Thursday, July 29, 2010

PSB Passes Unnecessary Policy - Why?

Yesterday, the Public Service Board passed Policy and Procedures on Use of Stormwater Funds for Open Space, Green Projects and other related attributes. The policy states that the 10% of the stormwater fee can only be spent for open space acquisition. CEO Ed Archuleta has seemed recently to have some great urgency for passing this policy in spite of the fact that the fee's purposes are under review by City attorneys and City Council as well as the Open Space Advisory Board. What is the urgency? Why does it seem that Archuleta and Mayor John Cook were so hot to trot to pass it? No immediate project is before the water or stormwater utility that would require any sort of policy. Another few weeks of waiting for City decisions would be okay.

One member of the PSB, Maria Teran, called passage "harmless". Yet, it would have been far more conservative simply to do nothing. Could it be that Archuleta hopes to influence a future interpretation of the stormwater ordinance in a manner more in keeping with his opinion? Is there fear that the Saipan grass project would be jeopardized. (Regarding that project, PSB member, Dr. Rick Bonart, pointed out that, under this policy, land can only be acquired and vegetating Saipan is not acquistion. The Mayor argued with Bonart saying that vegetation has a stormwater purpose in that plants absorb water. Huh? If that is the case, retorted Bonart, then why not vegetate all the ugly pits around the City. The Mayor did not respond. Although I'm all for planting, planting is not acquisition and the Mayor knows it which makes me wonder why he would even advance such a lame bit of logic.)

The motion passed with only one dissenting vote - Dr. Rick Bonart's.

Something is up. I smell a rat. I've asked for an itemization of the $364,000 being spent on sod and shrubs at Saipan. Under Texas State Law, I'm entitled to that information immediately as I am a member of the Open Space Advisory Board and this is an open space question. I don't even have to implicate the open records laws. Nevertheless, a stall is in the works. The information is not forthcoming and I'm hearing excuses. I first made the request last Monday, July 19th.

What was really plain and upsetting at yesterday's PSB meeting was the realization that, with the exception of Dr. Bonart, the board is made up of "yes" men and women. In effect, they are a rubber stamp for anything that Mr. Archuleta and company propose. I've seen boards like this in other places in the past. Such boards always mean that the tax payer will accrue unnecessary, and too often extravagant, expenses because the authority of CEOs goes unchecked for too long. What is the old saying about absolute power?

A large Palo Verde and other vegetation were destroyed by EPWU at the Nature Preserve at Resler Canyon

Recall EPWU's lack of neighborliness and good corporate citizenship with regard to Resler Canyon. It took nearly a year and some threats of legal action for EPWU leaders to do the right thing and fix the damage they caused to the nature preserve at Resler Canyon. Excuses. Stalls.

Of course, the willingness of the board members could offer an opportunity. One could try to market the image of most PSB members as those talking, bobbing heads that people put on their dashboards and computer monitors. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that, as they become more aware of PSB actions, El Pasoans will continue to buy these rubber stamps and bobbing heads. I for one am going to start attending and paying attention to the PSB and I think all El Pasoans should do likewise. I certainly will help to inform others about what is going on. If only there was the same interest in PSB meetings as there is in City Council meetings . . . if only . . . Perhaps that is what worries the top brass the most and why there are urgencies where urgencies do not exist.

Stakeholders Meeting Take Two

Worth preserving: Arroyo 41A as seen from Tom Mays Unit of the State Park

A second mountain to river stakeholders meeting was held yesterday in a conference room of the IBWC. Sponsored again by the Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition, this meeting topped the first. Those who had spoken at the first meeting added to their presentations. New speakers offered new insights. Mike Gaglio, President of the Frontera Land Alliance, provided new food for thought: mitigation banks and in lieu fee mitigation. He was supported with additional information from Rick Gatewood of the Army Corps of Engineers.

The City Parks and Recreation Department finally got into the act with Rick Garcia who could not attend the last meeting. Also from the City was Engineer Kareem Dallo. A pleasant surprise was the presence of Barry Russell who had served as acting Director of P & R before taking a job in Spokane. Barry worked with Chuck Kooshian, the former City Planner, as the mountain to river plan was developed.

