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To support the goals of the Division, the Committee is launching a blog on the TAWWA.org website to highlight existing utilities and programs across the state. This blog will provide valuable information on existing programs and highlight how more information on the programs can be obtained, thus creating an online database of water education resources.

 

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Texan Water Nerd Goes Down Under

Posted By Karen E. Menard, Thursday, February 14, 2019

Education Division – Consumer Outreach Committee Blog

 

All Things H2O                   February/March 2019 Issue

 

 

 

 

Texan Water Nerd Goes Down Under

Half asleep, I struggled to hear our seasoned guide as he chattered about over the PA. It cut out every now and then, and my eyelids fluttered in the quiet. We were on a bus in the Sydney suburbs bound for the Blue Mountains. My sleepy state certainly wasn’t due to boredom. I’d stumbled out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to watch the sun rise over Sydney Harbor. The Opera House appeared sail by sail off the port side while the Majestic Princess nestled into its wharf. The old saying, “Pink sky in the morning, sailors take warning,” sang in my head as I took in the painted sky beyond, but the Opera House’s cheerful sails reassured me that all was well in this lovely place.

Photo: Katie and the sunrise over the Sydney Opera House; Sydney, Australia

Our spectacular dawn arrival in Sydney was the last hurrah aboard our cruise ship, our home for nearly two weeks. “Spectacular” is a strong word, but it only begins to capture my holiday adventures in New Zealand and Australia. While Mom, Dad and I set out to cruise through the holidays in the Southern Hemisphere, I – a water nerd – also left town with a mission: to understand the human-water nexus in the most faraway place I’d ever been. I returned with three observations:

Water is a force. Water is respected. Water is the same.

 

Water is a force.

Everyone knows how Titanic ended, and I’m still a firm believer that Rose and Jack could have floated on that door and survived. Thankfully, my cruise experience was much more pleasant, but I still felt the power of water as a force of life and a force of death. The Pacific Ocean looks peaceful from nearly forty-thousand feet above, and I had many hours to contemplate this peace on our flight. The vastness of the sea is indescribable. From the Majestic Princess, the level of peacefulness varied by the day. Mom brought every remedy for seasickness known to man onboard, so I was generally able to contemplate the sea, whether rough or still, in comfort. Nevertheless, I watched in awe from the lido deck as the Tasman Sea tossed the enormous vessel like a toy in a bathtub on a windy day. Water could consume me in an instant if it wanted to.

When we docked in Tauranga, New Zealand, we became acquainted with the Māori, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. According to the Department of Conservation, the government agency charged with conserving New Zealand’s natural and historic heritage, “Water is the essence of all life, akin to the blood of Papatuanuuku, the Earth mother, who supports all people, plants and wildlife. Māori assert their tribal identity in relation to rivers, and particular waterways have a role in tribal creation stories.” I have to remind myself that this statement is from a government agency, not a special interest group – quite a difference from the feel of government language here at home.

Photo: Sacred freshwater spring at Rainbow Springs; Rotorua, New Zealand

Speaking of asserting their tribal identity, a demonstration of the haka, a Māori ceremonial dance, “inspired” Dad to join in. We were onboard the Lakeland Queen, a dining cruise on Lake Rotorua. To be honest, Mom and I volunteered him to participate. With our cajoling, it was either haka or jump overboard. To our iPhone-ready pleasure, he chose the former. Dad looked small among the Māori dancers, and – for a dance meant to intimidate rivals – his display was only lukewarm. I inherited my dance skills from him; among us, there are four left feet. Nevertheless, I imagine now that the waters of the dancers’ home – their life blood – gave their voices and movements great power and rhythm, like the ripples in the lake underneath: a force of life and a force of death.

Photo: The haka on the Lakeland Queen; Rotorua, New Zealand

I fell hard for Akaroa, New Zealand. Originally a French colony, it was bursting with white-picket-fence charm and Kiwi hospitality. Mom and I shopped our way from one end of its main street to the other, where I encountered the first of many water and fire restrictions notices posted outside a small municipal building. Having just entered their summer season, it was encouraging to see that Akaroa’s water restrictions were “OFF.”

