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Waterfront View

Columbia Magazine Fall 2015

I have not enjoyed any issue of Columbia Magazine more than the Fall 2015 issue. It seemed to me to be all-inclusive with respect to subject matter, covering the entire waterfront in a way I haven’t previously appreciated. I read it with gusto from cover to cover. Thank you!

Leonard S. Sommer ’47PS
Key Biscayne, FL

The Fall 2015 issue was outstanding. The cover story immediately caught my attention, and whereas past issues have lain on my coffee table waiting to be read, I actually read this one from cover to cover in one sitting. Thanks for a job well done!

Dickerson Miles ’96BUS
Sleepy Hollow, NY

Glass Half Full

Paul Hond’s cover story (“Liquid Assets,” Fall 2015) contains excellent discussion of how to clean wastewater streams in energy-efficient ways to create sustainable water assets. The article is timely; the world community greatly needs solutions. It is good that Columbia engineers are on the job.

While attending Columbia I remember watching the construction of the 145th Street wastewater-treatment plant, which is alluded to in Hond’s piece. While it makes sense that New York City treats Manhattan’s used water, this effort is undermined by the years of neglect of Brooklyn’s polluted Gowanus Canal, which discharges into New York Harbor. Treated Hudson River water eventually migrates toward Lady Liberty, where it combines with Gowanus pollution, thus becoming dirty again. Until New York City finally treats Gowanus wastewater (in cooperation with state and federal agencies), the cost of treating Manhattan’s water is essentially wasted money.

Perhaps the city should expand the 145th Street plant to incorporate the “super-treating” concept advanced by Columbia engineers. With super-treating, some of Manhattan’s wastewater can be used and reused by residents. This would be a win for both the city and Columbia.

New York City should also consider desalination of the Hudson River’s brackish water. Columbia engineers could certainly improve the process, and perhaps even make it more cost-effective. While converting salt water to fresh is expensive, the $120 monthly Manhattan water bill Hond mentions indicates residents are already paying high prices for clean water.

Glenn Wattley ’75SEAS
Osterville, MA

The cover of the Fall 2015 issue trumpeted a “global water crisis.” Haven’t we had enough of screaming “disaster is upon us” over and over? We have the obesity crisis, the climate crisis, the education crisis, the violence crisis, and the migrant crisis in a never-ending parade. It’s been 2,500 years since Aesop told the story of the boy who cried wolf, yet people still can’t avoid the temptation of preaching doom. Ironically, the article itself shows that there are plenty of solutions to the water “crisis,” demonstrating that in fact there is no crisis at all.

Lewis Chilton ’02BUS
Los Angeles, CA

It’s encouraging to learn about engineering professor Kartik Chandran’s innovative approach to cleaning and reusing wastewater. His methods could certainly reduce the energy we spend needlessly super-treating water not destined to be drunk.

However, the splashy cover line “Saving Water Won’t Save Us” may have left readers with the mistaken notion that conservation is unimportant. This past summer, Californians used nearly a third less water than the previous summer — that’s 135 billion gallons of water that doesn’t need to get transported or treated, and will remain in aquifers or streams where it belongs.

What will really “save” California, along with every other state that imports our produce, is when farmers, who use 80 percent of the state’s water, transition to agroecological methods that help the soil retain large volumes of water, thus enabling them to grow food in what California has become: a desert.

Erica Etelson ’89CC
Berkeley, CA

Paul Hond writes that desalination plants “burn vast amounts of fossil fuels,” but this is irresponsible reporting. It takes energy to desalinate, but that energy can come from any source, including wind and solar. In California, desalination is the main new source of water. It is a solution, not a problem — although, yes, the designs need to be good. Until our sun burns out, there will be plenty of energy. Let’s assume that given the proper budget and oversight, our engineers can get this right.

Julius O. Smith
Stanford, CA

I am puzzled by what Kartik Chandran says about using urine directly for crop irrigation instead of first treating it. Perhaps he would explain why a dog urinating on a lawn soon causes that area to be noticeably brown, and why human urine wouldn’t have the same effect on crops.