Jobe was represented by Trish Tanner. Pat Woods of Desert View Homes the builder/developer for Desert Springs was present. In fact, it was the attendance by Pat Woods (and consequently Randy O'Leary, owner and founder of Desert View Homes) that made my day. (Pat was unfortunately out of town for the first meeting.) He shared a new land study for their development which includes portions of the Ann Morgan Lilly Trail (Arroyo 41A) which drew praise from Open Space Advisory Board Chairman, Charlie Wakeem. Woods and O'Leary are trying to accommodate the mountain to river trail and still offer affordable, attractive homes. (Their product is for a first time homeowner or someone moving up.) They are trying to make an honest living and do what they can within the confines of financing, expenditures, environmental considerations and so forth. Bottom line: they are striving to be good neighbors and good corporate citizens. Desert View Homes received the Gold National Housing Endowment Builder Achievement Award for Outstanding Community Service. Mr. O'Leary was an El Paso Inc. Candidate for 2009 El Pasoan of the Year.

Bottom line: these meetings are building relationships among people who share values and concerns and want to get along and make things work together. Kudos to Judy Ackerman for making these meetings happen.

Conspicuously absent: Doug Schwartz of Enchanted Hills and any of the investors of the Santa Fe Properties who own the corner at I-10 and Transmountain.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

EPWU Now Says It Will Remediate at Detention Pond

As I reported the other day in a post, EPWU Vice President John Balliew told me via email that EPWU did not plan on re-vegetating the detention pond dam. However, according to Balliew, after reading my blog post, visiting the site and discussing the matter with Christina Montoya and Jose Luis (a storm water engineer), they decided that they should re-vegetate.

Their decision was probably really the result of a KTSM news story done by Matt Rivers who had called them for an interview earlier in the day. Suddenly re-seeding looked like good public relations. (It also means good land management and environmental care - but whatever motivates it is fine with me.) Matt interviewed me in the story which was aired three times on Thursday.

Balliew asked me for suggestions. I first pointed out that EPWU had done some re-seeding at Resler Canyon using a mixture of native seeds devised by Scott Cutler, the manager of Resler and the President of the Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition. (The need to re-seed an area at Resler was the result of damage to the canyon done by EPWU. After first telling Frontera Land Alliance they would remediate, they then reneged and went into protracted communications with Frontera officers. Eventually Frontera got its lawyer involved and eventually he threatened a lawsuit. Finally, Ed Archuleta and company decided to do the right thing and fix what they broke . . . but not until delaying for as long as they could. Delay seems to be the tactic of the EPWU legal department. In this case it was a further revelation of how much they truly value natural beauty, conservation and open space.)

I also proposed that he should contact Texas AgriLife Extension Service Program Specialist, Alyson McDonald, with the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management. She is a seed and erosion control expert. We will see whether he does.

EPWU has two erosion control methods of choice: spraying "pavcryl"l (or similar) or hydromulching.

The simple fact is this: they had plans to clean out the pond, but they had no plans to remediate or do erosion control. Kevin von Finger tells me that, when the City managed the dam in back of Keystone. The City scraped away vegetation and now there are deep gullies eroding into the side. Vegetation had kept erosion at bay. Plants such as desert perennials, cacti and lechugilla do not compromise a dam but hold the top soil. When rain hits exposed top soil it will once again clog the drain in the detention pond. Had EPWU had a plan to remediate (as I guess they are formulating now), then future sediment would be reduced and less money would be spent.

Besides, imagine, opening the path as it now exists on three sides of the detention pond to hikers and mountain bikers going around Scenic Drive. It would add another dimension to that beautiful walk. Keeping the plant life (and animal habitats) would only enhance the beauty of this area and its value to the neighborhoods below and to the eco-tourist market for the City. Unfortunately, up to now, EPWU has one-dimensional thinking that does not include preserving natural beauty or creating recreational opportunities.

They should take a lesson from Harris County Flood Control District that plans for preserving natural beauty in the first place. What it will take in El Paso is for EPWU to develop good management policies that include not just the care of infrastructure, but a sense of environmental care and rain water harvesting, which if there was more of down stream, big, ugly pits wouldn't be as necessary.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

El Paso: Learn from Summerlin

For a number of years now, Dr. Rick Bonart has been pointing to the Summerlin development in Las Vegas as a model for development that preserves natural open space and provides recreational trails for property owners and others. It is a model of what could happen along the Mountain to River Trail (the Ann Morgan Lilly Trail/Arroyo 41A) as well as all other future developments in our vast and beautiful desert.

