Distressed wooden desk with a typewriter on it.
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By Margaret M. Mitchell

Water. One molecule consists of just three atoms: two hydrogens and one oxygen. It is so simple in its chemical makeup, yet its role in Earth’s and human history has been anything but. Restorative and life giving on one hand and potentially destructive on another, humans have been on a quest for eons to tame it and exploit its power for myriad uses.

Water allowed ancient communities to thrive. Early civil engineering projects centered around irrigation and creating a potable water supply. Consider the great and powerful civilizations like the Egyptians, who built canals to water their crops, gates to direct the water’s flow, and reservoirs to store it. Their economic livelihood depended on the Nile flooding at the proper time. The Romans built canals, too, and aqueducts to bring water into the city, allowing citizens to flourish and perhaps in part enabling their military and economic dominance.

And the tradition has continued. Modern civil engineers have constructed water infrastructure to extend human settlements into regions previously uninhabitable, innovating and achieving engineering feats unimaginable to their predecessors.

We not only build for water, but we also legislate its use. Through the years there have been a host of water-related laws, from the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, now commonly known as the Clean Water Act, to the biennial Water Resources Development Act, which is up for reauthorization this year.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocated $1.2 trillion for infrastructure spending, and $3.1 billion of that was earmarked for dam safety activities, including $215 million for the National Dam Safety Program, a component of the WRDA. What’s more, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the IIJA provides more than $50 billion for the EPA to upgrade and improve the nation’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure.

With this much emphasis on water in life and in legislature, we thought it important to highlight some interesting civil engineering projects and initiatives involving this vital resource.

A Concrete Dam for the Ages,” this issue’s History Lesson, details the building of Crystal Springs Dam in California. Completed in 1890 and built using an innovative interlocking concrete block system, the 145 ft tall dam and its supporting infrastructure bring potable water to San Mateo and San Francisco counties.

In “Industrial Refuge,” we sail north to Seattle’s Harbor Island and a 3-acre aquatic habitat restoration effort at Vigor Shipyards. In addition to reintroducing a home for salmon that was lost due to commercial purposes, the project included environmental cleanup, making the water not just safe for the salmon and new vegetation on the island but also for the wider ecosystem in the Puget Sound area.

We navigate back to California in “Revolutionizing Wastewater Stewardship.” The City of Sunnyvale Water Pollution Control Plant is in the midst of a five-phase revitalization plan that will transform how the facility treats its wastewater that is later discharged into the San Francisco Bay.

Facing the Challenges of Reservoir Sedimentation” focuses on the implementation of strategies to remove sediment buildup in dams in economical and environmentally friendly ways.

Last in our water series is “Keeping Data Centers Cool.” Civil engineers are assisting data centers with the design of the infrastructure for such facilities, helping them minimize their water consumption and deal with the wastewater they generate.

Water is one of Earth’s most precious resources, and civil engineers are designing and building for its preservation.

And be sure to check out our continuing coverage of ASCE’s latest IMAX film, Cities of the Future, in “Engineering the Art,” which delves into the computer-generated imagery used in the film.

Margaret M. Mitchell is the editor in chief of Civil Engineering magazine. 

This article first appeared in the March/April 2024 print issue of Civil Engineering as “Working with Water.”