Explore Utah Science - Explore Utah Science - Science and Society http://exploreutahscience.org Fri, 19 Jan 2018 14:25:39 -0700 en-gb Blog: Science Helped Me Learn to Love Middle Schoolers http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/152-science-helped-me-learn-to-love-middle-schoolers http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/152-science-helped-me-learn-to-love-middle-schoolers Blog: Science Helped Me Learn to Love Middle Schoolers

A graduate student gains a new appreciation for middle schoolers when she finds they can be just as passionate about pikas, and the threats to their livlihood, as she is.

A decade ago, I would have NEVER believed that I would write the following words, but here they are: I love working with 7th graders! My twenty-something self would have further cringed at the idea of leading dozens of boisterous middle schoolers through quiet mountain landscapes. And yet, here I am, traipsing across alpine boulder fields with 60 of my closest 7th grade friends.

So, how did I get here? When I began really thinking about inaction on CO2 emissions, I realized there was a disconnect between understanding that climate change is happening on an abstract level and viscerally feeling as though one has experienced its effects. Climate change can often feel as though it will happen in a distant place at a future time. I decided that we needed a better way to connect policy makers and voters with the changes happening today.

Digging deeper, I learned that close connections with science and nature are often forged in those terrifying, but formative, middle school years. Still wincing at the thought of addressing a room full of 13 year olds, I participated in a K-12 teaching fellowship as a first-year graduate student. Fortunately, I was paired with two fantastic teachers at the Salt Lake Center for Science Education who taught me how not-scary 7th graders actually are. In fact, they are a rare group that has enough knowledge to tackle real science, yet retains their youthful, energetic curiosity about the natural world.

Read more of Johanna Varner's blog on the Union of Concerned Scientists website

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johannavarner@gmail.com (Johanna Varner) Science and Society Sat, 08 Nov 2014 21:42:23 -0700
Can Farmers and Cities Share Utah’s Water? http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/151-can-farmers-and-cities-share-utah-s-water http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/151-can-farmers-and-cities-share-utah-s-water Can Farmers and Cities Share Utah’s Water?

As Utah's water needs grow with a rising population, the temptation is to siphon water from the state's largest water user, agriculture. Can farmlands survive a growing urban thirst?

As Utah's water needs grow with a rising population, the temptation is to siphon water from the state's largest water user, agriculture. Can farmlands survive a growing urban thirst? This is another story in our ongoing series, Follow the Flow.

Rex Larsen ratchets down bails of straw on his flatbed truck, ready to take to market, here in this community called Leland, on the southern edge of Utah's Wasatch front. "My Great grandfather was one of the first to farm at this area. Where we live right here, it was originally called the New Survey," he says.

Larsen grows corn, barley, but mostly alfalfa which is used to make hay to feed horses and cattle. And to do it he uses a lot of water. His heirloom water right – passed down from his great grandfather - comes from Strawberry Reservoir and is channeled nearly 50 miles down Spanish Fork Canyon through a network of culverts and canals.

"When they were able to get the additional water from the Strawberry project and dig the tunnels through the mountains to bring the water this direction, all of this land here was surveyed," says Larsen. "They put in drains to keep the water table low enough. It's turned into beautiful farm ground from doing that."

Every spring, Larsen says different canal companies disperse the water to him and other farmers in the area, many of whom also flood their fields to grow alfalfa. The plant has deep taproots that suck up the water, and it grows fast so Larsen says he can harvest a new crop three or four times a year, bail it, and truck it away to market.

Larsen has farmed these 300 acres of farmland here that surrounds his home since the late '70s. In that time he says he's watched plenty of neighboring farmland vanish under new homes, roads, and traffic.

"There are some areas closer to Spanish Fork that have started to develop, and we have three new subdivisions in our community here. So that's changing a little. Nice people moving in. It's fun to meet them but it's different than it was."

So far the new urban neighbors aren't disturbing his life's work. But with Utah's population set to add another 2.5 million people in the next 35 years, that could all change.

Sterling Brown with the Utah Farm Bureau says almost everyone understands that some of the water needed for new homes, parks, schools, and businesses will have to come from agriculture, which uses 80 percent of the state's developed water supply.

"For a hundred plus years, and certainly today, ag [agriculture] provides the bank for water growth," says Brown. "And as that growth continues to come to Utah, cities and counties and industries and others will increasingly have to go to the farmer. And in a willing buyer, willing seller – we hope – arrangement, convert that ag water that is growing our food and fiber, and convert it to industry, or municipal, or other needs."

Yet others claim that with conversation measures, future urbanization will have little impact on agriculture's water supply. If urban water use doubles from roughly 15 percent to 30 percent as predicted, officials estimate agriculture will still have 65 to 70 percent of the state's water available to them. What's more, according to Zach Frankel with the Utah Rivers Council, there may be little need for agriculture to give up water if farmers take measures to use less of it.

"As you urbanize these ag lands, especially irrigated ag lands, you actually create a surplus of water because you're not irrigating your streets and parking lots, you're not irrigating the rooftops. You're only irrigating the section of lawns that is the new landscape. And those lawns added together are a small percentage of the total land mass.

But it has been hard for some to even discuss the topic, since in some circles, the mere mention that cities may take over water that's historically been used for growing crops, is taboo. Doug Jackson-Smith researches the sociology of agriculture at Utah State University.

"Most of the conversation I hear about meeting future water needs is focused on finding new sources of water," says Jackson-Smith. "Certainly conservation is a huge piece of that strategy because it reduces the future demand that we're going to have. I anticipate we'll be using water a lot more efficiently as urban people in the future. But not many of those conversations have been open to talking about ways to incorporate agricultural water into that solution."

In theory, diverting agricultural water to a growing urban population can be done without harming agriculture if farmers can free up water by using it more efficiently. The problem is, there's no incentive to conserve because Utah's century-old water laws punish those who do so. Jackson-Smith says if you don't use your full water right, you give up that right and it reverts to the state.

"If you cut your water use by 25 percent in farming, you don't get anything back except the benefit of knowing you're using 25 percent less water. Unless that changes, it's hard to imagine how agriculture could be an industry that might find ways to make water more available for serving these different land uses and urban customers that are taking over that landscape."

Utah's current laws, some say, effectively put ownership of water at a premium. Which leads many to hold onto water rights for so long, that they eventually become forgotten.

Tucked back in the trees here just east of a parking lot for Fashion Place Mall in Sandy is an old farming canal still carrying someone's water rights. A remnant of a now vanished farming community. Instead of nourishing the local stream from where it was diverted, this water here travels through a concrete landscape until eventually making its way to the Great Salt Lake. Such canals now dot the urban landscape.

