Friday, September 30, 2011

El Paso Is Losing Out on $18 Million

Here's a follow-up to yesterday's post about the Rio Bosque's precarious situation.

The nonprofit, independent research group, Headwaters Economics, published a fact sheet, Quick Facts: The Economic Benefits of Southern New Mexico's Natural Assets, Fall 2010. Item #3 states:

"Bird watching alone is significant for New Mexico, and the state ranks fifth nationally with 46 percent of its birders coming from outside its borders. The Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, for example, brings in $13.7 million annually from non-residents to the three counties of Socorro, Bernalillo, and Sierra; along with $4.3 million in regional tax revenue."

That's $18 million!

As a matter of fact, I know birders and Master Naturalists and hikers and friends and neighbors from El Paso who frequently go to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. El Paso's Rio Bosque Wetlands Park could be a similar attraction not just for wildlife but for eco-tourist and tax dollars.

So how do we as a City invest in the Rio Bosque? The City contributes $10,000. EPWU lets John Sproul and volunteers truck water from the Bustamante Plant so that they can laboriously hand-water suffering and dying trees. The El Paso County Water Improvement District #1 prevents 7,800 acre-feet per year of water from the Bustamante from being piped directly to the Bosque past their canal and their drain. The El Paso County Water Improvement District #1 sucks groundwater from the Bosque when one of its wells (CW-4) is operating.

We just bought Sea Biscuit and we have put him out to pasture to die.

The City of El Paso will also provide a sculpture and signage for the Park. The City will spend $170,000 on that art project but not a dime extra for needed equipment in the Park. Moreover, the interest in the Park by the City's Parks and Recreation Department is nil - just an item on their inventory like several other neglected natural areas.

With all due apologies to my friends at MCAD and the Public Art Program, the sculptor who they hired to do the Rio Bosque sculpture and signage is Heath Satow, whose studio is in Los Angeles. He's good at what he does; but he will take the $170,000 and spend and/or invest it in . . . Los Angeles not El Paso.

$18 million!

That's the kind of change that could come El Paso's way if it just got smart about eco-tourisism and places such as the Rio Bosque. I bet a few changes at City Hall and a Green Chamber of Commerce for El Paso would help matters.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Rio Bosque Is Dying

Paired Images Riparian 11-07-09a

Program Coordinator/Manager of the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park, John Sproul, explained the pictures in the slide show above:

"The 3 photo pairs in the attached PowerPoint file compare some cottonwoods and willows in the southern part of the park. The first photo in each pair was taken last year in Sept or Oct. The second photo was taken this year in July.

"With the first two photo pairs, the trees are in worse shape today than they were back in July. A photo taken today would give a more dramatic comparison.

"With the third photo pair, the cottonwood featured was dead by mid-July. The clumps of green in the July photo are all mistletoe."

The Rio Bosque Wetlands Park is dying. And, in spite of the drought, there is water available. In fact, Sproul and volunteers almost daily truck water from the Bustamante Plant, a wastewater treatment plant that delivers treated effluent to either the Riverside Canal or the Riverside Drain - both under the control of the El Paso County Water Improvement District #1. Chuy Reyes is the General Manager of the District. He is the brother of U.S. Representative, Silvestre Reyes of El Paso.

According to information on the El Paso Water Utilities web site, water from the Bustamante Plant is discharged either to the . . .
". . . Riverside Canal or the Riverside Drain. Discharges to the Riverside Canal are used chiefly for irrigation purposes. Discharges to the Riverside Drain go mainly to the Rio Bosque Wetlands Preserve where they help maintain and sustain the aquatic habitat required by the diverse animal and plant species present."
EPWU's statatement above may have been true when it was written and posted to their web site some time ago, it isn't true now. El Paso Water Utilities is obligated, under the Rio Grande Project 2001 Implementing Third-Party Contract, to deliver 13,333 acre-feet of the treated effluent from the Bustamante Plant to the Riverside Canal or the Riverside Drain each year between 15 Feb and 15 Oct. That leaves at least 7,800 acre-feet of Bustamante Plant effluent EPWU does not have to deliver to the irrigation district during that period.