Photo: Water restrictions notice; Akaroa, New Zealand

Photo: Picturesque cottage and garden; Akaroa, New Zealand

Upon further investigation, though, I found that Akaroa and nearby Christchurch are some of New Zealand’s drier areas. In fact, Christchurch residents are in the midst of a five-month campaign to voluntarily reduce water use during major infrastructure repairs. According to a Christchurch City Council article in late January, “Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) is calling for people in high fire risk areas to take steps to keep their properties safe, and Christchurch City Council is reminding residents not to go overboard with watering their gardens. The Council has asked residents to keep their water use down this summer, as work is underway on many of the city’s wellheads and pump stations.”

While the region had an unusually wet spring, summer temperatures are holding steady. “The recent run of warm weather has dried out all the vegetation growth caused by the unusual weather patterns, and we have a very large fuel load that could potentially cause a fire to spread very quickly,” the FENZ Principal Rural Fire Officer said in a Christchurch City Council article in late January. In its absence, water is a force of death.

Outside Hobart, Tasmania, we delighted in lush fern-filled forests and hilly, gold-hued plains all in one day. The wilderness seemed to transform itself in the blink of an eye along the River Derwent. In Mount Field National Park, we hiked to Russell Falls, where crystal-clear water descends in an immortal cascade. Russell Falls Creek is a force of life for ample wildlife, including many photogenic wallabies that rewarded the quieter tourists with adorable poses.

Photo: Russell Falls in Mount Field National Park; Hobart, Australia

At Meadowbank Farm and Vineyard in Tasmania, we watched as “Red,” the sheep dog raced up a golden hill and returned with a fluffy, white stampede for his owner: Gerald Ellis, Meadowbank’s founder. Mr. Ellis founded his farm in 1976. Today, his family makes some of the best wine in Australia. One pursuit he didn’t foresee when he set out, though, is his salmon farm. From high ground near his family’s vegetable garden, he pointed down to the operation right on the River Derwent. “The salmon farm creates fertilizer for the rest of the operation,” he said. Fish, sheep and grapes are thriving at Meadowbank, and water is a force of life in the Ellis family’s delicious closed-loop system.

Tasmania is one of Australia’s more temperate states, but according to a New York Times article in late January, “The southern Australian island, usually a summer retreat for residents of the country’s Gold Coast, had 56 active wildfires as of Friday.” The article cites Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, which claims that rainfall is decreasing, and extreme fire weather is increasing. No matter how sustainable an operation like Meadowbank may be, water’s absence can be a force of death. I pray that Meadowbank remains as it is in my memory.

Photo: Katie in Meadowbank Vineyard; Hobart, Australia

Rain’s absence is generally problematic, but “Rain, Rain Go Away” could be heard over “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve in Sydney. Freak storms hit downtown near dusk, and over one million revelers paused their parties to seek cover. We’d purchased tickets months in advance to Midnight at the Oasis at the Royal Botanic Garden, a soirée that promised reserved seats, good food and unbeatable views. We appreciated the unforeseen bonus gifts, too – ponchos. Thankfully, the rain moved on in time to ring in 2019 with massive fireworks, and the walk to the nearest train station was busy but otherwise seamless.

Instead of ushering the crowd onto the platform, though, police routed it to the next train station, then the next one until a massive hoard of humanity converged on Central Station. Only a few trains passed by, and some of them were empty. The stranded hoard’s mood flipped from celebration to frustration. We started walking in the opposite direction. Hours and an expensive Uber ride later, we passed out in our hotel room and awoke to news reports about the transportation debacle: the severe thunderstorms and lightning strikes had damaged the grid, sending the train network into chaos. Water and its counterparts were a force of death once again, striking the city where it hurt in a flash. A few blisters and lost sleep didn’t dampen our fun, though. It was a night that’ll live forever.

