Singularity | Error | Spillover | Feedback

DESIGNED_DELUGE_9Anthropogenic Delta of Lake Mills Reservoir, Elwha River, Washington.  Above: inset model on the left shows the valley’s topography as surveyed circa 1917 before the construction of Glines Canyon Dam.  The model on the right shows topographic difference (in vertical feet) between the 1917 survey and 2010 LIDAR and Bathymetric survey data (Bureau of Reclamation), indicating approximately thirty million cubic yards of sediment accumulated within the reservoir since the construction of Glines Canyon Dam in 1927. 

Print The majority of sediment stored in Lake Mills is amassed within the delta at the upstream end of the Glines Canyon Dam’s Reservoir.  With the dam mostly removed, the delta is now ‘advancing’ downstream in chaordic flows of sediment.

Back in January, the Seattle Times reported on a change in the amount of sediment thought to be stored within the US’s largest dam removal project, finding that previous estimates of 24 million cubic yards fell far short due to topographic survey errors going back as far as 1917:

…long predicted to affect more than 24 million cubic yards of sediment, the amount of sediment once impounded by the dams is actually about 34 million cubic yards, said Barb Maynes, spokeswoman for the National Park Service…The new estimate is partly the result of discovering a long-standing error in mapping Lake Mills, with elevations recorded 20 feet higher than they really were back in 1917, Maynes said. Those incorrect measures were passed along in a 1976 map used by engineers in their sediment estimates for the dam removal project, because the 1976 map had been marked as corrected — when it wasn’t. The error eventually was detected when it became clear the elevations recorded on the two maps were the same. Further, as scientists walked the landscape in surveys since dam removal started, the emerging landscape wasn’t matching the map.

About two weeks ago, downstream from Lake Mills, 200,000 hatchery fish were accidentally asphyxiated in their rearing tanks due to a malfunctioning circulation pump.  According to reportage, “The immediate cause of the failure was an electrical glitch. But in the bigger picture, the problems at the hatchery are part of a chain reaction that started with the breakdown of a $48 million water-treatment plant”.    As the most costly and highly-engineered element of the dam removal project, the water treatment plant was designed to be able to filter 53 million gallons a day from turbulent water containing up to 40,000 parts per million total suspended solids.  The technology failed soon after deployment, placing dam demolition on hold while the workings of the machine are re-engineered.  But why the treatment plant is sending treated water supply to a fish hatchery is itself controversial, as many question the future ecology engendered by deliberately raising and releasing domesticated fish into a now (nearly) damless river.

Meanwhile, at the strait of Juan de Fuca near the mouth of the Elwha River a “kelp armageddon” of sorts is underway.  Here the rocky surfaces kelp require to anchor themselves are now buried under thick layers of sediment, much like it was a century ago before the beach’s sediment supplies went away.  Forensic evidence of this cyclical return comes from a map from 1911-1912 drawn up by a US potash survey expedition, which specifically indicates the lack of kelp in the area (fairly reliable given the crew was specifically searching for kelp forests as a source of potash).

As speculation, what is a landscape singularity?  Generally, as transformative events, singularities embody a pivotal moment of change.  They are the big moves that send everything into flux.  They can happen as a total surprise or from more incremental steps seen leading to them. Framed as natural disasters we have earthquakes, meteor impacts, volcanic eruptions and epic floods.  Anthropogenically, or culturally, singularities are typically defined in technological terms: the industrial revolution; the design and proliferation of shipping containers, forecasting of artificial intelligence, etc.  Of course the separation of these two general types is arbitrary and fictional.  A landscape singularity encompasses both, and here I am particularly interested in thinking about singularities we are explicitly part of making.  Singularities entail significant shifting of formative trajectories.  In the example above the singularities are fairly clear:  the ambitious building of two large dams, which is followed by the event of de-engineering that infrastructure in the hopes of undoing its effects.  The two singularities are the inverse of each other; a reclamation followed by a reclamation of what was reclaimed; a landscape decelerated and then sent fast forward.


DESIGNED_DELUGE_12Former Lake Aldwell, drained and rapidly eroding after the removal of the Elwha Dam, 2012.  Remnants of trees cut down in 1927 have been preserved in the lake bed.  Exposed by shifting sediments, the stumps reveal the pre-dam elevation of the groundplane and a previous era of forest cover.

A singularity reconfigures a landscape, or a larger network of landscapes.  It deliberately, as well as unintentionally alters things: a dam is built to slow and hold water, thus affecting the flow and process of the river it spans.  With the onset of a singularity, errors and omissions in its articulation become apparent, and spillovers – those unintended and untame things that emerge with relational jumbling- make themselves known.  Mapped survey elevations are off target; fish no longer migrate and their populations decline; 99.5 of the Elwha’s sediment load is trapped behind the dams.  Spillovers are  spawned by the singularity.  Inevitable and external to what was planned, spillovers are manifestations of new conditions in a medium of distributed agency.  Spillovers embody the material mutability and elasticity of landscapes as aggregate things, like incidental kelp forests persisting during the infrastructural lifespan of a dam, then suddenly disappearing or migrating to where they can anchor.

A critical moment happens when miscalculations and spillover effects are noticed and are cycled into the recalibration of the terrain.  This is the moment of feedback.  Recall the operators and engineers of the Elwha’s state of the art water treatment plant.  There they are on the day before Thanksgiving, “battling sand, leaves, twigs, bits of waterlogged woody debris, gravel and more invading the equipment”.  They realize: This technology actually isn’t going to work out as designed.  Shit that was a lot of money.  We need to try something else.  Next the Park Service calls a consultant and a long brainstorming event ensues in which the interaction of flows of sand, leaves, twigs, debris and gravel with intake channels, clarifier tanks and fish screens is vibrantly discussed.  The same systemic feedback mechanism led to the tearing down of the dams.  Feedback is when inevitable miscalculations and spillovers become integrated into the cyclical re-articulation of landscape.

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