Milton Turoff ’55BUS
West Orange, NJ

Kartik Chandran responds:
The lawn-killing effect of dog urine is likely due to high doses of ammonia, or NH3 — a toxicant regulated by the Clean Water Act — that result from a dog emptying its bladder in a single spot. If applied at lower doses, NH3 serves as an essential nutrient; over a threshold, it is toxic. In fact, my students have occasionally overdosed their plants, leading to a decrease in productivity.

Founding-Father Facsimiles

Artwork by Charles Willson Peale, Portrait Miniature of Alexander Hamilton, Ca. 1780, Watercolor on Ivory. Presented to Columbiana (university Archives) by Edmund Astley Prentis (c00.1673); Charles Willson Peale, Portrait Miniature of James Madison, 1783

I was amused to see that in Thomas Vinciguerra’s article “Treasure Quest” (Fall 2015), a miniature portrait by Charles Willson Peale of the young congressman James Madison, which Madison commissioned in 1783 to present to his girlfriend, Catherine (“Kitty”) Floyd, is misidentified as a likeness of his erstwhile friend Alexander Hamilton. (Check out the ten-dollar bill.) Sadly, Madison was less successful with women than Hamilton was; Kitty Floyd ultimately rejected him as being too wimpy. Perhaps Vinciguerra had a seminar or colloquium with history professor Eric McKitrick during the 1970s. McKitrick also could not tell the difference between Hamilton and Madison.

Arthur Scherr ’72GSAS
Brooklyn, NY

While we identified Hamilton correctly, Arthur Scherr is to be forgiven for thinking this might be Peale’s portrait of James Madison. You can certainly see the likeness. — Ed.

Voice for Justice

I was delighted to read your article “A Voice for Justice” (Fall 2015), describing the excellent work of Elora Mukherjee and her students at the law school’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic. Their efforts on behalf of the mothers and children incarcerated in Dilley, Texas, are certainly to be applauded.

Although Columbia Law School has sent students and faculty to Texas, other law schools and organizations are regularly represented there as well. In the past year, four organizations, known collectively as CARA — the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, the American Immigration Council, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association — have joined forces to form the Family Detention Pro Bono Project. I myself, a psychologist, spent a week doing evaluations in Dilley last summer, sponsored by Physicians for Human Rights.

To my mind, one of the more remarkable aspects of the project is that so many people are working together toward one goal. Every week, a new shift of volunteers arrives. Meanwhile, the unsung work each group does for each client accumulates week after week, until, in pretty much every case, the client wins and is freed. To me, this unusually creative, united approach was by far the most inspiring part of the project.

Barbara Eisold ’60GSAS
New York, NY

Crimes and Misdemeanors

In Phoebe Magee’s story on Columbia’s course for former prisoners — an excellent idea for which Columbia should be commended — we’re introduced to Isaac Scott, who reveals that he served seven and a half years in prison (“The Turn of the Key,” College Walk, Fall 2015). However, we are never told for what. I reread the story thinking I had missed this critical fact about which every reader must surely have been wondering: burglary? credit-card theft? drugs? grand larceny? assault?

My professors at Columbia Journalism School would have jumped all over me for neglecting to provide this information. I hope this was an oversight and it was not excluded out of some misguided sense that such natural curiosity is somehow unseemly or politically incorrect. Not knowing, indeed, spurs the contrary effect of making the reader wonder just how appalling his crime was — so bad you decided not to say? Just tell us the facts and let us judge (or at least note the rationale for not telling us).

Andrew Nemethy ’73JRN
Adamant, VT

Phoebe Magee responds:
One of the goals of the Justice-in-Education Initiative is to change the narrative about incarcerated people to emphasize their future and their potential to grow and develop. Though Scott told me the nature of his crime, I did not consider the information essential to this particular story, which focuses on his desire to reenter society on new terms.

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