Photo: Katie at the Royal Botanic Garden on New Year’s Eve; Sydney, Australia

Photo: Sydney Opera House and Harbor Bridge ring in 2019; Sydney, Australia

 

Water is respected.

The Māori regard land, soil and water as taonga, or treasures, and they see themselves as kaitiaki, or guardians. Indicators of the health of a river, like uncontaminated water, species diversity and continuity of flow from the mountains to the sea are highly valued, and it shows. The waters that I experienced in New Zealand were highly respected, even revered. This level of respect even permeates into stormwater treatment policy. The Ministry for the Environment is phasing out single-use plastic bags this year. In a country where litter is already scarce, this is a valiant decision.

Near Rotorua, we visited Wai-O-Tapu, Māori for sacred waters. It’s a geothermal area that feels like the center of a primitive earth. Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is a member of the Rotorua Sustainable Tourism Charter, an organization that recognizes businesses for their commitment to community health, well-being and education.

Photo: Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland; Rotorua, New Zealand

Photo: Katie by highlighter-green pool at Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland;          Rotorua, New Zealand

From Dunedin, New Zealand, we took an intrepid seaside bus ride up the Otago Peninsula. The bus felt far too wide for the narrow, winding road at times, and I was still getting accustomed to driving on the left-hand side. At the ride’s finale – a forty-five degree climb up a craggy hill – we arrived at Nature’s Wonders, home to colonies of albatross, fur seals, little blue penguins and rare yellow-eyed penguins. Guides advised our group to don heavy rubber jackets (to protect our clothes from flying mud, apparently) and to find a spot on an Argo, an eight-wheeled vehicle resembling a miniature tank – and I thought the thrill ride was over. All smiles, we jostled our way over rough terrain, down to the rocky beach in time to see two male fur seals in a face-off for dominance. Carefree pups scooted about all around them. It was wild – literally. The guides discussed their conservation efforts as we enjoyed the fur seals. We learned that Nature’s Wonders is a self-funded organization. Staff work tirelessly to care for the local beaches and the native species that call them home. Their work includes a predator patrol, which keeps non-native, pest mammals from decimating the penguin population. It occurred to me that respect for water extends to respect for so much more, especially where water and land meet. Nature’s Wonders preserves and restores vital habitat at this meeting place, giving vulnerable species a haven to thrive. 

Photo: Protected habitat at Nature’s Wonders; Dunedin, New Zealand

New Zealand’s Māori aren’t alone with their concerns. From Melbourne, Australia, we traveled to the Blue Dandenong Ranges, where we rode the Puffing Billy, a century-old steam train that was originally built to transport workers and goods to and from the rural region. We drank in the Jurassic Park-like scenery from our open air passenger car, as the train and all its tourists traversed several picturesque creeks. I wondered about its impact, and I was pleased to learn that the Railway – run largely by volunteers – is dedicated to preserving the local environment. “Since 2008, Puffing Billy Railway has been working with Melbourne Water to improve three stream frontage sites along the railway through stream frontage grants,” its website says. “Contractors and volunteers are working in conjunction with Puffing Billy Railway to manage weeds and plant vegetation at these sites to enhance the quality of the stream side habitat.”

Photo: Drivers stop to watch the Puffing Billy; Melbourne, Australia

All along, I haven’t said much about our cruise ship. I was a finalist in the “Voice of the Ocean,” a souped-up karaoke contest with a live band, spinning chairs and “celebrity” judges (i.e. the Captain) – an unexpected highlight. Between rehearsals and the buffet, my mind drifted to water often. Obviously, we were floating in it. But, my thoughts ran deeper. As a first-time cruiser, I had many questions about cruise ship innards. Where does our water come from? What do we do with wastewater? What do we do with solid waste?