"Some of that could potentially be delivered directly to Rio Bosque via pipeline," Sproul says. Unfortunately, the Water Improvement District owns both the canal and the drain and they make the call whether that extra water is delivered to the Bosque Wetlands Park or not. So, 7,800 acre-feet minus the pittance Sproul and friends can truck to the park in order to hand-water individual trees, is taken by the Water Improvement District.

To add insult to injury, careful (almost daily) monitoring of wells at the Bosque reveal that the groundwater in the park dramatically drops when one of the Improvement District's wells (CW-4) is on. Not only is the Improvement District denying water from the Bustamante Plant to the Bosque, it appears that they are draining the Bosque's groundwater!

Park volunteer, Judy Ackerman, reports:

"Most of the groundwater monitoring wells are lower than in 2006 drought. Seven out of the 13 wells are dry. Most groundwater levels are below 20 ft, while 5 ft is more normal. This is the driest year for rainfall on record for the park and we expect the driest year for surface water too."

On September 13th water distribution from the Elephant Butte reservoir stopped. That usually happens in mid-October and signals the end of the irrigation season and the start of water delivery to the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park from the Bustamante Wastewater Treatment Plant. However, the El Paso Water Improvement District #1 says they need every drop they can get and the park might get water by Christmas.

The Rio Bosque Wetlands Park is a 372-acre City of El Paso park that the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) manages through its Center for Environmental Resource Management. The City of El Paso's contribution to the Bosque is a mere $10,000/year. A recent meeting of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board revealed that Parks and Recreation Director, Nanette Smejkal, has little interest in the Bosque.

At the recent PSB Strategic Planning meeting it was rumored that UTEP was not interested in continuing its committment to the Bosque. However, PSB/EPWU officials at yesterday's Open Space Advisory Board reported that Richard Adauto of UTEP had reaffirmed UTEP's committment to the management of the Park.

The City may show little interest in the Park. However, it has targeted $170,000 for a public arts project for a sculpture and new signage at the park. The slide show given by Public Art Program Coordinator Pat Dalbin to the Open Space Advisory Board yesterday describes the plans for the Bosque art and signs:

Rio Bosque Public Art Project

One wonders whether the sculpture and signage will preside over a dead park. There is $170,000 for public art but nothing to help with water especially to buy an $8-10,000 pump to replace a broken one so that the park might get to some needed groundwater.

Speaking about the forced water-shortage to the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park, Urban Biologist, Lois Balin, asks: "This is ridiculous. Enough is enough. What can we do to rectify this dismal situation."

Perhaps a first step is to join the Friends of the Rio Bosque. Beyond that talk to PSB and EPWU officials who have been important partners to the Park. Talk to your City Council Representative and to Parks and Recreation and Open Space Advisory Board members. Call members of the Board of Directors of the Water Improvement District. Email Chuy Reyes.

I have a few more questions myself especially about that 7,800 acre-feet of water that could go to the Park but is being swallowed by the Improvement District, Chuy Reyes (brother of Silvestre) General Manager.

Trees Tame Stormwater and Have Many More Benefits

Double click on image to enlarge.

Double click on image to enlarge.

With all of the current "debate" about a new landscape ordinance for the City of El Paso (the brouhaha created by some developers principally Jerry Rubin's River Oaks Properties and their chief attack dog, Richard Williams), it is important to remember the tremendous contribution of trees and why we need more.

The posters above come from the Arbor Day Foundation. Our State Urban Forester, Oscar Mestas, forwarded them to me and others. What is really encouraging is that the link was also sent to me from Open Space chairman Charlie Wakeem who got them from Gonzalo Cedillos the Stormwater Utility Manager for El Paso Water Utilities. He got them from Anai Padilla at EPWU's TecH2O, who I'm sure got them from Oscar. I'm not just illustrating the power of the hyperlink and email, I'm touting the huge positive leadership from some at EPWU.