Recently Walt Baker, director of Utah's Department of Water Quality, told state legislators that the state doesn't know how much water could be available from older farms for Utah's growing population. Here's Baker showing lawmakers an overhead image of the Lehi area.

"Where those farms used to be there were a lot of water rights. But guess what! Here's an overlay of those old farms and the city now. There's still lots and lots of water rights in the very same place... As these areas change use, often the water right is abandoned or forgotten and we lose track of the use," says Baker. "It wasn't even a state law until this last year that county recorders had to keep a record of water rights. But this causes us to tell you, there is a need for adjudication."

Yet, Sterling Brown, with the Utah Farm Bureau, say there is little money for adjudication to determine exactly how much water could be available from converting old, and perhaps some current agricultural water rights to urban use.

"That adjudication process is essential to meeting Utah's water demands," says Brown. "We need to know how much water we have, where it's being used, when it's being used, and who's using it. Those are some fundamental questions. And those are answered through the adjudication process. That's the good news. The bad news is there's only limited dollars to fund that adjudication process. It's going currently at a snail's pace. And that process isn't keeping up with the demand."

While figuring out just how much water there is currently to go around, Jackson-Smith says Utah should consider mechanisms that work for other states, like water banking. Using water banks, water right holders can retain their rights, but are financially rewarded for conserving, while other parties can apply for new uses for that water.

"Looking at the future for Utah... there might be ways to work with agriculture to come up with solutions that hold agriculture harmless – both financially and in terms of producing what they need – and incentivize smart changes to improve efficiencies of uses in exchange for compensation that makes it worthwhile," says Jackson-Smith.

Reconfiguring water laws, conserving, and re-evaluating existing water rights are all approaches to preserving agriculture while still making sure there's enough water for everyone. But Frankel says if agriculture and urbanization can't find a middle ground soon, it could be at the expense of a way of life we take for granted.

"The Wasatch Front's growth is squeezing farmers out of business all along the Wasatch Front," says Frankel. "And the question must be asked, at what point do we not want Utah farming. There are a lot of concerns about having to truck all of our food in from outside of Utah. Clearly that's not really in anybody's best interest."

Back at Rex Larsen's farm, Larsen gazes out at the rush hour traffic on the highway. For now, he's using his water to grow his crops as he sees fit. But he says he has mixed emotions about the future.

"Certainly, I don't want to be the last generation, but that may happen because of development, because of encroachment. And the fact that no one wants to take over for me," says Larsen. He adds, "I think as long as I'm healthy and can keep farming we'll keep doing that. And if something else changes, we'll analyze that when it comes."

This is the latest story in an ongoing series by Explore Utah Science on research to maintain and protect Utah's critical water resources. The "Follow the Flow" series is made possible by iUTAH, a National Science Foundation–funded statewide effort to maintain and improve water sustainability.

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rosschambless@hotmail.com (Ross Chambless) Science and Society Thu, 06 Nov 2014 19:01:24 -0700
From Nuisance to Resource: Reconsidering Stormwater http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/150-from-nuisance-to-resource-reconsidering-stormwater http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/150-from-nuisance-to-resource-reconsidering-stormwater From Nuisance to Resource: Reconsidering Stormwater

New practices promise to reduce the pollution that stormwater brings, and turn stormwater into a resource that can help replenish parched lands.

As part of an ongoing series called “Follow the Flow” that examines Utah’s water future, this story examines how water managers in Utah are shifting their point of view when it comes to stormwater. New practices promise to reduce the pollution that stormwater brings, and turn stormwater into a resource that can help replenish parched lands.

With every storm comes stormwater that sweeps up anything in its path, including oil, grease, leaves, litter, fertilizer and what ever else accumulates on roadways, parking lots, and on our lawns. It washes down gutters and into underground pipes that deliver the gunk straight to our rivers and streams.

“The big problem we have with stormwater is that it’s not treated before it goes into the rivers,” says Jason Draper, a stormwater manager for Salt Lake City. “And so as water comes off the parking lot, it would go in a pipe and go in the river with whatever else is in the parking lot.”

In fact, half of the pollutants in our nations waterways come from stormwater runoff, causing civic leaders to rethink how they should deal with it. “Traditionally it’s been about flood control and getting water away,” says Draper. “Now we’re looking at this water as a resource and what we can do to clean it up. It’s an exciting time.”

Managers like Draper are looking toward the next generation of stormwater management practices called Low Impact Development (LID). It’s sort of a throw back to nature. The idea is to keep rain as close as possible to where it naturally falls, and let soils and plants do the hard work of filtering out pollutants as it seeps into the ground.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been promoting LID for years, but it’s been slow to catch on here in Utah, and the semi-arid West. “People have the perception that it doesn’t rain. Well, it does rain here, just during certain times of year,” says Christine Pomeroy, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Utah. “We don’t get as much rain but it doesn’t mean that we don’t have pollutants accumulating on our surfaces that end up in the stormwater. So it’s still important.”

Planning for the urban future             

LID projects are finally starting to pop up, even in Utah. Midway between Provo and Salt Lake City, the planned community of Daybreak offers a glimpse into the urban future. Along with light rail and solar powered homes, it has put it’s own twist on stormwater management.

When rain falls, stormwater travels through a series of gutters and above ground channels into common-use lawns that sink into swimming pool sized infiltration basins. Dry wells at the bottom of the basins act like drains that send the water deep underground, promising to replenish lands that have been parched in recent years.

Plus, the system catches nearly all of the stormwater runoff, keeping pollutants out of the nearby Jordan River.

Daybreak engineer Gary Langston says their system will save $70 million over the lifetime of the community, largely because they didn’t have to put much pipe in the ground. “For me, one of the personal things that I like about our stormwater system is that it keeps the stormwater where it landed,” says Langston. “Obviously with development we’re modifying the natural environment a little bit but it maintains the ecosystem in place as much as we’re able.”

Though their custom approach appears to work as planned, it isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. “Storing the 100-year storm event doesn’t work for every project,” says Langston. “When you have the size of the development we have it makes a lot of sense. When you have a small 10-lot subdivision it probably doesn’t work for you.”

Rain gardens in the desert

Yet there are some LID practices that can fit nearly anywhere. These include green roofs, pervious pavement, rain barrels, and rain gardens. Originally designed to handle the soggy East Coast weather, scientists with the water research group iUTAH are now adapting them to cope with the unique conditions of the semi-arid West.

The University of Utah in Salt Lake City is home to some of these experimental gardens. One, nestled between a parking lot and brick building, is planted with clusters of bunch grass and rabbitbrush, bursting with pretty yellow flowers. Under crushed rock and topsoil is two-feet of gravel, which acts like a reservoir.