Cruise ships produce and purchase water. They produce it using reverse osmosis and chlorination. They purchase it from port communities and store it in potable water holding tanks. The preferred method – produce or purchase – depends on the port. According to Princess Cruises’ Environmental Responsibility webpage, “We bunker water from ports where we know water is plentiful, high in quality and costs less than the fuel needed to produce water onboard.”

Our cruise ship felt like a miniature city. Early each morning, the “Princess Patter” newsletter arrived in our stateroom mailbox to tell us what the day had in store. While Mom and Dad looked at spa and workout promotions, I’d nerd out on the front-page conservation messages. “A growing number of our environmentally conscious guests are choosing to conserve water and energy by refraining from unnecessarily leaving water running in their stateroom…” one said. On a cruise ship, water must be respected. There may be water, water everywhere, but there’s only so much to drink.

As for wastewater, “…ships are equipped with treatment plants that are certified by the U.S. Coast Guard as approved marine sanitation devices.” Treatment plants naturally break down waste and disinfect black water. Wastewater discharges into the sea at least twelve miles from shore. Respect for the marine environment is crucial when it comes to wastewater discharge, and respect is growing: “By 2020, 80% of the Princess fleet will have advanced water treatment systems which employ membrane filtration and ultraviolet light to achieve the highest level of wastewater treatment that is technologically feasible.”

One afternoon, Mom and I were out for a walk above the lido deck. Near the stern, there was a semi-enclosed sport court. Kids enjoyed basketball and cricket (a regional favorite) around the clock. On this particular afternoon, we watched as a ball came flying out overhead. The two responsible boys followed its arc, eyes wide with a mix of concern and amusement. Instinctively, we all ran for the edge of the deck to track its path. It took a deceivingly long time for the ball to land on the surface. When it finally did, it was a tiny dot left to float helplessly – another relic of humanity at sea. The boys went back to their game, and we kept walking. “Over time, Princess has redesigned its food, supplies purchasing and packaging requirements to cut down on the number of plastic items that are brought onboard. Plastic has been replaced by other biodegradable materials or eliminated altogether as much as possible,” the Environmental Responsibility webpage says. This is promising, but the ball is a reminder that marine debris is a global issue. The oceans need more of our respect – we are their guardians, their kaitiaki.

 

Water is the same.

They’re far away, but they’re not so different. In my experience, Kiwis and Aussies are the Texans of the Southern Hemisphere – not in a literal sense but in a kindred state of mind kind of way. They have the same happy-go-lucky, don’t-mess-with-us, we-go-our-own-way spirit. In many cases, their water struggles are just like ours. Water is the same there as it is here.

Billboards communicate public service announcements more often than blatant advertisements in New Zealand. In Tauranga, a bright pink billboard caught my attention on the way back to port. It featured a chubby cartoon elephant half-stuffed into a toilet bowl. The text next to this peculiar visual read, “Save Our Pipes from Wipes – Two Tons of Wet Wipes Clog Our Pipes Every Week.” I had to learn more. In 2018, Tauranga’s Water Education Specialist sought guidance from Sydney Water, which launched a citywide wipes campaign in 2014. Following Sydney’s lead, Tauranga launched its own message this past October – enter the elephant. According to an article in the November/December 2018 issue of Water New Zealand, “A very cute elephant embarks on a journey through our city’s network. That journey relates to the elephant-sized problem that we have in our community, and it draws the analogy to the scale of it – two tons of wet wipes every week.”

The problem is elephant-sized in North Texas too, and it isn’t going away any time soon. In January alone, I responded to two sanitary sewer overflows caused by wipes and their sidekick, FOG (fats, oils and grease). While the City of Plano’s Environmental Quality Division reports these occurrences, I follow-up with education; here’s my shout out to Defend Your Drains North Texas. It’s nice to know that New Zealand and Australia are working together toward a regional solution. “Water New Zealand has been working with our Australian counterparts on the development of joint Australian-New Zealand Flushability Standards that will help enforce correct labelling on wipes.”