By the way, to see many more benefits that trees bring to a community, check this list out.

The tweaking that was done to the new landscape ordinance by Planning and Development and the recommendations that now come from the Open Space Advisory Board are reasonable. Just remember this: It's not true that the new landscape ordinance will mean the usage of "billions" of more gallons of water as suggested by Williams. Planning and Development staff made it clear at the Open Space meeting yesterday that "water use would be minimal." Besides, for a little extra water use, one gets many, many more benefits which in some cases will mean less usage of water as in shading houses and buildings and reducing evaporative cooler water consumption. Think also of all of those strip malls on Mesa and Lee Trevino and other thoroughfares that currently contribute to the power of stormwater flooding because of little or no landscaping. I wonder how New Mexico's Green Chamber of Commerce would come down on better landscaping requirements. Hmmm.

Please Help to Get the Word Out

Judy wrote this comment to yesterday's post, Joe Muench Is Silly: "Great post! How do we get more people to read it?"

Thought you would never ask!

Hyperlink is the power of the Internet. If you like a post, please copy the URL for that post and send the link to everyone on your email list. Your subject line or preface can read: "Please read this" or "You've got to see this". You know what to say.

Please add: "Jim has an e-letter that he sends out. Email him (hyperlink again) and tell him you want to subscribe to elpasonaturally."

Some of you have some rather hefty distribution lists. If you like a post, please tell others. If you are a non-profit, you can say something like: "I found this interesting about our mountains/desert/bosque/etc. I'm not endorsing the opinion, but I thought you would find it interesting too."

Pointing to a specific post and saying why you like it is more powerful than just a message about elpasonaturally in general - although that sure is helpful also.

Why am writing a post in response to a comment? Because, I've come to realize that El Pasoans are not getting all of the story. The Times and other media outlets are either not thorough or they simply repeat the same old bad information as did Joe Muench with regard to selling land to keep water rates low. (They also keep telling the public that the PSB owns land when the truth is that the PSB can't own land by law. They merely manage the land for the owners - the City of El Paso - you and me. It makes a big difference which is true and which is false.)

To be sure, the Times and others have some stellar reporters and great columnists. But their editorial policy and the zeitgeist that they purport is so very wrong and it is time that more and more and more El Pasoans know the difference.

So, please, if you like a post - broadcast it far and wide using your email lists.

It's time for a change.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Joe Muench Is Silly

EPWU water tanks above the Coronado Country Club. Click to enlarge.

. . . And wrong. If you haven't read his last editorial piece, Getcher El Paso tap water, only one dollar per glassful, don't waste your time. It's based on the misinformation/propaganda/lie that says that the PSB sells land in order to keep your water rates low. If they don't sell the land in the Scenic Corridor that now just about everybody wants to save, then your rates will skyrocket. 780 acres and you'll go broke. Ask yourself this: the PSB has given other land (not useful for their infrastructure or too costly to develop) to the State Park. When they did so, did your rates go up? No. 780 acres won't kill them - and I'm beginning to believe that PSB members know this and may be more amenable to preserving land in the Scenic Corridor.

Here's what's true about your water rates: Selling land doesn't keep those rates low. In fact, your rates are high because the PSB doesn't want you to use the water - we have precious little of it. They have (and you can see) a tiered water rate structure. This tiered system has worked. Once upon a time (1977 or so) the per capita consumption of water was 230 gallons/customer/day. It is now at 133 gallons/customer/day. That's quite a success but it doesn't have anything to do with selling land. In fact (and I did an open records request last fall) the total land sales by the PSB over the last 10 years has accounted for less than 2% of their budget. Did your rates go down? How's your water bill? And keep in mind when you compare El Paso to other southwest cities you have to account for the median household income: El Paso 37,030, Austin $50,132, Albuquerque $44,594 . . . That glass of water is already expensive because our water is scarce and it takes more of our paycheck to buy it.