“What happens when it rains, the water goes to that gravel layer and fills that gravel layer during the storm and then after the storm slowly infiltrates to the soil below. Then during the summer these plants can root down, as far as 20 or 30 feet in some cases, to access that water during the summer, reducing your need for irrigation,” explains Dasch Houdeshel. He built the rain garden four years ago when he was a scientist with the water research group iUTAH.

By many measures, the garden is doing quite well. Unlike the lawn it replaced, it hasn’t needed sprinklers or drip irrigation in three years. “We’ve probably saved 37,000 gallons per year which is roughly one-third acre-foot of water since the garden was built,” says Houdeshel. That’s equivalent to one-half of a football field filled one foot deep with water.

But, Houdeshel acknowledges that more research needs to be done. He’s found that waterwise plants aren’t as good at extracting pollutants from stormwater runoff as wetland plants used in East Coast rain gardens. Plus, some are afraid that rain gardens may actually deliver pollutants to underground sources of water. “There’s just not enough known to be able to make certain recommendations about these designs and to ensure them,” he says.

Perpetual motion

Despite uncertainties, regional stormwater managers are excited by what they see. Salt Lake City Public Utilities has installed a demonstration rain garden on its property just east of downtown, hoping to promote the concept within the city and in private industry. “This is more expensive then just putting in traditional pipe. But in the long run when you factor in social costs, water costs, and any other costs that could happen if untreated downstream, it’s a big money saver. And it looks nice,” says Draper. Some studies show a long-term savings of up to 80%, over the traditional curb and gutter approach.

According to Utah State University social scientist Andrea Armstrong, it may not be long until practices like these are embraced on a wider scale across the state. She ran a statewide survey showing that half of the 70 cities who responded are implementing LID water management practices already, and the number of projects is growing.

“It’s ripe. It’s a really ripe area in Utah. Other semi-arid states are grappling with this as well. The seeds of these innovations are starting,” she says.

While ordinances that support or limit LID practices vary widely across the state, there seems to be a general feeling among stormwater managers that it’s only a matter of time before such practices catch on. “Once you start, it becomes perpetual motion after that,” says Trace Robinson, public works director with Riverton City. “Once you have a successful project, it’s something you can show others, and there’s a lot of those starting to show up.”

Rain garden at the University of Utah

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julie@exploreutahscience.org (Julie Kiefer) Science and Society Tue, 16 Sep 2014 22:57:24 -0600
Crowdfunding and Private Funding Are Changing Science - Blog http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/149-crowdfunding-and-philanthropy-are-changing-science http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/149-crowdfunding-and-philanthropy-are-changing-science Crowdfunding and Private Funding Are Changing Science - Blog

Reductions in federal budgets for science and technology are forcing scientists to increasingly rely on philanthropy and crowdfunding to fund their research. Are we prepared for the consequences?

A profound change has taken place in the way science is paid for and practiced in America. American science, long a source of national pride has become the domain of private citizens, from the wealthiest to average people like you and me. Federal budget stalemates and partisan in-fighting have decimated government funded research programs, making ghost towns out of the nation’s research laboratories. Scores of scientists have been laid off, projects have been shut down and shelved mid-discovery and many labs have closed entirely. This has led to the burgeoning culture of “science philanthropy”, a controversial yet effective means to skirt the federal budget disasters and get scientific discovery and innovation underway once again.

Most scientists are uncomfortable at the thought of rattling their cup on the street corner, but the privatization of science is a hot trend being seized by the villains of Silicon Valley and Wall Street, as many of the richest Americans see the opportunity to reinvent themselves as scientific patrons (see examples such as Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor (and founder of the media company that bears his name), James Simons (hedge funds) and David H. Koch (oil and chemicals), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Eric E. Schmidt (Google) and Lawrence J. Ellison (Oracle). The flip side of that penny is the rise of “crowdfunding” for scientific research, in what amounts to a shake down of the desperate scientist’s family and friend social networks and the hope that one’s campaign will “go viral” with a catchy hashtag. Experiment (formerly Microryza), IndieGoGo and Kickstarter are just three of the many crowdfunding platforms available.

Just how did we get here? In the realm of basic biomedical research, nationwide, roughly 16 percent of scientists in 2012 with sustaining National Institutes of Health (NIH) (known as "R01") grants lost them in 2013, according to one analysis. That amounts to 3,500 scientists nationwide trying to find money to keep their labs afloat. Since 2004, the NIH budget has decreased by more than 20 percent.

And this is for research that can be easily explained to Congress: anyone can understand cancer, however not everyone can understand what the spin of a subatomic particle means. Therefore, these branches of scientific research have been systemically gutted in the great budget wars of the last few years.

The long-term importance to our economy of government-supported research cannot be overstated, but yet it is the low man on the totem pole in the current debate over how to reduce the federal deficit.

Illustrating this, a report published this year by the National Research Council, looked at eight computing technologies, from digital communications, databases, computer architectures and artificial intelligence, tracing government-financed research to commercialization. It calculated the portion of revenue at 30 well-known corporations that could be traced back to the seed research backed by government agencies, at nearly $500 billion a year!

The controversy and criticism of the private funding avenue is creating rifts in the scientific community. Whereas public funding for science seeks to level the playing field among the nation’s scientific investigators - whether geographically, economically, or racially - private money can and often does play favorites. The result is a brave new world of influence and priorities that the scientific community views with ambivalence.

For example, disease research has been particularly prone to unequal attention along racial and economic lines. A look at recent major philanthropic initiatives suggests that a number of campaigns, driven by personal adversity, target illnesses that predominantly afflict mainly Caucasians — such as cystic fibrosis and melanoma, or most recently the Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) Association in the “Ice Bucket Challenge”. Crowdfunding campaigns are often won on “personality and likeability” two traits that would never be evaluated in a true scientific proposal.

The impact and influence of private funding is likely to be more than just a flash-in the-pan. A recent New York Times analysis shows that the 40 or so richest science donors (who have signed a pledge to give most of their fortunes to charity) have assets surpassing one-quarter of a trillion dollars. And recent major successes in crowdfunding have demonstrated that significant amounts can be raised in small increments, such as the “Solar Roadways” campaign, which raised $2.2 million.

No one, either in or out of government, has been comprehensively tracking the magnitude and impact of privately funded science. The new science philanthropy is personal, antibureaucratic, inspirational even, but will it also allow the continued de-funding of federal for science, and what long term effect will that have on our economy?


