Wednesday, July 2, 2008

My Thesis

I was wandering around the Internet the other day and found the the on-line listing of my Master's Degree thesis in the catagory of the library at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. My sole claiim to academic fame, well outside, of the one study I've had published, which was an article for "Shore and Beach" professional journal in graduate school for a professor researching coastal erosion.

Both were interesting to do, but the thesis was the second attempt at one. I actually left the university in 1978 to start my career with the USGS in Eugene, Oregon. Since my first thesis topic, the perception of floods and flood hazards in the Skagit River valley, Washington, imploded, with well over half of it done - long story about doing survery in small populations where you need a high level of cooperation and participation, I bagged the whole idea until a few years later.

When I went through college after the service (USAF 1969-73), I started with a local community college (American River College) and found a terrific instructor, Bob Christopherson, who went on to write a series of "Geosystems" text books, and travels, lectures and other publications after his retirement from ARC. And I found what I like to know more than anything, geography.

After getting my basic course and introductory geography courses done, with a few not so great grades in classes I didn't care much for, after all it was the early 1970's and I was young, married and working - ok, nice excuse but the stuff was boring and I wanted to learn other things, I transferred to California State University Sacramento. For all of $100 per quarter plus books I got a BA degree in Geography and got accepted to Western's Geography Department.

On the way to Bellingham, being December 1975 when it was under a 100-year flood, we crossed the Skagit River valley and I was enthralled and amazed at the place, the sheer extent of flooding and flood damage. I wondered how in the world could people not see the potential destruction and the reality of floods. I decided then and there that was my thesis topic, and everything else was secondary.

Nice concept, and it almost worked. I spent my independent study credits to do the background research and get the thesis framework done. I used the coastal erosion study to research and learn natural hazard perception study pioneered by Gilbert White at the University of Chicago Geography Department. When I had finished the formal coursework I had two of the three chapters for the thesis done.

I only needed to get the result of the surverys. I had surveyed three communities in the upper Skagit River valley, Concrete, Hamilton and Lyman, all in the floodplain and severely flooded in the December 1975 flood. Each had about 50 houses, so I needed 30-40 respondents from each town. That was the plan. I got about ten from each, even after followup contacts to help get responses.

I later learned from some people that while there were the best places for the study I simply picked towns with people who hated government and/or anyone like me who wanted them to fill out a survey or respond personally to someone. Several professors said I had the perfect case study, one suggested making it PhD dissertation since I was pushing the envelope of the technique and application.

I just wanted people to fill out my survey or answer them in person. I and the thesis was stuck and I needed a job. Anyway, two months later the USGS called with a job offer which I accepted to start in Eugene, Oregon office.

When I was (forced) transferred to Phoenix, Arizona, meaning move or be fired (long story about management ineptness and dumbness) I decided to get a conversion from being a hydrologic technician to a professional hydrologist. Why? Money, pure and simple. I wanted to get to a GS-12 and higher if possible to retire before 60 with a good annuity. That was the plan and as that plans needed, I needed the MS degree to get the conversion and promotions.

And so reviewing the old thesis I discovered it wasn't worth the time and travel, so I found a new one. Bob Hirsch, currently Associate Director for Water Programs but then a research hydrologist had developed a statistical technique to assess water quality data over time. They applied this to the NASQAN program data being collected at several hundred stream gages around the country.

Their results determined that some basins didn't have any significant or even discernible trend, two of which were on the Oregon coast where I was one of the two technicians who collected the data over the years of the data. I wanted to know why there wasn't a trend in the data. So I found Hirsch's study and report he developed with Jim Slack.

And yes, I discovered why, which wasn't the fault of the data so much as the timing of the data collection and flow for the period of data collection. But I also discovered the coastal rivers were unique in that the water quality was unusually low in major constituents with significant contributions from precipitatioin and that the water in the groundwater system has a short residence time, meaning from precipitatiion to streamflow was measured in a months than the normal years.

When I reported the results of my research which showed we (USGS) needed better ways to monitor the timing of routine water quality data collection, I was ignored. The problem is that consistently timed samples are the best for time trend studies but not good for representing flow, and samples collected for representing flow don't do well for trend studies. The answer was a combination where you sample for flow within time windows.

But this isn't what management wanted to hear. They liked work scheduled, and let the rest take care of itself. That, however, misses the importance and power of the data to be useful for additional analysis of other factors besides just time. It's sometimes more important to have the data represent the basin characteristics other than time, such as flow, events, surface/groundwater contributions, etc. Or so I thought but they didn't.

Anyway, I think it's funny that something I did over 20 years ago has come back to find me, or I found it. And sorry, it's a very dull read, so don't waste your time.

No comments:

Post a Comment