If Joe Muench wants to get serious, he would argue for preserving more land in its natural state and not less. He would be straight forward and tell you that the PSB's land sales function was never meant for the benefit of the consumer - it was meant for the benefit of the developer. That's the ugly truth that too many City leaders and the Times have concealed for way too long. It is part of the cronyism and colonialism and corruption that deeply pockmark and scar El Paso politics like a bad case of acne.

Let me say this again: we the people want the land conserved - permanently. We want the arroyos protected which means not building roads where they shouldn't be built or putting up houses, stores and businesses where they shouldn't be. There are better ways to plan and currently the discussion is leading in the direction of better planning and conservation - permanent conservation.

The entire debate has changed. The question now before Council and others is how to preserve the land in the petition - and perhaps more - in perpetuity. If there is anything that I could report more about last week's Council session it would be that there has been a sea change in the direction of conservation.

I, for one, want to see that change given a chance. However, if there is the slightest inkling of double dealing or wiggle room or proposing plans after the people keep saying that they want conservation, then there is another petition to be signed - one that calls for a ballot referendum. You know what? We will win there. I just hope that we can all be reasonable and that we can all start playing by the facts and not by the propaganda and misinformation.

Friday, September 23, 2011


Regarding the Rio Grande Rift, Dr. Phil Goodell emailed: “Yes, the Rio Grande Rift is widening, east to west, maybe 1mm/year, or less. Buy some land and watch it grow! And buy earthquake insurance.”

If you take tomorrow morning’s hike from Hondo Pass to Smuggler’s Gap, you might want to take the time to drive from Hondo Pass south on Magnetic/Alabama Street. Although urbanization hides much of the natural landscaping, you will notice as you pass Zion Lane going south or Stoney Hill Drive going north, places where the hillsides have just dropped off. These are scarps – evidence of more ancient faulting as the Rift rifted and the Franklins grew. You are driving along the Eastern Boundary Fault Zone.

You will see a water tank sitting atop a scarp, the result and evidence of a fault. The “dirt” is the Fort Hancock sediment of just a few million years ago deposited as the ancient Rio Grande (and other mountain streams) filled a vast lake geologists have called Lake Cabeza de Vaca. Movement along the fault resulted in the stair-stepping of the sediments and, when the Rio Grande finally broke south and drained into the Gulf of Mexico about a million years ago, the scarps were exposed revealing the fault lines. Further erosion defines these steep slopes for us today all along I-10 on the west, the bluffs by El Paso High School and along Mesa and Alabama.

Horses, camels, mastodons, giant sloths and other mammals lived along Cabeza de Vaca and their fossilized bones can still be found today.

By the way, as Cabeza de Vaca formed and gave a home for ancient animals 3.6 million years ago or so here in a place where we now live, Australopithecines appeared on the other side of the world and then the first Homo species whose descendants, a couple of million years later, would look up at the top of a rift and marvel at the beauty of the Franklins.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Petitioners, Council and Others Will Work Together

Yesterday, the City Council considered the ordinance referred to them by petitioners to protect the Transmountain Scenic Corridor. The decision was to postpone a decision for 90 days during which time planning and discussion will take place. Even if Council had decided to support the entire petition ordinance (and the votes simply weren't there), there still would have had to have been time to determine the mechanism of preservation.

In my prepared remarks I made it clear that there was room to "compromise" in good faith:
Address About the Petition to Preserve the Scenic Corridor

The process for arriving at some kind of win/win solution was set forth by Matthew McElroy of the Planning and Development Department. It will include rezoning the Westside Master Plan to Smart Code, determining the essential area of the view shed of the Scenic Corridor for a conservation easement (or other instrument of permanent preservation) and taking a good look at Paseo del Norte. Slides 7 and 9 spell out the process:

Process for Conservation Discussion

The process does have the advantages of first and foremost establishing a permanent preservation for the Corridor (this is a HUGE win), moving to Smart Code for the entire Westside Master Plan which will mean more open space, and possibly finding a better solution to Paseo del Norte that everyone can live with.