The author, Dr. Carol Lynn George is currently running a crowdfunding campaign to raise $5,000 for renewable energy research. If you wish to contribute to her campaign you can do so here

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carolcurchoe@32atps.com (Carol Lynn George) Science and Society Sun, 14 Sep 2014 13:55:40 -0600
Pristine to Polluted: The Journey of an Urban Stream http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/146-from-pristine-to-polluted-following-the-journey-of-an-urban-stream http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/146-from-pristine-to-polluted-following-the-journey-of-an-urban-stream Pristine to Polluted: The Journey of an Urban Stream

Salt Lake City’s Red Butte Creek offers a unique opportunity for scientists to study how a mountain stream changes when it enters an urban environment.

Salt Lake City’s Red Butte Creek offers a unique opportunity for scientists to study how a mountain stream changes when it enters an urban environment. As part of an ongoing series called “Follow the Flow”, that examines our relationship to our watersheds in Utah, this is the story of the journey of an urban stream.

Entering the Red Butte Canyon Research Natural Area offers a rare glimpse of a near pristine watershed that’s right next to a bustling metropolis. It is surrounded by a 7-square mile fenced enclosure that’s managed jointly by the Forest Service and the University of Utah. The fence normally keeps anyone who’s not a scientist, out.

At the creek side, lies what looks sort of like an inert robot, with a white box for a head, a solar panel for a hat, and two black cylinder arms reaching into the water. The GAMUT station (Gradients Along Mountain to Urban Transitions) is one of five instrument stations installed last summer with funding from iUTAH, an organization that supports water research, to gather data from this creek as it flows out of the protected research area and into Salt Lake City. Hydrologist David Eiriksson recently got the stations setup to transmit data every 15 minutes to his University of Utah laboratory.

“Each one of these guys is measuring something different. This one’s dissolved oxygen. This one’s measuring pH. This one’s measuring conductivity. You can think of it as how salty the water is. This one’s measuring chlorophyll and blue-green algae, and this one is dissolved organic matter,” said Eriksson. “Really pretty neat data coming out of these.”

Eiriksson says the data is still provisional, but he hopes these multiple stations along the stream will tell a story over time. The data is also being shared with researchers at Utah State and Brigham Young Universities, who can compare it with similar data collected from the Provo and Logan River watersheds. Eventually it will be made available to the public through the internet.

“We’re starting to develop a long term record,” explained Eriksson. “That’s one of the goals of the project. To get some baseline data that researchers can then start to ask other questions.” 

How this watershed came to be protected ties back to when U.S. soldiers arrived in 1862 and built Fort Douglas at the mouth of the canyon. The story goes that as they kept their cannons trained suspiciously on the Mormons in the valley below, they realized that rock quarrying and animal grazing in the canyon was polluting their drinking water. In 1890, the Territory District Court declared the creek’s waters the sole property of the U.S. Army, and they built the fence to safeguard it.

Today, this creek is no longer used for drinking, but in the protected Research Natural Area, the water is clear. Red sandstone boulders and a thick canopy of gamble oak, mountain maple, and other native vegetation cradle the stream banks. Just below this point the water flows into Red Butte reservoir that’s managed by the Central Utah Water Conservancy District for growing endangered native June Sucker fish.

“There hasn’t been a lot of people up in this watershed. Never had a lot of grazing. Never had a lot of development. There’s not a paved road,” said Eriksson. “So it’s really a unique thing to have such a pristine watershed so close to a major urban center.”

A short ride back down the canyon, and out of the protected research area, the scene changes quickly.
In the area known as Research Park south of the University of Utah, construction crews erect another building on land next to the creek that’s already paved and packed-in by brick, steel, and concrete structures. Behind the buildings, and through a tangle of bushes and tree branches, is another hidden aquatic station.

“One of the things we really see, is how much flashier this site is than up higher. By flashy, I mean the response to rain is much more dramatic here than up higher in the watershed,” said Eriksson. “The reason is we have a bunch of concrete. Instead of rainwater infiltrating, it runs down, into the concrete, then into storm drains, and then down here.”
The creek’s banks are noticeably deeper and eroded from heavy and fast storm water run-off.

Erosion isn’t the only problem brought on by storm water. A bit further down the stream, Kelly Brown, Salt Lake City’s storm water manager, uses his long handled rake to pull debris, and anything else that gets caught in a creek storm grate.

“Everything. Trash. Leaves. Limbs. Bicycles. Whatever gets into the water,” remarked Brown.

Brown says he routinely inspects the creek downstream too, as it meanders behind backyards, and goes underground through a series of culvert tunnels. The creek makes a final appearance into Liberty Park Lake, before disappearing again under 1300 South, a bustling roadway that runs directly west. In the 1920’s for flood control protection, the city moved the creek underground. It flows through both a rectangular culvert tunnel large enough to drive a car through, along with a 60-inch cylinder pipe running directly under the street.

With the water out of sight, it’s also unfortunately out of mind. Currently, several streams along the Wasatch Front are impaired by the State of Utah, with degraded water quality conditions.

“There are a lot of people in my experience, that somehow believe it’s all treated. The storm water that goes down that grate ends up going through a treatment plant. And that’s just not the case. It’s collected in storm drain systems in the streets or runs down the curb and gutter, but ultimately across our city, and in most urban cities, it ends up in the natural waterways,” said Jeff Neirmeyer is Salt Lake City’s Director of Public Utilities. 

In recent decades, the City and health officials have sought to educate people on the problem of letting household chemicals or fertilizers wash downstream. What’s more, water managers increasingly view riparian corridors as “green infrastructure”, ecological systems that are just as important as water and sewer infrastructure.

If maintained, urban streams provide environmental benefits such as habitat for wildlife, but also practical benefits such as flood damage control, shading, nutrient filtration, and sediment trapping. To protect existing open streams from further degradation, Salt Lake City now forbids developments within one hundred feet of creeks. And property owners and developers are given incentives to install detention basins to slow the runoff.

Not all challenges faced by urban streams are within our control. A few years ago the Red Butte Creek met one of its biggest threats.

In 2010, a pipeline owned by Chevron ruptured, dumping nearly 33,000 gallons of oil straight into the creek. The spill and its subsequent cleanup upset not only stabilizing vegetation along the stream bank, but also the chemical and biological balance of the stream itself. A $4.5 million Chevron settlement is now paying for long-term mitigation and enhancement efforts, like replanting native vegetation.

Dry years coupled with historic water claims have become another recent hindrance for the stream. Salt Lake City and the Mount Olivet Cemetery near the University of Utah clashed recently over their irrigation needs after the cemetery drained the creek dry for several summers to keep their cemetery lawns green. Jeff Neirmeyer says the City engaged the State Engineer to mediate the conflict.

“When we get into these drought cycles, we have very little water coming in, and a bigger demand for it. And people question, is the cemetery the right use? Is it better to have instream flows and down? And that’s where the tension comes in,” Neirmeyer explained. 

