith Schneider