Sevier River: Evolving Toward Sentience

The first river basin in Utah to move toward sentience is the Sevier River Basin. In the 1990s, the Sevier River Water Users Association (SRWUA) with an assist from the Bureau of Reclamation, began a systematic program to instrument and automate their river basin. Automation equipment, most of it solar pwered, was installed on all major water control structures, including 3 major reservoirs, 3 re-regulating reservoirs, and 15 diversion structures. Additionally over 15 real-time river and canal monitoring sites and 4 weather stations were equipped with telemetry. All this data is brought back hourly to an unmanned data collection facility (the developing “brain” of the Sevier River network). In 1997, the water users teamed with a local consultant to establish a website ( for the distribution of their real-time and historic information on streamflows, canal diversions, reservoir levels and releases, snowpack, and weather conditions. All these steps constitute the river basin’s first furtive steps toward sentience.

Twenty-eight years ago James Lovelock proposed his “living” earth or Gaia Hypothesis, which imputes a sort of mystical sentience to the planet Earth and describes its ecosystems as a type of super-organism. But the basic idea is far from modern. Many aboriginal societies have long had animists beliefs about the earth. Some latter-day Mormons have also given the earth human attributes by suggesting that it needed to be baptized (Noah’s flood).

While agreeable to many with an artistic or spiritual soul, Gaia appears to skeptics as being “Shirley-MacLaine” science. Still, almost three decades after the hypothesis was formally proposed, it is still with us.

Whether Gaia will stand the test of time is uncertain (and maybe it does matter if it causes us to look at the earth with a new respect). Irregardless, there is an interesting permutation developing: The earth is moving closer toward sentience through technological innovation and intervention. For example, some experts predict that by 2010 there will be 10,000 telemetric devices–complete with sensors–for each human on the face of the earth. This number is not particularly suprising, there have been electronic measuring devices for some time, including snow and rain gages, soil moisture probes, water and air quality monitors, gate and water-level sensors, and webcams. (And the number of these sensors is escalating with the rapid advance and the falling cost of technology.) What is more surprising: earth is evolving into a single network made up of billions of interconnected processors and sensors. In other words, the earth is developing a central nervous system, and a potential consciousness.

While a technologically enhanced Gaia may seem a less spiritual concept than the original hypothesis and counter to a “natural living” earth, it could lead toward a further understanding and rebalancing of the earth’s ecosystems. It could also result in more efficient and environmentally sensative use of the earth’s renewable resources.

A sentient earth, whether technologically-enhanced or natural is beyond the range of my interests and resources. A sentient river basin, however, is certainly a logical subdivision and very relevant to the future of the western United States. So how do you make a river basin sentient? There is currently a good example in Utah: the Sevier River Basin.

The Sevier River Basin in rural south-central Utah is one of the State’s major drainages. A closed river system which has no outlet to the ocean, it encompasses 12.5 percent of the State’s total area. From the headwaters, 250 miles south of Salt Lake City, the river flows north and then west 225 miles before reaching Sevier Lake. The basin has three major reservoirs: Otter Creek, Piute, and Sevier Bridge. The river is heavily diverted for irrigation (and some industrial use), and during a normal water year, very little water reaches the system’s terminal lake.

The institutional structure for operating the river is relatively straightforward. Operation of the river is overseen by a River Board — an executive committee of the Sevier River Water Users Association (Association) — that meets annually to deal with current issues and to make assessments to offset the costs of operating the river. Water rights are administered by two river commissioners. Other than the two commissioners, there is only one other full-time employee. Most of the canal companies operate out of the homes of their managers, and employees (i.e., ditchriders, watermasters) are seasonal. This institutional structure makes it difficult to operate a river basin 24/7, particularly during the irrigation season.

In the 1990s, the Association began a systematic program to instrument and automate their watershed and water delivery systems. Automation equipment, most of it solar powered, was retrofitted onto all major water control structures, and real-time monitoring equipment was installed in over 15 real-time river and canal monitoring sites and 4 weather stations. Additionally, several webcams have been installed throughout the basin. Data from all of these field sites is telemetered backed to an unmanned data collection center — datahut — located at the Richfield City airport.

All these various real-time monitoring and control sites bombarded the river commissioners with data, but unfortunately much of it was unavailable to other water managers. This was a constant source of frustration to secondary water managers, irrigators, forecasters, researchers, river runners, State dam-safety engineers, and others who could benefit from access to the real-time data.

In 1997, the Association teamed with StoneFly Technology, Inc., a private consulting firm, and to establish a website ( for the distribution of real-time (and recent historic) data on Sevier streamflows, canal diversions, reservoir levels and releases, snowpack, and weather. Since then the website has been continually evolving. For example, this year water rights information is being added, as are additional geographical areas.

The next step in moving toward river basin sentience is the development of decision-support models and tools. In the Sevier River Basin, these modeling efforts have included: PI controllers on diversion structures; total automation on Canal A; a water rights model that updates daily; reservoir release models; and real-time river-basin operations models. We anticipate that, at some time in the future, the basin’s water supply will become self-regulating. To accomplish this latter task, the datahut will eventually consist of a cluster of Linux boxes running Open Source software for a wide variety of applications. The network will have the ability to learn.

If I would have suggested such a future several years ago, the water users would have thought me “crazy,” or at least “crazier.” Today, they might not necessarily see that exact future, but they are inventing new ways to use their real-time monitoring and control network. I don’t think anyone is giving any serious thought to going back to the old way of doing business. Better, more timely, information has lead to better water management.

Ancient Andeans believed that the earth is alive, that mountains, rivers, and lakes interact with humans. This belieft system remains strong today. Anthropologist Wade Davis (NG Adventure, June/July 2006) explains that” “If you believe that a mountain is a sacred being, you’re going to have a very different relationship with it than if you believe that it’s a pile of rock ready to be mined.” One of the ultimate goals of the Sevier River sentience project is inject a value system into the network.

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3 Responses to Sevier River: Evolving Toward Sentience

  1. Roger Hansen says:

    The following IBM ad appeared in the NG (Sept 2009):

    “Computational power is now being put into things we wouldn’t recognize as computers — cars, appliances, cameras, roadways . . . even pharmaceuticals and livestock. We are interconnecting all of this throught the Internet, which has come of age. And we are applying powerful new systems and sophisticated analytics to turn the oceans of data into insight, knowledge and intelligence..”

    “Imagine how a smarter planet will transform all the things we seek. The ways we pursue economic growth, societal progress, environmental sustainability and cures for disease. The way we interact with each other and the world.”

  2. Roger Hansen says:

    According to Jaron Lanier in the book “You Are Not a Gadget”, p. 45:

    “According to a new creed, we technologists are turning ourselves, the planet, our species, everything, into computer peripherals attached to the great computing clouds. The news is no longer about us but about the big new computational object that is greater than us.

    The colleagues I disagree with often conceive our discussions as being a contest between a Luddite (who, me?) and the future. But there is more than one possible technological future, and the debate should be about how to best identify and act on whatever freedoms of choice we still have, not about who’s the Luddite.”

  3. Roger Hansen says:

    According to Jaron Lanier in “You Are Not a Gadget” p. 49:

    “Some people, like Larry Page, one of the Google founders, expect the internet to come alive at some point, while other, like science historian George Dyson, think that migh already have happened.”

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