To be sure, petitioners can now go out and pursue a petition to make their ordinance a referendum in a City election. So, if the process fails to meet the principles of the petition (as I mention in my remarks) or if some engage in the process in anything but good faith, then a new petition drive will be mounted immediately.

On the other hand, I saw just about every Council member wanting to find a good win/win solution. The process allows for a chance to preserve and do more. Dover Kohl has already been contacted to help with the process.

I will give more in depth information in my next blog post.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Modify the New Landscape Ordinance?

Here’s the issue that is now bubbling up: some developers are asking City Council to amend the recent Landscape Ordinance arguing that the new ordinance will mean huge usages of water and, thus, undermine El Paso’s great conservation efforts. Mr. Richard Williams of Jerry Rubin’s River Oaks Properties has taken the lead on attacking the new ordinance. That new ordinance goes into effect on October 3. The Boards that reviewed the ordinance before (Open Space and Parks and Recreation Advisory Boards) are rushing to review the modifications and make recommendations to Council before September 27th. It would be best if there could be a 30 day review period.

No doubt, water conservation is key. However, more of the right kind of trees and the right kind of landscaping will reduce water usage, harvest rainwater, and minimize stormwater run-off and damage. When the PSB was first implementing conservation measures long ago, they recognized the fact that trees are critical to reduce urban islands of heat which require massive amounts of heat in a City that uses evaporative coolers – the most affordable cooling by a large segment of the El Paso population. In fact, EPWU’s Desert Plants List is one of the best resources for homeowners, builders and landscapers in El Paso. (Here in another month is a good time to plant and that list is very, very valuable.)

David Kania, the City’s Landscape Plan’s Examiner, reviewed Mr. Williams’ numbers and reported:

“River Oaks is miscalculating what an emitter is to what a drip hose is. Each emitter, whether it is a 2 gallon or 1 gallon per hour has only 6 outlets. So for every three shrubs you are using one emitter and for every tree you are using one and a half to one and three quarters of an emitter. I believe the way they calculated it was based on two full emitters per shrub and eight emitters per tree. In that case you would get four maybe even five hundred percent more.”

Williams has been described as being “very smart” and a “good developer”. But, says a keen observer, he “ just doesn’t ‘get it’, and will absolutely not try anything new. Ever.” You may recall his op-ed piece for the El Paso Times earlier this year in which he attributed high crime rates to Smart Growth/Smart Code. Huh? City Manager, Joyce Wilson, wrote a rebuttal.

Perhaps Mr. Williams has made some wrong assumptions: “we can’t use very low water plants, like natives”, and “We can’t afford to swale for water collection”, and “We can’t collect enough rainwater for cistern collection”, and “We can’t afford to incorporate organic matter into the soil prior to planting”. All of these are strategies that make smarter landscaping possible in a City keen on water conservation.

Still, it is worth seeing if there is some water “going down the drain” although it won’t be as much as Williams has calculated. Perhaps a good trade-off would be requiring a bit less landscaping in exchange for more landscaping whenever there is a request to upgrade an existing structure.

The Franklins after a rain

Donna Stephens, All Rights Reserved 09/16/11

Donna Stephens, All Rights Reserved 09/16/11
Click photos; open file at bottom of new window; click to enlarge.

Photographer Donna Stephens took the pictures above this morning. She wrote: "We finally got some real rain yesterday and again last night. Lots of thunder and lightning along with a good downpour. This morning the mountain had this beautiful cloud cover and I was able to get off a couple of shots."

Chihuahuan Desert Fiesta Schedule

Click to view. Open file at bottom of new window. Click to enlarge.

What Sprawl Looks Like

Click to view. Open file at bottom of new window. Click to enlarge.

Above are 3 maps showing how land conservation affects sprawl in the Transmountain Scenic Corridor. This illustration was done by Charlie Wakeem long before the petition to conserve 792 acres (now 780) was certified. The term "Compromise Plan" was just a term but it is based on the real Wakeem map that was posted yesterday. No such compromise has been struck. Note that east is at the top of the maps and north is to the left. Gas Line Road orients and scales all 3 presentations.