A few years ago, University of Utah researchers and students recognized the many tensions and challenges facing urban streams, but also the growing scientific interest in Red Butte Creek that runs through their campus. Brenda Bowen, a professor of Geology and Co-Director of the University’s Global Change and Sustainability Center, says they formed a “Friends of Red Butte Creek” group to coordinate stakeholders, and what’s being learned from studying the stream’s urban transition.

“We really have an opportunity to study the system, but also a responsibility for stewardship. We’re the first one’s it’s passing through. And this integration of, the opportunity to study it. The responsibility for stewardship, and this chance to integrate it into the University community. Use it for academics, for research, for teaching. For part of the student experience,” explained Bowen.

In the coming months and years scientists will continue to interpret this creek, and its story. Miles downstream from the University, behind a blue dumpster and service station on Salt Lake City’s west side, Red butte creek completes its nearly 12-mile journey from its headwaters.  The stream flows quietly and rather unceremoniously out of two concrete culverts into the Jordan River. From here, this main artery of the Salt Lake Valley will take the water into the Great Salt Lake.

In many ways, the water exiting these culverts holds traces of everything from within a half-mile to a mile of the creek’s urban watershed. The same stream that gets flashed and flooded, diverted and dried up, restrained and buried, and even occasionally poisoned, ends up here. It casts a reflection of the overcast sky above and also a reflection of our City and the people who live here.

This is the second story in a five part series by Explore Utah Science on research to maintain and protect Utah's water. The "Follow the Flow" series is made possible by iUtah, a National Science Foundation–funded statewide effort to maintain and improve water sustainability.

 

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rosschambless@hotmail.com (Ross Chambless) Science and Society Thu, 08 May 2014 21:33:34 -0600
Can Utah Develop Solutions to Clean Up the Air? http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/142-can-utah-develop-solutions-to-clean-up-the-air http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/142-can-utah-develop-solutions-to-clean-up-the-air Can Utah Develop Solutions to Clean Up the Air?

The public has made it's voice heard when it comes to air pollution in the state. Regulators and government officials say they are developing a Utah solution for air quality. This year, there are plenty of people ready to hold them accountable.

The public has made it's voice heard when it comes to air pollution in the state. Regulators and government officials say they are developing a Utah solution for air quality. This year, there are plenty of people ready to hold them accountable.

Around 5,000 men, women, children, and dogs, many wearing masks, rallied at the state capitol on Saturday. They sang songs and listened to community leaders rail against the political and regulatory barriers to cleaning up the air.

Randal Autrey came to the rally from Draper with three of his nine children. He moved to Utah from North Texas 17 years ago for a job in the computer software industry. He says his family has had to deal with multiple cases of pneumonia over the years and two of his kids have asthma that gets worse during inversions. Beyond the health consequences he also has seen how the bad air hurts his company's ability to hire new talent.

"I recruit a lot of technical people to come to Utah and occasionally you will hear that, that they have seen we have had bad air and so they're not real excited to come here," says Autrey. "A little bit like we used to view Los Angeles, like you didn't really want to live there, but if the opportunity is good enough you can still get people here, but it definitely dissuades people."

Last year there were 35 days where small particulate, PM 2.5, pollution reached an unhealthy level that required mandatory action from residents. This year we've already had more than 20 days in this category.

Recently, the Division of Air Quality passed a State Implementation Plan, or SIP, that regulates air pollution emissions within the state. Perhaps the most controversial parts of the plan are regulations on large industries, or point sources, such as oil refineries. DAQ director Bryce Bird says, when developing the regulations, they had to take into account the costs of emission control upgrades in order to make them economically feasible. Even so, he says the upgrades required in the plan are costly.

"Some of these are hundreds of millions of dollars for the refineries for instance," says Bird. "They have to really go in there and re-engineer and redesign their existing facilities to bring them up to the current standards that a new refinery would have to meet today."

Overall, large industries will be able to increase their emissions by 12% in 2019 compared to 2010. This is unacceptable to many clean air advocates and a recent poll by the Salt Lake Tribune shows that 67% of the public wants tighter controls on industry.

One such advocate is Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for Clean Air. His organization and others have filed lawsuits against Kennecott and the Holly and Tesoro refineries in order to stop expansions that were permitted by the DAQ. Moench believes the permits violate the Clean Air Act.

"I guess our source of frustration is you can look at two different issues and if your priority is to protect industry, you're going to come up with one conclusion," says Moench. "If your priority is to protect public health, you look at the same data and say 'no' we're going to come up with a different conclusion, which is you cannot expand."

Director Bird says the companies met requirements for air quality at the time they applied for the permits, and the DAQ had no choice but to give them the permits to expand.

The Kennecott lawsuit has already been heard by a judge and is awaiting a decision; there is no court date scheduled yet for the other lawsuits.

Matt Pacenza, policy director for HEAL Utah, agrees that regulation on large industrial polluters like refineries are not stringent enough and this will likely come back to haunt the state.

"Everyone involved agrees that we're not going to hit the deadlines that were supposed to hit by 2015," says Pacenza. "And when that happens there will be a level of rigor that will need to be applied to industry for example that we chose not to do this time around. It's essentially a system where the federal government continues to ratchet and apply greater pressure. And that's one of the many reasons why knowing that's coming, we have urged the state to be tough now." He adds, "Why wait those two or three or four extra years when you'll be forced to do it? Do it now because we're breathing this air every day."

Despite the controversy over industry, the DAQ estimates that the majority of emissions, 57%, come from vehicles. Most of the gains in the state plan are the result of federal regulations that are requiring cleaner fuels and vehicles to be sold over the next few years.

The plan predicts the state will just barely reach attainment by 2019, leading many to think that the SIP doesn't go far enough. This year, a bipartisan group of legislators wants to be part of the solution. Of at least 16 air quality bills being drafted, one of the most important may be an Air Quality Revisions bill sponsored by Representative Rebecca Edwards. Her bill would reverse a Utah law requiring that state regulations may not be more stringent those required by the EPA.

Kathy Van Dame is on the board of Breathe Utah and represents organized environmental interests on the air quality board. She says the current rule causes a lot of problems for developing a Utah solution to air pollution.

"One of the other things that is just absolutely insidious about the requirement is that it is a fearful thing. So that whenever somebody comes up with a new idea, the naysayer only has to say 'that's more stringent than the EPA,' and it falls off the table," explains Van Dame.

She adds, if Edward's bill passes, it would open up the possibility of bringing cleaner, low sulfur fuels to the state, sooner than required by federal law.

"If Utah would for instance, go early for very clean car standards and fuel similar to what they have in California, right now that's not something that's required by EPA and so that would not be something that the DAQ could do," says Van Dame. "If we could get lower sulfur fuel in our cars right now, we would get a 9% reduction in the PM2.5 and precursory emissions from our gasoline fleet that's on the road right now."