On the stormwater side, another billboard in Tauranga read, “Bin Your Butts.” Keep New Zealand Beautiful is committed to keeping cigarette butts out of waterways and food chains. In Melbourne, Australia, our cheerful guide pointed out the Yarra River meandering semi-parallel to the highway downtown. Often overshadowed by Sydney’s international fame, Melbourne is a sprawling, desirable metropolitan area. “The Yarra River isn’t known for being clean,” she said, “but the rubbish traps are helping.” Rubbish traps? Again, I had to learn more. I stumbled upon Project Galada, a collaboration between the Yarra Link Project and a local designer. It’s a floating litter abatement system that incorporates native aquatic plants. Inspired by bike chains, its modular design allows a series of planters to float while naturally filtering the water, capturing and collecting litter. In addition to Project Galada, Parks Victoria installs its own traditional litter traps. This mandate by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) diverts astonishing amounts of litter that would otherwise accumulate downstream in Port Phillip Bay.

Green infrastructure is the future of stormwater pollution prevention. While North Texas in general has yet to implement litter abatement systems on par with the Yarra River’s, I’m hopeful that we’ll certainly make strides. The City of Plano debuted its Nature Explore Trail in September. Located adjacent to our LEED Platinum Environmental Education Center, the Trail’s interactive signage educates visitors on the importance of riparian habitats. They learn sustainable behaviors as they follow “Herbie the Heron” from our creek to the Gulf of Mexico. The mouth of our watershed is much further away from us than Melbourne’s is from them. Nevertheless, our actions, good or bad, make a difference.

Photo: Recreation on and by the Yarra River; Melbourne, Australia

I’ve been fortunate thus far in my role as the City of Plano’s Water Education Coordinator to escape the stresses of drought, but it’s only a matter of time before the inevitable. I feel for Sydney right now. Sydney Water announced in late January that it switched on its desalination plant for the first time in seven years when dam storage dropped to 60%. The measure will cause costs and political tensions to surge. Sydney Water advocates a number of “water wise tips,” and they’re all familiar: take four-minute showers, retrofit with low-flow fixtures, plant native, apply mulch – the list goes on. One graphic on their website caught my attention. It quotes a casually-dressed woman with a mug, “I love spilling the goss over coffee, but won’t stand for leaking taps in my home.” Slang may not be universal, but leak detection is.

 

Final thoughts.

Back on the bus in the Sydney suburbs, I drowsily wondered if a koala’s fur was soft or coarse. I was certainly sleepy as a koala; it’d been a very early morning. Our guide’s PA system, momentarily back from the dead, was suddenly loud and clear. With a chuckle, he quipped: “I’m not young enough to know everything.” To this day, I couldn’t tell you the context. It was lost to either poor sound quality or my drowsiness, but the statement hit me hard. I turn thirty this month. There’s so much I don’t know, and it feels good to admit that. On the flipside, there’s so much to learn from travel, and I’m grateful for this experience abroad. It’s especially meaningful to have shared it with Mom and Dad. I hope my insights may enrich my work and inspire me to seek partnerships near and far. There are three things I know for sure about water Down Under, and now you do too:

Water is a force. Water is respected. Water is the same.

Photo: Katie enjoying French charm and vibrant flowers; Akaroa, New Zealand

 

About the Author

Katie Masucci is a Sr. Environmental Education Coordinator for the City of Plano. Having grown up in Plano, her role is especially dear to her, as she has the opportunity to engage with friends, neighbors and the next generation of environmental stewards. Katie loves teaching residents about water quality, efficiency and conservation. She also enjoys learning about the latest water-saving technologies and writing about environmental topics. Katie plays ice hockey, proving that water – in liquid or solid form – is a huge part of her life! Aside from water, Katie loves traveling, music, design and the arts.

 

Here's a link to Katie's photo album on Facebook:
https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10200469736336440&type=1&l=df517b260b

Tags:  australia  conservation  Katie Masucci  new zealand  water 

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