In fact in 2008 American Trails more than validated Dr. Bonart's vision. Summerlin was one of their National Trails Award developer recipients. The award was brought to my attention by Hugh Osborne who just recently moderated the Stakeholders' Meeting for 41A.

In an earlier Elpasonaturally post, I included a link to the Summerlin site because Dr. Bonart had mentioned it to me.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

EPWU Responds to Another Big, Ugly Pond

EPWU Vice President John Balliew responded to my questions regarding the destruction of vegetation and habitat at a detention pond off of Scenic Drive. He wrote:

"In this case, the dam and the area behind the dam had not been maintained in many years if ever. The outlet where the controlled release of water is supposed to occur was completely covered by several feet of soil. In order to remedy that situation, we built access road, desilted the bottom and filled some eroded areas on the dam slope. We did not disturb the remaining sides of the area behind the pond. We recognize it is highly visible from scenic drive, but it is a high dam and the work had to be done. We do not plan on re- vegetating, but we will not again disturb vegetation on the bottom until sufficient fill comes in to require removal. Unfortunately, we cannot allow shrubs and trees on the dam slope as this can provide a pathway for water flow and subsequent dam failure and we would be cited by either TCEQ or the Corps of Engineers (as appropriate) during inspection and enforcement.

Keeping the dam slopes free from shrubs and trees and keeping the outlet free flowing is critical to maintaining the safety of the public below the dam. As a note, the five ponds that we desilted last year were not re-vegetated yet are beginning to recover. We are working two more near Scenic Drive but those will be disturbed less and will be a little less visible."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agrees that what EPWU is doing would likely be authorized under Nationwide Permit 3 - Maintenance. In addition, UTEP Engineering Professor John Walton says that Balliew is being reasonable.

Erosion control is still a concern as well as being more pro active re-seeding the area. Elpasonaturally still wonders whether planning remediation ahead, even if no agency requires it, wouldn't be the way to go.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Another Big, Ugly Pit

Mounds of dirt wait to be hauled out of EPWU moonscaped retention pond along Scenic Drive

A little over two years ago members of the Newman Park Neighborhood Association met with top officials of El Paso Water Utilities. Their concern was the planned "clean-up" of the Altura detention pond. Neighbors wanted assurances that trees and other native vegetation would be preserved as much as possible. The EPWU corporate brass promised that trees would be preserved and only some vegetation would be removed to create a truck lane into the pond. When the project was done, neighbors were stunned to see a moonscape. Trees and other vegetation all around the pond had been scraped, bulldozed and hauled off.

Now EPWU is finishing work on another retention pond off the side of Scenic Drive. Same thing: trees and other vegetation have been scraped, bulldozed and hauled off. A road from a lower reservoir was cut into the hillside and loose asphalt was spread on it to make it easier for trucks to haul off the sand. A moonscape replaces the flora and fauna - a moonscape which is not exactly what the "scenic" in Scenic Sunday is all about.

Certainly, work must be done to clean out the ponds to prevent massive stormwater runoff. However, can it not be done in such a way so that native plants and wildlife are not destroyed and El Pasoans and their guests are not looking at just one more big ugly pit? A citizen raised the issue of the Scenic Drive pond at an LRC meeting yesterday in the context of a new grading ordinance. City Engineer Alan Shubert explained that the reality is that utility is not bound by the grading ordinances. Why not?

These great big pits attract one thing: plastic bags and other litter. Elpasonaturally will be keeping an eye out for the "re-vegetation" of this storm pit with plastic and glass debris and will publish the pictures.

The bigger question is the need for a PSB policy to remediate land for erosion control, restoration of native plants and habitat and, in many instances, rainwater harvesting. As Professor John Walton said at Monday's stakeholders meeting on Arroyo 41A in his lecture ("Reducing Stormwater Costs with Low Impact Designs"): "Current stormwater engineering practices in El Paso are based primarily on dated designs from different climates and landscapes."