While she recognizes the limitations of the State Implementation Plan, she voted to support it.

"One of the things that really is very hopeful is that throughout this process many people have recognized that the SIP by itself isn't enough to accomplish what it is that needs to be accomplished to clean our air." She adds, "It's one element, it's one tool. We need to figure out the ways that we're willing to go forward."

It's just possible that through regulations, laws, lawsuits, or maybe all three, Utah may finally get cleaner air.

Unused filter (white), normal air day (grey), red air day (black)

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kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Science and Society Tue, 28 Jan 2014 12:19:16 -0700
When People and Wildlife Collide http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/140-when-people-and-wildlife-collide http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/140-when-people-and-wildlife-collide When People and Wildlife Collide

To protect both people and wildlife, scientists are investigating the safest, most cost-effective ways to get big game across the road.

Each year, thousands of vehicles collide with deer and elk that are trying to get across Utah’s highways, often causing major property damage, and even death. To protect both people and wildlife, scientists are investigating the safest, most cost-effective ways to get big game across the road.

Carol Niles was driving her SUV at 75 miles per hour along Interstate 70 just west of the San Rafael Swell, when an elk suddenly jumped in front of her car. “I hit him square on and killed him instantly,” recalls Niles. “The bag came out in my face. I was on a mountain highway with a drop-off immediately to the left lane and it took me an enormously long time, I thought, to stop be able to stop my car.”

Luckily, she wasn’t seriously injured, but the collision caused $15,000 in damages. Even so, she can’t help feeling sorry for the elk. “I see him always. I see him in slow motion going up over my head, and he was so beautiful! It was a really bad, bad, feeling.”

Utah State University (USU) scientists estimate that there are 20,000 collisions with deer in Utah each year. That number doesn’t include elk, which are typically larger and cause more damage.

Collisions are particularly frequent in winter, as these animals try to navigate across highways that cut through migration routes that have been in place for generations. This is just one of the ways in which roads are hazardous to wildlife.

“They [roads] decrease the amount and quality of habitat that’s available to wildlife. We obviously have increased mortality from collisions with vehicles. Roads limit access to resources and impede movement,” explains Ashley Green from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR). “Then of course roads can fragment populations and break up large populations into smaller, vulnerable populations.”

Utah has 44 highway crossings built specifically for wildlife, as well as thousands of other structures that they could use, such as bridges, tunnels, and drainages. Until recently, no one knew how much animals actually used any of them.

In a unique collaboration with the Utah Department of Transportation and scientists at USU, the Utah DWR launched the largest, most comprehensive study of its kind in the U.S. “As you’re building an underpass that costs hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, and constructing fencing, you’ve really got to know that that stuff is working and it’s in the right place, and the type of the structures and the size of the structure that you’re putting on the landscape are really effective,” says Green.

To find what works best, USU wildlife ecologist Patricia Cramer placed motion-sensing cameras at 35 structures of all kinds on highways across the state. When an animal gets close, the camera snaps a series of pictures documenting whether it makes it through to the other side. Cramer and her team have sifted through nearly 1.5 million pictures over the past five years. It may sound tedious, but Cramer considers this the best part of her job.

“I like the stories that the pictures unfold,” says Cramer. “The bear, the mountain lion and her young coming through. The deer chasing the coyote through, which I thought was a great one. The mule deer encountering the skunk at the entrance and turning around and saying, ‘I think I’ll wait on that one.’ That’s kind of how I do it.”

Mule deer made 25,000 successful crossings over three years, more than any other animal. The two structures they used most were built specifically for wildlife. Both are on I-I5, south of Beaver.

“They went in in 2004 and I have documented over 18,000 times mule deer have passed through those two structures in a few years,” says Cramer. “Engineers did the math and those structures paid for themselves in reduced vehicle collisions in less than three years.” They’ve reduced collisions in the area by 90%.

But deer are picky. Only 4% of all deer crossings were through existing underpasses that were not made for wildlife. By looking at characteristics of structures that deer use most, Cramer learned they like ones that are wide, high, and short in length.

“If you know about prey animals, that makes perfect sense,” Cramer explains. “They want to be sure they can run through it without a mountain lion being perched somewhere in it, and then they like to have a left and right escape zone.” Her recommendations are already being used to design wildlife crossings across the country.

Cramer is also finding that not all species are comfortable using the same type of structure. In the first phase of the study, her cameras recorded only 45 successful elk crossings compared to tens of thousands made by deer.

That’s why she was surprised to see entire elk herds using a structure at the west end of I-70 this fall. She says they are just learning how to use the three-year-old wildlife crossing, which has a high arch-style opening they seem to prefer. Cramer thinks these latest findings will show how to safely move elk across highways.

“When you’re a scientist who sort of borders on an advocate, this is a great field because you can do something that is so applicable and see changes that help save wildlife lives,” she says.

Her work impacts not only animals, but also people. It’s been eight years since Niles hit the elk on I-70, and she still can’t shake the experience. “It’s really scary for me to drive through that part of the country,” says Niles. “I sometimes just have my husband [drive], especially if it’s at dusk or something like that when you know the animals are going to be out.”

As part of the study, Cramer documented a need for a new deer and elk friendly crossing along the same stretch of highway where Niles had the accident. The Utah Department of Transportation is taking the recommendation under consideration.

 

Photo credit: Patricia Cramer

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julie@exploreutahscience.org (Julie Kiefer) Science and Society Thu, 19 Dec 2013 00:00:00 -0700
Our Water, Our Future http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/133-our-water-our-future http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/133-our-water-our-future Our Water, Our Future

A team of advisors is tasked with coming up with a 50-year water strategy for Utah that will include reducing consumption by 25% by 2025.

Utah is the second driest state in the country and we use about 40% more water per person than neighboring states such as Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. With the climate changing and the population growing, water will not stretch as far in the future as it has in the past. To tackle this issue, Governor Herbert has asked a team of advisors to come up with a 50-year water strategy for the state that will include reducing consumption by 25% by 2025.

870 billion gallons of water are consumed in Utah each year for watering crops and lawns, to drink, cook and bathe. For now, Utah has enough water to satiate consumers and maintain plants and animals that rely on streams, lakes, and watersheds. But with an expected increase in temperature and a population set to double by 2060, the future of the state's water is uncertain.

"I think we all recognize that water is going to be one of the key issues for us going forward," says Alan Matheson, State Planning Coordinator and Environmental Policy Advisor to Governor Herbert. "As our population grows and as projections of water availability change, those states that are prepared and thinking ahead about water are going to succeed and those that don't are going to fail."

