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Ed Maurer: Water is Life

Ed Maurer is a professor in the civil engineering department at Santa Clara. He specializes in modeling water resources and systems to predict future climate change. We discuss how Dr. Maurer’s childhood love of bicycles lives on to this day, his career path, how to think about climate change, the California drought, and his research projects. My biggest takeaway from this interview was on the importance of protecting and appreciating the climate and water that we so often take for granted.


Interview Highlights

Gavin Cosgrave: What did you do for fun as a kid?


Ed Maurer: As a kid I liked to bicycle, and I even liked to work on bikes. I still like to do both those things. They don’t connect to my work very much, but I keep looking for ways that they can.


GC: How did you get interested in climate change, oceans or geology?


EM: I came into it more through civil engineering and water. As a male student in high school who did well in math and science in the 1970’s, I was funneled into an engineering career. I didn’t know what engineers did, and neither of my parents had a college degree.


I came across one faculty member who did water quality research, and he brought me into some of that stuff. That was just fun. That really opened my eyes to how you model water quality, stream flow, sediments. That sort of thing really grabbed me. After working a few years, I went back to grad school to study water resources in California.


I worked for a group called the Pacific Institute in Oakland who had a project in 1989 looking at climate change impacts in water, specifically sea level rise in the San Francisco Bay. I didn’t know anything about it, but I learned as I went. 


GC: What was it about water that interested you?


EM: It sounds kind of trite, but water is life. In every civil engineering department, there used to be little posters advertising the Peace Corps, showing someone building a well in a remote area. It was appealing to me that by having skills that could help provide clean water for people, it’s a way to provide a real essential service for people.


GC: You volunteered for four years in Peru in the 1990’s. Why did you move there?


EM: After about four years working on different native American reservations around the Western US, I had gotten married and my wife had gotten a theology degree. She was at a break point in her career and I felt like I could step away as well.


It seemed to fit nicely as a time to do something different. Both my wife and I had always been interested in doing international volunteer service, so we contacted Maryknolls Lay Missioners. We left everything behind and lived by Lake Titicaca in Peru.


GC: What work did you do there?


EM: I was doing small water projects, traveling out to remote communities, helping them realize what water resources they had and trying to help them get a more secure supply out of it. Looking at ways of enclosing springs to make them clean or piping it down to houses. I also helped with a program to dig wells. I would help raise money and the community would provide the labor.


I also ended up teaching at the National University of the Altiplano. I had a lull in my water development, so I just walked down to the University and asked them if there was anything they needed and they put me in the classroom.


GC: Climate change is such a huge problem that can be paralyzing for people when thinking about what to do. Is there anything individual people can do? How should we think about the problem so that we don’t lose hope?


EM: Not losing hope is key. Eating less meat, finding better ways to get around, there are a lot of options. A lot of individual actions can be beneficial, but they can’t be enough. There have to be institutional changes made.


The fossil fuel industry is heavily subsidized, and if we payed the true cost of burning gasoline in our vehicles, we’d be paying double or more than we are. If we want to put renewables on an even playing field, a smart and simple way to do that is a carbon tax.


In addition, we need to take measures to adapt to climate change. Even if we stop emitting carbon dioxide, the climate will continue to warm for a couple more decades. We need to especially look at the most vulnerable populations. Those with fewer resources are at a much greater risk.


GC: What do you view as your role in the climate change problem?  


EM: As a professor, I think my role is to follow the data and let that be a guide to policies I might promote or ways to change our engineering analysis to reflect a changing environment.


GC: What would you tell a student who wants to get involved in solving climate change but doesn't know where to start? 

EM: I’d say get involved. There are so many avenues. A good first step is to understand the science. Open up the national Climate assessment and read the summary. That way you can respond to questions in a way that reflects the true state of the science.


No one can do everything, so follow your passion. If you love bicycling, look into that. There are ways to take whatever gifts a person has, bring them to the table and solve different aspects of the problem.

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