One of the more interesting revelations that came out of EPWU VP of Operations John Balliew's presentation at the stakeholders meeting is that PSB has a land management plan of selling land and preserving only that land necessary for stormwater management. They want to get the maximum dollar amount that they can for their land. (All of this probably explains their resistance to any kind of downzoning in an effort to preserve natural open space.) After all, they will need lots of money to sustain what is ultimately unsustainable: the water that they mine in the bolsons. El Paso is just getting too large, too fast and it appears that they are managing the demand on water by making sure that they get more money in the bank with land sales. Of course, they get the money along with encouraging sprawl at the same time. This raises more questions: besides desalinization (which buys us a few decades), is anyone at EPWU looking at rainwater harvesting and stormwater practices more relevant to our climate and landscape?

(Bill Addington, a member of the Open Space Advisory Board, made a good point at the last meeting: sprawl can be limited just by refusing to meter. Build all you like . . . you just won't get hooked up to the water supply. After s recent hike through the lower northwest arroyos, we (the Sunrise Hikers) returned to our cars by way of an expensive new development full of empty houses and those ominous signs that say "Corporate Owned" - i.e., foreclosed upon. And we want to encourage more sprawl by controlling an arroyo, 41A, in the only manner that El Paso engineers seem to know - single channel and concrete it and build one huge retention pond that will forever alter the arroyo?)

New sign at Palisades reveals minimal open space land use policy. Click on image to enlarge and read.

Sooner or later, PSB will have to come up with a realistic land management policy for its open space that takes into account practices beyond just scraping huge pits into the ground and preserving land for developers to bid on while destroying vegetation and wildlife - a plan that optimizes attractions to eco-tourism and preserves natural beauty and open space and enforces laws against illegal dumping - something PSB doesn't do now because the land's only real value to them seems to be the value it will have to future sprawlers.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Mountain to River Trail Stakeholders Finally Gather

Persons interested in the fate of the Mountain to River Trail (now defined as Arroyo 41A - the Ann Morgan Lilly Trail) finally came together for a stakeholders meeting sponsored by the Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition. The meeting took place without publicity on Monday morning, July 12 at Canutillo High School.

For several years the Open Space Committee and now the Open Space Advisory Board had sought such a meeting. For whatever reason, Parks and Recreation Department staff were never able to put one together. Finally as a Board member I suggested that we just do one without City support if necessary. Judy Ackerman of the Franklin Mountain Wilderness Coalition took the initiative and got to work. In less than a month, she had arranged the venue, gathered the speakers, found a facilitator and invited the stakeholders. At the end of the meeting she asked those in attendance if they wanted to meet again and keep talking. Everyone indicated that they wanted to keep talking including engineers who work for two of the planned developments along the arroyo: Desert Springs and Enchanted Hills. When people come together no matter how much they may disagree, good things can come about. In fact, this meeting didn't just generate good will, it aroused curiosities and intellects. In brief, the meeting was inspiring.

Dignitaries on hand included City Representative Ann Morgan Lilly, former County Attorney and current candidate for State Senator, Jose Rodriguez, Ruben Vogt for County Commissioner Veronica Escobar, and PSB member, Dr. Rick Bonart. John Moses and John Balliew were present along with representatives from the IWBC, EPWU and TxDOT. Stanley Jobe was also present and commented favorably about conservation organizations. Developer, Justin Chapman, from Hunt also attended.

Ruben Vogt gave a talk on eco-tourism; Frontera Alliance President Mike Gaglio spoke about techniques for preserving open space.

Wildlife Biologist Lois Balin could not be present but her assistant, Mary Anderson, presented a slide show on conservation development.

Professor John Walton discussed ways to work with water and challenged developers not to put a huge retention pond in the middle of the arroyo but, instead, think about smaller ponds. "A good open space management program would mean harvesting rainfall," he said. You can see his full presentation here.

EPWU VP of Operations John Balliew gave the PSB perspective.

Environmental Engineer Katrina Martich, one of the attendees, added some reality to the discussion at the end of the presentations. She said that developers can decide to design differently but only if they see a benefit. Having extensive municipal and ordinance experience, Ms. Martich suggested that ordinances can often restrict what a developer can do when it comes to conserving land.

After the meeting, several in attendance visited the top of Arroyo 41A in the Franklin Mountains State Park.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Bravo Work-in-Progress Presentation!

Dover Kohl team members Pam Stacy, Megan McLaughlin, Steve Price with elpasonaturally author and Tommy Young at top of Ann Morgan Lilly Arroyo 41A. Picture by Judy Ackerman.