Governor Herbert has taken steps to make sure that Utah is one of the states that will be prepared. He has tasked a group of 38 people to come up with a water strategy for the state. They come from different backgrounds including water management, politics, conservation, agriculture, industry, academia, and there's one representative for Native Americans.

"As we looked at putting that team together, we recognized that there are hundreds of people in the state that certainly could participate and contribute meaningfully," Matheson continues. "We just had to get to a number that would be workable, we could manage and actually get something done."

Matheson says the group will gather information, reach out to the public, and explore a range of policy options. At the end of the year they will develop a set of recommendations for what the state strategy should look like.

Getting there won't be easy. The Governor's team took a listening tour across the state over the Summer, visiting eight different locations and giving people a chance to voice their water concerns and priorities in person and on-line. They received 800 comments that illustrate the conflicting opinions around the state about how water should be managed in the future.

Here are a few from the Salt Lake City meeting:

"Conservation should be the primary solution to our growing water needs rather than resorting to major water projects."

"We need every drop of the Colorado River Basin water for drinking and for food production. There is no good reason to fund an oil shale development, where the world is already awash in oil."

"Conservation with reuse and recycling alone cannot meet the needs of our doubling population, substantial water supplies need to be developed."

"So why does Utah specifically use so much water? One of the reasons is that Utahns don't in fact pay for water directly. Instead water in Utah is subsidized or paid for in property taxes."

"Two things, I want to see water in our streams, sufficient water to support a healthy aquatic environment. And I want access to those streams wherever they are so ordinary citizens like me can enjoy recreation on them."

"Kentucky Bluegrass probably belongs in Kentucky."

"Utah farmers and ranchers are producing just over 1.3 billion dollars each year in farm sales, contributing 15 billion dollars in Utah economic activity."

Steve Erickson, a conservationist with the Great Basin Water Network and a member of the water advisory team, knows their job won't be easy. "It's going to be testy and contentious I'm sure. Hopefully we can all cooperate and try to arrive at some compromises that will be required," he says. "There likely will be some folks who want to draw lines in the sand and that remains to be seen how that will play out. The issues of water are always difficult, there's not going to be a simple answer to any of this."

Erickson says he personally is trying to set aside some of his biases in order to work towards a compromise. He sees his role as a liaison for others in the conservation community so their concerns get addressed and their suggestions get reviewed. "We're going to have to determine a means to protect the environment, to value water in place for the environment itself. Currently under the way the western water law is structured, the environment doesn't have a water right," Erickson says.

Water rights are allocated based on providing a beneficial use and under current law, leaving water in place to benefit the environment is not one of those uses. If the laws were changed to legally provide rights for the environment that could leave fewer rights for other applications, such as agriculture, which currently uses 80% of the water in Utah. This is just one of many contentious issues that the team will have to navigate.

Water conservation, the likely need for developing new water projects, and changing how water is priced, will all be part of the discussion, says Matheson. "We really have a stewardship duty to those that follow, to make sure we're not breaking the bank in committing ourselves to significant infrastructure projects, and we're not drying up our streams. And that's a tough balance, but it's something we simply have to do."

Water is just one of many issues facing the state. Others include air quality, transportation, energy, and jobs. Matheson says all of these issues are part of an umbrella process called 'Your Utah. Your Future.". Each issue will be studied individually and collectively with the difficult goal of maintaining Utah's economic health while also preserving a high quality of life for people in the state.

In the coming year, Explore Utah Science will be producing a five-part series on research efforts dedicated to maintaining and improving water sustainability in Utah. The series is made possible with support from iUTAH, a National Science Foundation-funded statewide research consortium.

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kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Science and Society Thu, 07 Nov 2013 12:18:10 -0700
Building a STEM-Literate State http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/130-building-a-stem-literate-state http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/130-building-a-stem-literate-state Building a STEM-Literate State

Utah State Science Advisor Carol George talks about the growing influence of science and technology on state government affairs, and the importance of building a STEM-literate population.

Carol Lynn George, Ph.D., was appointed by Governor Herbert as Utah State Science Advisor this past May. Previously, she performed research on livestock cloning as a graduate student and studied human embryonic stem cells as a postdoctoral researcher. Later, she managed scientific laboratory facilities at New York University, and then started a scientific business and management consulting practice. Explore Utah Science spoke with George about the growing influence of science and technology on state government affairs.

 

JULIE KIEFER: What is your role as State Science Advisor?

CAROL GEORGE: I basically talk to businesses in the six economic clusters in Utah to see what their workforce needs are, see what the skill gaps are, and try to help create or modify programs to close those gaps.

JULIE KIEFER: What are some of the industry needs you’re trying to fill?

CAROL GEORGE: One example is, in the medical device industry, a large economic driver here in Utah. There is a need for regulatory affairs professionals [professionals that ensure that companies comply with regulations and laws] – not just in medical devices but also drug development and nutraceutical development. We worked with the postsecondary education, Department of Workforce services and BioUtah to create a program for earning a one-year certificate that will prepare students to take a nationally recognized certificate exam to become a regulatory affairs professional. This is funded by UCAP (Utah Cluster Acceleration Partnership) and in-kind contributions from industry.

Another area of great concern right now is manufacturing - specifically injection molding and composites [fabrication and assembly of lightweight, structurally strong materials]. Recently several new programs have been created all around the state, so we’ll start off by seeing how they are working to produce career ready graduates, if they need to be modified- for instance by adding equipment, and if they have the capacity to produce enough workers over the next 5-7 years.

JULIE KIEFER: How does the new STEM Action Center fit in?

CAROL GEORGE: We’re addressing the need to fix the leaky pipeline. Young kids start off loving science and math but by the time they graduate high school, very few of these kids are choosing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) career or college degree paths. Right now in Utah, we don’t have enough people to fill these high tech, high paying jobs. It’s an issue if we want to be competitive in a global marketplace

The STEM Action Center is a statewide scientific program aimed at getting students interested in science, technology, engineering and math. As the liason between the STEM Action Center and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), the first initiative we have been working on is piloting programs for math instructional technologies in schools starting this September.

We’re also working on how the STEM Action Center can support and increase the number of participants in science fairs, camps, and competitions. We’d especially like to encourage those who wouldn’t ordinarily participate in STEM activities, and encourage industry mentorship of kids.

JULIE KIEFER: There is a growing minority population. It seems like finding ways to add them to the pipeline might be advantageous for everyone.

CAROL GEORGE: Yes, we are hearing from industry that they would like a more diverse workforce. If we are to hit the goal of 66% of residents with a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2020, the way to do that is to address the minority, women, rural, Native American and other underserved populations.

JULIE KIEFER: Are there any specialized programs yet?

