How civil engineers can play a key role in a Green New Deal

Photo credit: Orlando Sentinel

With recent discussion of a “Green New Deal” in congress, our country’s infrastructure becomes open to a revolutionary shift. Our infrastructure, having been engineered from the bottom up, now must be redesigned with consciousness to nurture and sustain life in the 21st Century. In realizing this shift, the Civil and Structural Engineering profession has the opportunity to be on the cutting-edge of industry.

This proposed legislation crafted by progressive thinkers in Congress, was recently put up for a vote in the Senate by Republicans​, highlighting how partisan an issue global warming has become. Even President Trump called for more infrastructure spending​during his State of the Union speech, saying it was not an option but a “necessity.”

According to the United Nations’ climate science body​, we are running out of time to make necessary huge changes to limit the effect of global warming. Climate change is not only an environmental issue but an economic one as well, as its effects will have a significant impact on the U.S.’s trade and overseas operations​. The prosperity of our country depends on our ability to evolve.

Crucial to the Green New Deal is a call for greater investment in revolutionary planning and design of infrastructure that is focused on renewable and clean energy. From CNN​: “(The Green New Deal) declares the government should take a stronger position on everything from cutting carbon emissions to giving every American a job to working with family farmers to ​retrofitting every building in the country​.”

To meet the demands of the future, Civil engineers and planners must create a new, intelligent infrastructure. As much as the current design standards have been developed with sustainability in mind, engineers would need to retool their thinking and take more of a leadership role in enhancing the current standards for the next generation design, such as the overhauling and upgrading of the current infrastructure to be more geared to smart renewable energy, water conservation and reuse, as well as integrating it with all industrial and residential buildings to maximize energy efficiency and create a national smart grid​.

The Green New Deal reaches beyond infrastructure -- it calls for jobs (and could create 15 million in five years), universal basic income and health care programs are among its guarantees. Additionally, thinkers, scientists and engineers, would need to develop new revolutionary systems and methods that would meet these goals as well as advance comfort, public health and economy.

The Green New Deal would accelerate a trend that’s already taking place, the transition to a green economy as states around the country are already implementing similar legislation​. Civil engineers have a higher standard to strive for as their role becomes of increased importance in such an economy​.

Why more and more engineering firms are using drones


Drones are everywhere. Look up when you’re walking in a park, or sitting on a beach, and you might catch one buzzing about. Commercially-available drones can fly up to 100 miles per hour. And ready or not, they’re going to be delivering packages to your doorstep very soon. They already can deliver pizza. This technology can be traced back to 1907 when the first quadcopter was created by inventor brothers Jacques and Louis Bréguet. However, it couldn’t be steered, only lifted two feet off the ground and needed to be steadied by four people. We’ve come a long way. Commercial drones hit the market in 2006 but at first very few permits were requested. One likely reason is that drone rules from the FAA were ambiguous and drone operation was expensive: companies were required to hire a licensed pilot to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle. New guidelines for small commercial drones went into effect in 2016, and there are now more than one million drones registered with the FAA, including 122,000 for commercial use. Some newer commercial drones are no longer limited to following a GPS signal and can also now track the movement of people, animals, objects while avoiding obstacles. In the last five years, more and more engineering companies are using drone technology to be more efficient and accurate, collect better data faster, and save money. Some say construction is slow to adapt to technology. In fact, most construction and engineering firms wait for competitors to adopt new technology before they do. But the rate of new technologies being developed is increasing rapidly and is changing everything. Construction companies are using drones for tasks including 3D mapping and job site rendering, monitoring job site progress and tracking materials, and streamlining inspections and keeping sites safe. For civil and structural engineering, in addition to 3D mapping, drones are a useful tool for documenting a project site before, during and after construction. Structural engineers can use drones to inspect structures such as building faces that are not accessible. Drones have been embraced by companies ranging from startups to the giants, and some would say they are now essential to construction. The use of drones isn’t limited to just construction sites -- they’re also used for scanning pipelines to improve operations and reduce safety risks; making surveying safer and more accurate; or even to take aerial photos of a prospective job site before a bid.    While learning to use a drone is simple, the technology isn’t for every company. Along with the associated cost and training, drone mapping can also be technically difficult. In the coming year, drone use for the construction industry is expected to grow. At the same time, privacy concerns about drones are growing. The future of drones is very much up in the air, as countries around the world come together to figure out how this technology should be regulated. Has your company started using drone technology? Let us know what you are using drones for and any benefits and/or challenges.  