On Wednesday evening the Dover Kohl team of consultants gave a summary of their work so far regarding ASARCO and three transit corridors: Five Points, Oregon and Remcon Circle. You can read their post about it here.

There were a number from the open space/environmental community among the 80 or so attendees at the Main Downtown Library auditorium. The City Council members present were Susie Byrd, Beto O'Rourke, Steve Ortega and Ann Lilly. Conspicuously absent was Mayor John Cook. City Manager Joyce Wilson was there as were Debbie Hamlyn, Pat Adauto and Lupe Cuellar. Of course, Matt McElroy and Fred Lopez (the two unsung heroes for getting Dover Kohl to El Paso) were present.

DK's values of infill, preservation of natural open space, community building, walkability, understanding of peak oil and sustainability are enough to make one stand up and cheer. I cannot wait to see these people back in El Paso. I'm already missing them. I wanted to shout "Bravo" just to see their vision of Five Points which is walking distance from my Newman Park neighborhood. Obviously the team's knowledge of zoning laws and economics will help guide El Paso.

I asked Karen Peissinger-Venhaus for her comments and she replied:
"I have to say that the engaging streetscapes depicted during last night's WIP [Work-in-Progress] presentation were a sight for sore eyes. And, the whole Dover Kohl team was a breath of fresh air that El Paso has so desperately needed. I am so very glad City Council spent the (our) money to bring the team to El Paso to show all of us what is possible.

"I was especially encouraged to hear Peak Oil mentioned during the presentation, that it is being taken seriously.

"However, from what I heard and saw, my concerns are these: focus on consumption as a form of leisure, and the potential for displacing low-income people from their neighborhoods. My mantra is, 'design to include, not exclude.'"

Read Karen's blog, The Adventures of Pei. She is particulary interested in the issue of environmental racism which is particularly germane in this region. Also check out the blog where Karen was a guest author: Cheap Like Me.

Save the Cottonwoods

Here's a time sensitive message from Kevin Bixby at the Southwest Environmental Center.

Immediate action needed to save cottonwoods near Las Cruces

The NM Department of Transportation is on a mission to cut down trees along I-10 in Las Cruces. Please help us stop them.

Since April, NMDOT has cut down about 45 of the native trees growing along the highway just east of the Rio Grande, some of them maybe 50 years or older. Now, it has announced its intention to remove the remaining dozen or so trees, despite previous assurances that it wouldn't.

Why? Good question. It's hard to get a straight answer out of NMDOT.

At first, the reason given was for safety. Apparently the trees were in a required "clear" zone that would allow vehicles leaving the roadway to recover. (Never mind that these trees are at the base of a steep embankment and any cars going off the roadway at that point would have greater worries than hitting a tree.) Later the department admitted the trees were outside the clear zone, and that the presence of a guardrail made it a moot point anyway, but said that the homeless people camped under the trees posed a hazard. When we proposed that they remove the underbrush (mostly nonnative salt cedar) and leave the trees as an alternative solution, they agreed.

Now the department has changed its mind, apparently because the neighboring farmer has complained that the cottonwoods ON PUBLIC LAND are "stealing" his water and fertilizer and shading his pecan trees. (See article in today's LC Sun-News.) SWEC respects water rights, but this is taking the concept too far. The cottonwoods are on publicly owned land. If anything, the pecans are benefiting just as much or more from the rainwater running off the interstate on to his property. Not to mention that some of the cottonwoods probably were there before his pecans were planted.

They are an integral part of the bosque ecosystem, and they provide many benefits to people and wildlife. SWEC has been working hard to get MORE cottonwoods along the river and in the floodplain. NMDOT should be protecting them, not cutting them down, especially when it lacks a compelling transportation-related reason to do so.

Please take a moment to call or email these NMDOT officials TODAY. If they hear from enough people, they will be forced to reconsider.

Ask them to:

  • Immediately cease cutting down any more cottonwoods along I-10 near the Rio Grande.
  • Plant at least 45 new native trees to replace the ones already removed, in approximately the same location.

Here are the officials and their contact info:

Thank you for taking action. If possible, please let me know at that you contacted them.

Read the Las Cruces Sun-Times story. Historically, in the El Paso area cottonwoods were chopped down in the 1930s to straighten the river. (The wood was used for fuel for the machines re-channeling the Rio Grande.)