The Importance Of Public Relations in Geology

The Importance Of Public Relations in Geology

This guest post was written by our longtime personal friend, Charles R. Livingston.

Whether you consciously think about it or not, you are always involved in public relations when conducting geologic investigations. In addition to the technical skills required to successfully complete a project, the things you say and do (your attitude) can have a significant impact on how well the job goes. The example I am going to give you is something that happened decades ago, and it is just as relevant now as it was then. Some things don’t change much. Good PR is important!

A Long, Long Time Ago…
The year was 1960, and with my newly-printed sheepskin that said I was a geologist in my hand, I was looking for a job. Most of the big oil companies had been laying off geologists, and there was a geologist with 20 or more years experience on every corner. How do you compete with that? It seemed like everybody I talked to wanted someone with a PhD, who had a minimum of ten years experience, and was not more than 23 years old.

I had been used to eating at least two meals a day for many years and didn’t think I could go much longer without a job. I had to do something, and ended up taking a job as a rodman on a survey crew for the proposed Sweetwater Hydroelectric Project scattered over an area 20 to 40 miles north and northeast of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. In a week’s time I went from being a rodman to party chief. Upon completion of the surveying assignment, I was informed that the project was ready to go into the next phase, which included geologic and geotechnical investigations of all the various components of the project. They needed a geologist to handle all this and told me that the job was mine for the taking. It couldn’t have worked out any better if I had written the script myself.

Unique Geology of the Region
The Sweetwater Hydroelectric Project (Sweetwater Lake is in the center of the project area) was rather unique in many ways. There was enough head to utilize the water twice, with two power plants. On the western fringe of the project there was to be a 200-foot-high dam on the South Fork of the White River. Water from this dam would flow eastward through a four-mile tunnel to Sweetwater Creek. A diversion dam on Sweetwater Creek would capture the combined flow. From here the flow would be through a conduit to a forebay dam and then through a penstock to a power plant at the upstream end of Sweetwater Lake. Below Sweetwater Lake the flow was to be diverted to a 13-mile conduit that led to a forebay dam and then through a penstock to a power plant adjacent to the Colorado River. Several of these features were so remote that the only way I could get to them was on horseback. Tough duty!!

Most of the ranches in the area had been in the family(s) for generations and were owned free and clear of any debt. The ranchers, while not necessarily wealthy, were comfortably well-off. There were not any aspects of this project that they liked. The prospect of having a good portion of their land and surrounding US Forest land torn up by construction was not something they even wanted to think about. They were not happy campers.

Project plans called for raising the level of Sweetwater Lake by forty feet. The lake had been formed by a terminal moraine, and to raise the level of the lake it would be necessary to build a dam or dike on top of the moraine. In order to evaluate the integrity of the moraine, I drilled eight borings to bedrock that were evenly-spaced along the top of it. It was 283 feet to bedrock in the central portion of the valley. This was some of the toughest drilling I have ever encountered, with boulders up to the size of a car (and larger), sand and gravel, more huge boulders, etc. Our drilling contractor was Sprague & Henwood out of Scranton, PA, and they were excellent.

There is a spring that exits the moraine on the downstream side just above creek level. Upon completion of drilling at the moraine, we wanted to conduct some dye tests at each of the borings to try to make a determination of whether or not seepage through the moraine was more or less uniform, or if it was localized. We asked a number of the ranchers if we could borrow some of their stock tanks to mix the dye and conduct these tests. As a result of their negative attitude about the project, they refused us. We decided to delay the dye-test work for a while and continue with other aspects of the project.

Sweetwater Lake Project Only Semi-Sweet
Shortly after that, I started working just below the moraine, drilling out some pipe-support foundations for the 13-mile conduit that led to the second power plant at the Colorado River. We were in a pasture owned by a rancher named Jimmy Boni, and we had his permission to be there. It was a hot, dry day and when we heard a noise, we could see him coming our way in his pickup at the far end of the pasture. He appeared to have it floorboarded and dust was flying from the trail that snaked through the central portion of the pasture. When he got to the rig he slid about the last 10 to 15 feet and we were enveloped in a cloud of dust. He bounded out of the pickup and rushed over to where we were standing adjacent to the rig.

We just knew that he was mad about something (because that is the way things had been going), and were prepared for the worst. It turned out that he wasn’t mad about anything. He raised Hereford cattle and one of his cows was having a calf and was in trouble. He was a small man, probably not much more than five feet three or four inches tall. His arms weren’t long enough to reach the calf and he was afraid they might both die. He wanted to know if any of us had experience with this sort of thing and could help him. I had grown up raising Hereford cattle in Littleton, Colorado and had delivered a number of calves. I jumped in his pickup with him and we roared off to where the cow was. The calf was turned the wrong way, and after I got him straightened out, was able to deliver him, and he and his mama were fine. Jimmy was happy about this and he drove me back to the drill rig where I finished out the day.

The next day as I was driving back to Jimmy’s pasture to continue drilling I happened to look to my right, up the side-road that went to the moraine, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were four or five stock tanks sitting there. It turned out that Jimmy had called his rancher buddies up and down the valley and said “this Livingston guy is one of us.” From then on, the whole complexion of the project changed. The ranchers invited us to barbeques and were just as friendly as they could be. Working on the project was much more pleasant after that.

You can make a difference by what you say and do.

Sadly, the Sweetwater Hydroelectric Project was never constructed. At that time, and I don’t know if it has changed over the years, the Federal Power Commission would not issue a permit and authorize construction of such a project unless there was already a market for the power. A market for the power did not exist at that time, and the project died on the vine.

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Charles R. Livingston was the first section chair of the Southeastern Section of the AEG in 1972. He has 35+ years experience in performing and managing engineering geology, geotechnical, and environmental projects throughout the United States, Canada and the Bahamas. His work includes geologic/geotechnical investigations for civil projects, material investigations for construction aggregate, investigations for coal and industrial minerals, geologic investigations for nuclear power plants, geologic investigations for hydroelectric facilities (i.e. dams, tunnels, power plants and pipelines), safety evaluation inspections for major dams throughout the western United States, offshore investigations, solid waste studies, contaminant delineation, remediation design, supervising remediation construction projects, and expert witness testimony in court cases involving geologic matters. Charles is retired and lives with his wife in Atlanta, Ga.

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