Bioretention for Post-Construction Stormwater Managment

Bioretention areas, also sometimes called rain gardens, are the post-construction stormwater treatment measure of choice for commercial developments in the Bay Area. Civil engineering design often utilizes this Low Impact Development (LID) practice that combines aesthetic landscaping with engineered stormwater management systems designed to remove pollutants through natural processes. According to the San Francisco Bay Water Quality Control Board, “In the San Francisco Bay watershed, urbanization and agricultural runoff is generally considered to be the largest source of pollutants to aquatic systems.” Stormwater in cities picks up debris, oil, chemicals, etc. from impervious streets and sidewalks and washes it down the storm drain and into surrounding bodies of water rather than sinking into the ground like rainfall does in an undeveloped area. According to the C.3 Technical Guidance Handbook, a bioretention area is: "…designed to have a surface ponding area that allows for evapotranspiration and to filter water through 18 inches of engineered biotreatment soil. After the water filters through the engineered soil, it encounters a 12-inch layer of rock in which an underdrain is typically installed. Bioretention areas may be lined or unlined depending on the hydraulic conductivity rate of the underlying soils."

cbls bioretention area

  Bioretention areas are filled with plants that flourish while being partially submerged. The combination of these plants and underlying layers of soil and rock filter out much of the pollutants that would normally go through the storm drain system and into the Bay, as well as allowing some moisture to evaporate back into the atmosphere like it would from an open field or similar undeveloped land. In some bioretention areas, the water can slowly filter back into the ground without the use of an underdrain, further mimicking the way rain would soak into the ground on undeveloped land. bioretentionareasandraingardens3   In 1977, the Clean Water Act was passed, in part to address the negative effects of stormwater runoff in urban and agricultural areas. Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA established the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), which regulates allowable levels of certain chemical pollutants and requires polluters to obtain permits for chemicals discharged into surface waters. As a result of increased regulation on pollutants entering waterways, many states have adopted sustainable practices like Low Impact Development to encourage more effective stormwater management. Since 2009, bioretention has been the Bay Area’s stormwater management method of choice, replacing bioswales. Bioretention works well on most sites but can be constrained by steep slopes, a high ground water table or soil impermeability. A civil engineer can determine the best stormwater methods for each project. In some situations, flow-through planters have become an acceptable method for treating stormwater when bioretention is not feasible like when in close proximity to a building, or where soil moisture is a possible concern. In sites with size constraints, steep slopes or poorly-draining soils, the smaller size and impervious bottom of a flow-through planter allows for the treatment of stormwater runoff and discharge to a storm drain, much like some bioretention areas. However, flow-through planters are limited in respect to re-use of stormwater and must account for the possibility of overflow. WClibrary   In addition to “cleaning” the water that passes through it, a bioretention area or flow-through planter adds pleasant and aesthetically landscaped greenery to a site. The greenery can also provide a habitat for birds, amphibians and insects. In warmer cities, additional vegetation helps to mitigate some of the “heat island” effect that occurs because of dark city surfaces like asphalt and the minimal evapotranspiration that can occur on these impervious surfaces.  

Stormwater Management and Rainwater Harvesting – An Important Piece of the Bay Area’s Sustainability Puzzle

Green Roof at Facebook Campus The Bay Area is known for its environmentally conscious mindset – that of its citizens, environmental policies and the kind of development the region attracts. Initiatives have developed at municipal levels, such as San Francisco’s ban on plastic checkout bags in 2013 and San Jose’s sustainable city plan. Private companies have also taken similar initiatives, think Facebook’s campus with its 9-acre green roof and Salesforce East’s Platinum LEED status remind us that sustainability is here to stay. Along with environmentally-intelligent development and the regulations that govern it, the need for equitable water management practices at both public and private levels is a growing issue. Currently, the Bay Area’s approach to water management is steadily improving with the help of the region’s development standards and the increase in our collective environmental awareness. Read more

