Who is Milt Burgess and why did he write Water Shock?
Educated as a mechanical engineer, Milt Burgess graduated from Montana State University with a BSME degree and proceeded into industry, first with the Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation where he was eventually assigned to start up the first aluminum reduction facility and rolling mill in Ravenwood, West Virginia. After leaving there, he became a designer for the BOMARC transporter loader at Boeing in Seattle which lead to work in the intercontinental missile installation field in Spokane for General Dynamics Astronautics and the Martin Company working on the Atlas and Titan missile complexes being installed around the State of Washington.
With the Cold War fading, he chose to enter the mechanical contracting business with the family-owned C. W. Schmid, Inc. Mechanical Contracting firm located in Missoula, Montana where he developed his skills as an estimator and project manager. This lead to starting his own business, Burgess Mechanical Contractors, Inc. in Missoula where he became a registered mechanical engineer, master plumber, master gas fitter and licensed contractor building commercial structures in Montana, Washington, North and South Dakota, Utah and Kansas. During this period he worked through the chairs of the Associated Plumbing and Heating Contractors of Montana, becoming its president in 1972.
University Mechanical of Arizona, Inc. (UMCA), a subsidiary of University Mechanical Contractors, Inc. (UMEC) with headquarters in San Diego, California, then the 5th largest specialty contractor in the United States succeeded in hiring him. Burgess Mechanical Contractors, Inc. was closed. While in Arizona, Burgess was the project engineer in charge of building and starting up two wastewater treatment plants where he learned first-hand what it takes to treat municipal sewage to secondary and tertiary standards.
He was then asked to assume responsibility as a UMEC vice president for the San Diego Division. After a few years, he became the executive vice president of UMEC responsible for more than $150 million in open contacts and an $80 million operating budget performing commercial and industrial work in the Western US, with a work force of over fifty project managers supervising several hundred plumbers, pipefitters and sheet metal workers.
Just as JWP, Inc., a conglomerate of specialty contractors, was in the process of buying University Industries, Inc. and UMEC, Burgess left and started his own mechanical consulting firm performing work for the legal industry as an expert witness on mergers and acquisitions for JWP, construction claims, and construction defect litigation. Burgess Group, Inc. grew in size and scope, eventually including several engineers, and administrative people doing consulting work in California, Nevada and Idaho. Burgess’ son Michael bought the business in 1999 and Milt continued working for the firm, until recently when he separated from the firm and began to do consulting work as Milton N. Burgess, P.E.
Over the years he has gained a national reputation working on the American Society of Mechanical Engineers A112 committee that sets the national standards for plumbing equipment and materials, and working on the local chapter of the American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE). He was elected to the ASPE Kenneth G. Wentnick College of Fellows at a national convention.
It was while he was the legislative vice president of the local ASPE chapter that he began a series of articles for the chapter newsletter about what could happen if Southern California’s water was suddenly cut off. San Diego at that time was importing 90% of its water, and the situation has not improved greatly since, with 80% still being imported from several hundred miles away subject to natural disasters. Doing the research for those articles intensified the interest Burgess had in the tenuous hold San Diego, and Southern California, has on its two water sources, the State Water Project and the Colorado River.
Over a ten year period, the idea of a book began to develop to help the general public understand the possible socio-economic disaster that could befall them if the area did not become water independent. Thus, Water Shock, The Day Southern California Went Dry became a reality.
The sad fact, Burgess writes, is that the US has no national water policy. Decades ago the Environmental Protection Agency was set up to provide a way to help clean up the nation’s water supply, but that fell short of a national water policy. While the Bureau of Reclamation and the Corps of Engineers proceeded to wreak havoc over the past 100 years on the ecology of the area west of the 100th meridian (a line running down through Nebraska) by attempting to irrigate the western deserts, precious little consideration was given to the fact that it is unsustainable to attempt to grow crops in areas where the annual rainfall is two inches to twelve inches. Successful farming takes over twenty inches to grow crops.
Meanwhile as the populations of Southern California, and Arizona continue to proliferate exponentially, the lack of a national water policy has left the municipalities to deal with the issues of a reliable water supply on their own, complicated by the takeover of many groundwater aquifers by large corporations . New Mexico is the only state that regulates their groundwater.
Readers of Water Shock, may find the issue of disputed national borders to be far afield from the problems associated with reliable water supplies. Part of the research done by Burgess included what has happened to the Colorado River. Just one hundred years ago it flowed unrestricted to its delta in the area known as Cienega de Santa Clara as it made its way to the Sea of Cortez.
Early history tells us that before all the dams were built, the Colorado River delta in Mexico extended over two million acres, an area almost the size of Rhode Island, rich with nutrients brought downriver with tons of silt. In 1922, the conservationist Aldo Leopold and his brother explored the Colorado River delta by canoe. Leopold exulted in ‘all the wealth of fowl and fish . . .in this milk-and-honey wilderness’ as his canoe wove through winding waterways and green lagoons. The two subsisted on quail and geese they harvested. Beaver, deer, and jaguar flourished, while shrimp and the totoaba migrated from the upper Gulf of California to spawn in the delta’s brackish waters. Millions of waterfowl and shorebirds could be seen circling, then descending to feed and rest in the lagoon. Leopold’s essay, “The Green Lagoon,” in his book A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949, gives a description of the delta as it was then. And now the Colorado Delta is a desert itself, with little flow reaching the Sea of Cortez.
The Cession of Mexico, as noted on older maps , that resulted from the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, gave the US all of California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona and the western portions of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. It is little wonder then that many of our Mexican neighbors south of the border look with fondness on what used to be part of their country, and loathe the imaginary line separating the two countries. It is not a major leap to assume there might be those who would attempt to take advantage of a weakened US should the Southwest suddenly find current water sources are no longer viable, and attempt to move the border north.
Burgess has worked with water for his entire career as mechanical engineer and contractor building hundreds of millions of dollars in mechanical, plumbing and HVAC systems in the Western US including large wastewater treatment plants. Pumping, distributing, cleansing, and otherwise working to make this clear, crystalline, scarce resource called water available for drinking, bathing, heating, cooling and industrial uses is his business. And now he has an important message within the pages of Water Shock for those in Southern California.
About Alumni at the University of Montana