Riding the Hydrologic Cycle into the Future

One graduate’s love of water may someday benefit us all.

by Carolyn Shea

Cindy Safronoff at Rainier

Cindy Peyser Safronoff on top of the world
during her climb to the summit of Mount
Rainier, which she reached on her first
attempt. Photo courtesy of Cindy
Peyser Safronoff.

Cindy Peyser Safronoff ’92 has a special affinity for water. Growing up in Seattle, she was surrounded by it. Even now that she’s living most of the year in the landlocked Midwest, it’s a major part of her existence. She’s not exaggerating when she says, “I’ve been around water my whole life.” And not only around it, but in it, on it, studying it, understanding it, engaged with it. 

This attachment was cultivated in childhood. Her family often boated around the San Juan Islands or retreated to their cabin at Lake Chelan, where she swam like a fish in its deep waters. Peyser spent summers kayaking and working as a river guide when she was a student at Evergreen. In her senior year, as she was wrapping up her studies in environmental sciences, her final program was called Riding the Hydrologic Cycle. 

Peyser’s entire postgraduate career has been related to water, too. It runs through her professional life like a tributary from her first job as a research assistant working in intergovernmental water resources planning for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. And it continues into her current role as president of Pizer Incorporated, a Seattle-based firm that provides municipalities around the United States with master planning modeling for their wastewater infrastructure.  

This is the important stuff, often unseen and unappreciated (until something goes wrong), that supports and enhances living conditions in modern developed societies: the complex, interrelated collection of pipes, channels, gutters, inlets, pumps, reservoirs, detention storage units, manholes, outlets, and other assorted elements constantly operating—hopefully properly and effectively—to improve sanitation, protect public health and control pollution. 

With the tribe, Peyser did research for a regional planning project concerning water resources in the northern Olympic Peninsula around Sequim. “The whole idea was to involve every kind of water user, with the goal of trying to get more water back into the rivers—the main one being the Dungeness--to prevent salmon extinction,” she says. 

After a couple of years there, learning more and more about water as a resource, she was called back home. “I got recruited into the family business,” she says. 

In the early 1970s, with the emergence of computers, Peyer’s civil engineer father, Allen Peyser, invented a breakthrough software program to model waste-water systems. Dubbed Hydra, the program marked a sea change from the days when figuring out the current and future flows of underground pipes while analyzing and designing sanitary sewer and waste-water projects required slide rules and careful computations. 

Hydra was so well received that her dad founded and built a company to market it. Over the years, it has been continually updated, becoming more flexible and sophisticated through powerful tools like geographic information system (GIS) and computer-aided design (CAD) technologies. It is utilized by small- to medium-sized cities, highway departments, military bases and consultants across North America to help them in a range of municipal sewer management projects, from master planning and storm-water management to rehabilitation projects, elimination of overflows and collection system design. Because so many sewer systems are overtaxed by age and population growth, the program plays a key role in infrastructure improvements. 

graphic of waves

From her home in St. Louis, Mo., where she moved after marrying five years ago, Peyser is leading the charge to get Hydra into the places where it can be of use. After spending more than a decade working with her father and learning the ropes of the business, she is now running it. “I wear a lot of hats,” she says. “My brother is the programmer; he writes the software, and I do everything else: sales, legal, technical support, web design, hiring for outside jobs, everything that software companies do.”  

She also writes user manuals and with her father, is currently working on a book for civil engineers on hydraulic modeling. Writing has come to be very important to Peyser. She recently published her first book, Climbing Mt. Rainier with the Chicks, an account of the preparations, trials and triumph of successfully summiting Mount Rainier with a small team of women on their first attempt. “That was definitely a peak experience for me. It was so amazing that I wrote most of it down right after it happened and then expanded it.” 

Nowadays, she writes 10 to 20 hours a week and is already onto her next book, exploring gender issues. “I’ve worked in male-dominated fields all my life,” she says. “I’ve been to conferences with 400 people and I’m the only woman.” While this is slowly changing, Peyser says her consciousness was awakened to gender issues by some powerful experiences at Evergreen, especially in her junior-year program, Sustainable Community Systems, her most influential course. “Something happened in that program,” she recalls. “A confluence happened—the students, teachers and material were all awesome.”

Peyser’s vision for the future includes the continued development of Hydra and Pizer, and integrating the fields she has worked in: water resources and wastewater management. “In looking at my whole professional life and the thread of water connecting it all; where I’m going in the future and where I see the industry going, it’s really exciting because the areas of water resources and wastewater are starting to merge,” she says. “The new cutting-edge thinking is that wastewater, the water that we’re throwing away, dumping, treating, is being seen as the last untapped water resource. People are starting realize that we need to use that.” 

With water shortages looming as one of this century’s greatest challenges, she has been investigating more sustainable ways to manage it. “This is not a sustainable system we’ve got working here,” she says. She is particularly intrigued by the green building model provided by Earthship Biotecture, which makes passive solar homes, constructed with natural and recycled materials—often rammed earth and tires—using only rainwater and reusing greywater. “The only utilities needed are sunlight and rain,” says Peyser, who is trying to figure out how to apply earthship ideas in a way that more people will benefit. “I’m still trying to work it into my professional life in a more concrete way,” she says.

That effort may already be starting to bear fruit. “I’m in dialogue with one customer, a city, to try hydraulic modeling of things like rain barrels, cisterns, and rain gardens,” she says. “I’m trying to explore how our software can help cities, when they say, “Okay, now let’s see what happens when we launch different initiatives on a city-wide scale. That’s where we can help.”

For Peyser, “it all comes back to life on rivers. Ultimately, if these water saving techniques could be implemented, the effect would be to keep rivers and streams in better shape so we have more fish and healthier ecosystems.”

Peyser says Evergreen is greatly responsible for opening her eyes to “exploring new ideas and wrestling with different philosophies and ways of thinking—to look at ideas that seem crazy but have the potential for moving us forward. We can have a warm house, a shower everyday, lights, the Internet. We can have all that but also do it in a way that’s totally sustainable.”