East Bay Development vs. Community Interests

By Kamal S. Obeid, SE, P.E. Santos Farm, Fremont, CA. I first started as a civil engineer during the 1980s. At that time, Fremont, California, located in the East Bay of California’s San Francisco Bay Area, was a sleepy suburban community in the backdrop of the larger region. The not-too-distant Silicon Valley was in the throes of a recession. The historical farming community was evolving with acres of land being developed into subdivisions and ancillary commercial strip center development. Large areas of pristine open space were under threat from encroaching suburbia. The City of Fremont government, actively dealing with development pressure and market forces, was also beginning to steer the City away from unplanned, market-driven development. Read more

Beyond Bay Area Green Building: Developing “Healthy” Workplaces

1225 Connecticut Ave.JPG Peter Akinosho, a civil engineering student at the University of Georgia, spoke about why he chose the profession: “[Civil engineers] do what we do so people don’t have to worry about their basic needs.” Paramount among these needs is health. We are building structures for tomorrow’s generations, who are more conscious about the benefits of maintaining an active lifestyle, even at work. Especially in the realm of Bay Area green building, tech giants are building headquarters with green roofs equipped for walking meetings, and offer daylighting, yoga, and healthy food. To remain competitive for clients, we developers, architects, and engineers must work together to design and build developments that are not only sustainable but also promote the health of the people who use them. Read more

A Civil Engineering Perspective on Bay Area Growth

Plan for Google expansion. Credit: Big & Heatherwork Studio By Sonia Easaw with Kamal Obeid, S.E., PE Can the San Francisco Bay Area handle the growth? The Bay Area region is one of the most in-demand places in the country to live, especially for professionals in the technology industry. After all, it's the place where tech companies come to grow, and subsequently, the region attracts great talent. However, the increased demand has contributed to a housing shortage, making it unaffordable for many, and it's caused other problems such as traffic congestion and long commute times. Also, environmental conditions are much harder to predict with a warming climate. From a civil engineering perspective, the growth can last if development is well-planned and sustainable. Read more

Silicon Valley Construction: What’s tech got to do with It?

Silicon Valley Construction: Google's Plan The technology sector and Silicon Valley construction have always had a symbiotic relationship. The agreement between companies such as Google and Bay Area development has usually been good, for the most part. Since the time of Steve Jobs in his garage working to develop the Apple computer, to the hardware revolution that gave the Valley its name, technology has attracted the best, and the brightest to this part of California, and construction usually followed. Read more

Downtown Fremont CA Emerges

Sign drapes edge that reads Downtown Fremont on the Rise, new retail and residences coming soon In 1956, five townships came together to form Fremont, California. Sixty years later, the City is becoming more of an urban place than a suburb, especially with an additional new transit station and associated development. However, the City has lacked a central place, or downtown, to bring everyone together. In fact, the center of the City is walking distance from an existing local BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station, but the land has historically been underutilized, filled with large surface parking lots and underused retail shopping centers. However, after years of planning, the possibility of a Downtown Fremont CA is emerging. Read more

Civil Engineering: Rethinking Water Projects

Folsom Dam USACE 2004 By Sonia Easaw with Kamal Obeid, PE, S.E. Water storage on a municipal scale in the West used to involve building dams and reservoirs such as the Folsom Dam, which would gush with water from the melting snow of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Now the snowpack is at its lowest measured record, and the water levels of the reservoir may run so low this year that pumps will have to be installed to push water through the dam. Unfortunately, these warming conditions are likely to continue. In response to the “new normal” of drought conditions, the community of civil engineers and local jurisdictions must take a sustainable approach and rethink infrastructure to deal with potential severe water shortages. With the drought looming overhead (and below), here are four examples of water projects throughout the Bay Area and California involving desalination, groundwater recharge, stormwater capture, and recycled water.


Carlsbad desalination plant2 Salt water from the San Francisco Bay has been seeping into the groundwater basins that serve the cities of Alameda County (cities of Fremont, Newark, and Union City). Back in 2003, the Alameda County Water District, or ACWD, built the small Newark Desalination Facility to treat the brackish water. The effort proved fruitful when the plant supplied much-needed water to areas of the County during the drought and saved the ACWD about $4 million dollars a year. The plant uses a reverse osmosis membrane filtration process that requires high-pressure pumps that consume a lot of energy and contribute to additional carbon consumption. The energy-intensive, and therefore, expensive desalination process has also been known to pose a threat to ecosystems--the brine byproduct of desalination (a highly concentrated saltwater solution) can be dangerous to sea life if not properly mixed back into the ocean. Supplying the County with clean water during drought periods was a resulting benefit of the small desalination plant but may not have been the primary reason for why it was built. There are some California jurisdictions, however, that have considered desalination treatment plants as a larger fix for water shortages. A one billion dollar desalination plant will be unveiled in Carlsbad, Calif. in 2016--what will be the largest one in the nation--and will supply San Diego County with seven percent of its water. However, desalination is considered more of last resort after other water conservation methods have been employed.