CAROL GEORGE: One of the most important things for kids is mentorship, having someone who looks like you, or can relate to you or where you came from is very important and allows kids to see the potential within themselves.

Just two weeks ago I was approached by Ceceilia Tso director of the University of Utah’s American Indian Teacher Education Collaboration. Now we are looking into how we can help Native American teacher training for STEM subjects.

I think it’ll also be important to address the skewed demographics of higher education faculty. It is like an inverted pyramid, where in elementary school there is a broad base of women and few men, but this trend is reversed when looking at higher education faculty.

JULIE KIEFER: Is one of your roles as State Science Advisor to help politicians understand scientific matters?

CAROL GEORGE: If and when I am asked, I can convene the right people from our higher education institutions all around the state to give an unbiased scientific policy brief so that then legislators could work on those policy issues at the national or state level. I’m on the State Advisory Council on Science and Technology that has members from many different sectors that convene to do exactly this kind of thing. It’s never just one voice.

JULIE KIEFER: I’m sure there are a lot of scientists who would like to have their voices heard. What advice can you give them?

CAROL GEORGE: As a country we have this great government that is a government of citizens, so scientists need to step up from the private sector and get involved in politics.

As for me, I got involved with a great group in Utah called Real Women Run. It’s a group that helps to train everyday women on how to get into public policy so that we can have these conversations.

The easiest and most effective way is for people to get involved in boards and commissions at the state level or the local level. There are boards and commissions on everything from clean air to water use to education. Meetings are open to the public and sometimes there is time for public comment.

JULIE KIEFER: We recently reported on how federal budget cuts in biomedical research are hurting research and scientific jobs in Utah. Could your office help scientists advocate at the national level?

CAROL GEORGE: Right now my focus has been on workforce development but I certainly could see a broader role for these national policy issues in the future. If it was the priority of our big research institutions to put together a policy brief about it, the State Advisory Council on Science and Technology could help them do it.

Generally, policy decisions come out of the governor’s office, but can first go through the advisement process of the experts on the advisory council and stakeholders. In the future it would be perfectly appropriate to consider that the science and technology council could bring the concern to the Governor’s Economic Council and start to build the consensus.

I think it could be appropriate to have conversations like these with research vice presidents at the higher education institutions. Could that be one of the things that we do this year? They might want to.

JULIE KIEFER: With your background in two controversial research areas - cloning and embryonic stem cells – you must be keenly aware of how a deep understanding of science can inform opinions of science-related policies. What are the best ways to help the general public understand the complexities of science?

CAROL GEORGE: This is something I think about all the time, and is why STEM education is so important. The ultimate goal is to create a scientifically literate population so that people can think critically about issues that affect them. For example, when they read that organic food is better for you, or different opinions about global warming. How do you process opinion from fact?

Compiled and edited by Julie Kiefer

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julie@exploreutahscience.org (Julie Kiefer) Science and Society Mon, 09 Sep 2013 00:00:00 -0600
Earthquake Risk in the Salt Lake Valley http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/126-earthquake-risk-in-the-salt-lake-valley http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/science-and-society/item/126-earthquake-risk-in-the-salt-lake-valley Earthquake Risk in the Salt Lake Valley

The Wasatch Front is one of the most seismically at risk areas in Utah and in the Intermountain West. Scientists are looking at thousands of years of earthquake history to learn more about the hazard we face.

The Wasatch Front is one of the most seismically at risk areas in Utah and in the Intermountain West. Scientists are looking at thousands of years of earthquake history to learn more about the hazard we face.

In Christchurch, New Zealand in February, 2011, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck six miles from the city center. The sandy type of soil present in the area caused the ground to basically liquefy during shaking. Close to 200 hundred people died and recent estimates put the cost of rebuilding at $40 Billion.

“Liquifaction occurs during earthquake shaking,” explains Chris DuRoss, a senior geologist at the Utah Geological Survey. “Basically a soil that is strong before the earthquake, during the shaking loses its strength, and essentially behaves like a liquid. More or less like quicksand.” Buildings and other structures can be partially sucked into the earth. Once the shaking stops, the loose, sandy, saturated soil solidifies, and returns to its original state. This is one reason why the Christchurch earthquake caused so much damage.

Much of the infrastructure along the Wasatch Front is built on a similar type of soil, says DuRoss. “Just like in Christchurch we could have strong ground shaking, and we have soils that are susceptible to liquefaction.”However, he says, the type of fault along the Wasatch Front is different than in Christchurch. Ongoing studies to characterize the potential for liquefaction in Salt Lake Valley should help better define the risk.

What is not in question is that we are due for a large, magnitude 6.5 to 7.5 earthquake. “We could have an earthquake at anytime. Basically enough seismic energy has accumulated on the fault,” says DuRoss. “The fault has been sitting here without any movement for long enough, that we could have a large earthquake.”

Why are geologists convinced that we are due for a big one? DuRoss’ group looks for signs of prehistoric earthquakes that have occurred over thousands of years. They dig trenches across fault scarps, or scars in the earth, to get a better look at the disruptions caused by earthquakes. Vertical displacement of the ground surface allows them to date geologic deposits, giving them a detailed historical record of the quakes.

Unlike in California, there have not been any large earthquakes over the past 150 years since the Wasatch Front was settled. In fact, DuRoss’ group and others have found that there have only been about four earthquakes in the last 5,000 years along the Salt Lake City segment of the Wasatch Fault.

“In Salt Lake City we have earthquakes that occur about every 1,300 years over the last 5,000 years of history of the fault. We call that a return period, or recurrence time,” says DuRoss. “So, about 1,300 years between magnitude seven earthquakes and it’s been about 1,400 years since the last large earthquake.”

DuRoss says one of the concerns in Utah is that since we haven’t experienced earthquakes, building codes over the last century have not taken into account the seismic nature of the area. Most houses or buildings built before the 1970’s are at risk from shaking and liquefaction, depending on the epicenter and strength of the next big one.

“We have building sock, we call these unreinforced masonry buildings. These were built in the ‘20s, and ‘30s, and ‘40s, up to about the ‘60s. These are typically brick homes that you see all throughout, say, Sugarhouse and other areas. The bricks are just stacked up,” says DuRoss. “While they’re historic buildings and they look great, they’re not designed to withstand horizontal motions that occur due to ground shaking from a large earthquake. So they tend to have considerable damage and even failure.”

Data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency suggests damage in Salt Lake City from a large earthquake will run over $42 Billion and 9,000 people will suffer life threatening injuries or death. DuRoss says the best thing to do to prepare is to strap down your water heater, have an earthquake kit available with food and water, and have an earthquake plan ready with family, schools and place of work.

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kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Science and Society Thu, 01 Aug 2013 00:00:00 -0600