Cypress domes, H. Odum and soft engineering

Speaking of springs

At my Alachua County EPAC (Environmental Protection Advisory Committee) meeting last night, we received a presentation from Dr. Bob Knight about springs and springs protection. He currently serves as the Director of the Florida Springs Institute. Anyone who has lived in North Florida a length of time can’t help but be partial to the (it’s true declining) beauty of these natural wonders. We discussed a number of interesting issues. I had never before read up on the ecologist H. Odum for instance and the discussion touched on a range of concepts such as cypress domes, ecological restoration, biofilms, wetland creation and management. Dr. Knight is currently teaching the first and only course on Springs Ecology to be offered world wide. This graduate-level course is offered at the University of Florida’s Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences .

The institute is also on Facebook

Simply as a resident it has become obvious after 20 years living here that the springs are not what they used to be. Flows are down and nutrient loads up. The work of groups like Florida Springs Task Force or the Florida Springs Initiative have resulted in things like Florida Planning Toolbox which developed tools for springs protection planning. The Toolbox (read manual) was coincidentally developed by The Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions at Florida Atlantic University which has recently shut its doors as a direct result of the ongoing state budget reductions for higher education.

The causes and fixes for spring and aquifer degradation have been roughly known for decades. At least since the pioneering work of H. Odum at Silver Springs and his contributions to the fields of Ecological economics and Ecological engineering.  Odum founded the first and long running Howard T. Odum Center for Wetlands (CFW) at University of Florida.

Steps for protecting and restoring the springs and the underground aquifer range from on-going scientific research, biological and water quality monitoring, regulation and management, education and outreach, and landowner assistance and land acquisition projects.

A key factor in degrading spring health is simple. Too much water is being drawn from the aquifer and watersheds of North Florida. As Bob Knight made clear even the “green” city of Gainesville’s utility is a culprit in this, we need to get better at conservation.

Water usage and conservation is about reduction of use but also recharge enhancement and protection. It is here that concepts that Odum explored like ecological engineering are valuable. Things like engineered wetlands or Tertiary treatment of municipal wastewater by cypress domes. As Mark Brown (Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville) wrote in an 2005 essay entitled  Landscape restoration following phosphate mining: 30 years of co-evolution of science, industry and regulation the difficulties of wetland restoration require a shift in restoration research to the landscape scale. Such projects rely on ecological engineering and adaptive self-organizations and management practices.

This includes the sort of soft approaches so of interest today. John Thackara recently highlighted these sorts of approaches in Off-Grid Water, where he looked at strategies and resources for water conservation.

It’s a hard ask, but a transition from strictly engineered systems to ecological systems like rain gardens, surface wetlands, restored ponds, and daylighted streams does seem to be happening. The entire water economy is beginning to focus on

“softer” approaches in which closed loop water supply systems are configured, in an integrated fashion, to recover and recycle water and be net energy producers.

This soft approach though also extends more metaphorically towards “designing” through social practice or action. Developing things like working groups, co-ops and other community watershed focused efforts.

For more information check out Thinking big with whole-ecosystem studies and ecosystem restoration—a legacy of H.T. Odum which has a whole section titled 3.4. Whole-ecosystem wetland experiment in self-design (1992–2004) or download the SpringsTaskForceReport


3 thoughts on “Cypress domes, H. Odum and soft engineering

  1. Nice post and links.

    Do you think there will be a big shift soon in US towns & cities towards municipal- or household-scale separation of greywater from blackwater, then treatment and reuse (of greywater)? I was thinking that reuse of greywater might be useful for a significant expansion of urban agriculture, because whenever I’ve had vegetable gardens, my water bills have been really high. Probably would have been cheaper to buy the vegetables than grown them.

    A little while ago, I looked into the idea of towns here in Namibia investing in additional wastewater treatment facilities to add to the downstream end of their wastewater treatment ponds for the purpose of reusing/selling the treated wastewater for urban agriculture. Someone told me I should look into treatment wetlands as a possible “technology” to recommend to the towns. But when I spoke with a local wastewater treatment specialist, he cautioned against treatment wetlands because they require a certain level of maintenance that would present a risk here in Namibia where all things publicly-owned are generally not well-maintained. He recommended a containerized biological trickling filter system instead which, I believe, is lot more expensive than a treatment wetland but apparently easier to maintain and less risky for failure. Anyways, that little investigation opened my eyes to the need for treatment wetlands to be maintained.

    • In terms of a big shif, I think that climate/ecological concerns are already driving such a move. However, currently is is being driven mostly from a grassroots/DIY (aka urban homesteaders) perspective. I would like to think municipalities will get on board if for no other reason than their citizens will demand a legislative/regulatory framework to enable their own actions. Some municipalities like in OC California or Southern (West Palm etc) Florida, are already headed that way on a more engineering scale, by opening waste water treatment plants that are then injecting that treated water back into aquifer since most citizens haven’t gotten past the uck factor of having the water directly recirculated into their municipal system.

      Also from what I have heard yes I think wetlands are trickier in that they are a biological not mechanical system and thus have to be “managed” more. But this almost seems like a false dichotomy anyways since even mechanical systems break. As you said it is all about maintenance.

      Again this is where the idea of a field manual for maintenance could be so powerful.
      For more see

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