Groundwater Recharge

Groundwater flow How do you capture and store clean water on a massive scale in a sustainable way? There are many ways of capturing and storing fresh water for municipalities, such as increased stormwater capture, reservoir expansion, or groundwater recharge and storage. A practical alternative to desalination in California is expanding the water supply beneath our feet. This method of recharging groundwater has been found to be much cheaper than other water supply options and offers more local control. Groundwater levels have been declining across the state because of the drought but also because of overuse, and so recharge becomes especially important to replenish the water into the groundwater basins or aquifers. Groundwater recharge can also be a barrier to seawater intrusion and help restore local ecosystems. Some disadvantages to groundwater recharge include the financial costs to local communities though it is cheaper than surface storage or importing water. Also, natural recharge from rain and snow is not as readily available during times of drought, and so artificial recharge is the next option. But where will the water for artificial recharge come from, especially when the surface water from streams and rivers are not at peak-flow? Alternative water sources for groundwater recharge include treated wastewater, runoff from agricultural uses, and past stormwater capture. Alameda Creek in Niles Canyon 2626 Alameda County Water District (ACWD) considers recharge as a top priority for groundwater management. With the help of inflatable dams, water from the Alameda Creek is diverted into Quarry Lakes Regional Recreation Area for groundwater recharge. Rubber Dam No. 1 was installed back in 1971, and its fabric membrane was recently replaced this summer. The dam structure was upgraded to increase capacity (a project on which Landtech Consultants served as structural engineer of record).

Stormwater Capture

Tank Baustelle 2010 It may seem as if never rains in California, especially during drought years. But, stormwater is a good potential source of water that if captured and stored properly will be a valuable addition to water reserves. Los Angeles County adopted new rules in June 2015 for stormwater capture and reuse, which could serve as a model for the rest of the State. Though there is regulation monitoring the pollution of stormwater that flows into drains, the idea of capturing rainwater for reuse in California is a relatively new one. Rainwater harvesting supports a sustainable method of water management, and has been successful in other parts of the world such as Australia.

Recycled Water

Recycled water overflow from Aquacycle thickener (6324881971) Recharging groundwater and stormwater capture are necessary measures, but how about increasing water supply in the short term? Los Angeles County is considering additional water obtained through unconventional, though perhaps more sustainable, means. The County is talking with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) about a potential large recycled water programwhich would recycle treated sewage. If it succeeds, it would be one of the biggest programs of its kind. Frequently, treated sewage is flushed back into the Pacific Ocean, but reuse systems can transform the water for other uses such as agricultural irrigation, other irrigation, and fire suppression systems. The Santa Clara Water District already recycles water with the Silicon Valley Advanced Purification Center, the largest plant of its kind in Northern California. The facility receives treated water from a nearby wastewater treatment plant and further purifies the water with advanced techniques such as reverse osmosis, microfiltration, and ultraviolet disinfection. The result is eight million gallons of water. VIEW OF AMERICAN RIVER, SHOWING REMAINS OF OLD FOLSOM DAM, HEADGATES AND CANAL. NEW FOLSOM DAM IS IN THE BACKGROUND - Folsom Powerhouse, Adjacent to American River, HAER CAL,34-FOLSO.V,2-95 (CT) The Bureau of Reclamation, created in 1902, developed the network of the 20th-century water infrastructure of dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts in the West. However, as climate change becomes our new reality, the community of civil engineers and municipalities must rethink water networks for the warming 21st century. Recycling water and recharging groundwater are practical, sustainable, and cost-effective methods and allow for more local control of the water supply. As civil engineers learn new skills to adapt to changing water infrastructure, the entire community can work together to increase California’s future water supply.