The pane labeled "Westside Master Plan" reveals the unchecked sprawl created by PSB's current Westside Master Plan. It will contain the same helter skelter ugly developments currently checkmating the El Paso Northwest. There will be no sustainable, smart growth. You can forget green infrastructure, low impact development. Most of all, you can forget a Scenic Corridor. The animal crossing which TxDOT plans to build under Transmountain west of Paseo del Norte will be unusable because animals will be forced into limited habitats to the east by the PSB sprawl and won't even attempt traversing the asphalt and concrete of these new neighborhoods with big box houses near big box commercial stores.

The pane labeled "Proposed 792 Acre NOS Zoning" shows the Scenic Corridor preserved. Since this is an older illustration, it also shows the encroachment on that conserved land by the unchecked sprawl of land without Smart Code.

The pane in the middle is the "compromise" which preserves arroyos 39 and 40 and moves Paseo del Norte west.

Here's the question: Do you want what is behind Door #1, Door #2 or Door #3? The petition calls for Door#3 with a Conservation Easement (forever) and not NOS Zoning that can be changed by whim and political maneuvering - particularly in a City that abrogates responsibility to its PSB in favor of ugly sprawl - and, it must be said, more water meters, draining bolsons, large pipe projects to shift water from east El Paso (and soon agriculturally-important Hudspeth County) to large, population-thin, big box houses in the El Paso NW.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Chihuahuan Desert Fiesta This Saturday

Texas Parks and Wildlife to host the 7th Annual Chihuahuan Desert Fiesta at Franklin Mountains State Park

El Paso, Texas—Many people living in El Paso are not very familiar with the natural and cultural history of the Chihuahuan Desert including the Franklin Mountains in the heart of the city. At almost 26,000 acres, Franklin Mountains State Park protects prime Chihuahuan Desert habitats within an urban setting. The park is home to numerous species of plants and animals. On September 17, 2011, the park will host the 7th Annual Chihuahuan Desert Fiesta at the Tom Mays Unit, located 3.5 miles east of I-10 on Trans Mountain Road. The main objective of this Fiesta is to get people outdoors and to help increase awareness of the uniqueness of our desert. This event will not only showcase the natural and cultural resources of the Chihuahuan Desert, but also the recreational and educational opportunities that exist within Franklin Mountains State Parks and other state parks within the region.

The FREE COMMUNITY event will run from 9AM-3PM and will offer various activities, presentations, and exhibits throughout the day. During this event park staff, members of the Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition, and other environmental education groups will be on hand to offer free demonstrations, guided tours, guest speakers, and informational booths designed to introduce the curious to the wonders of our fascinating southwest desert. Drive thru the park where you will find different activities and groups providing information about their conservation efforts in our area. Vendors will be on site to sell food, snacks, and drinks. Visitors can check out the Wildlife Viewing Area and enjoy interpretive programs on plants and animals while spending time watching birds coming back and forth for water and food. Hay and horseback riding will also be available. Franklin Mountains State Park is also hosting a Chili Cook-off sanctioned by the Chili Appreciation Society International. Public tasting will be available around noon. Live music by local group Slackabilly. The entrance fee to the park is waived due to the Chihuahuan Desert Fiesta joining the celebration of the Franklin Mountains State Park Lone Star Legacy. Donations to Franklin Mountains State Park are accepted. So come and join us for a fun, exciting, and enjoyable outdoors experience and discover more about the Chihuahuan Desert.


Here's a map that shows you the land which the petition has asked City Council to preserve:

You will have to click on it to enlarge. All the land within the purple land is what petitioners want preserved. This map also shows an earlier compromise proposal from Open Space Chairman Charlie Wakeem. His proposal is everything between the dotted blue lines. It preserves Arroyos, FEMA 40 and 39. Note also that he moves Paseo del Norte west out of the preserved land.

Now here is the PSB proposal which they adopted in Executive Session and proposed to the Open Space Board yesterday:

Again, click on the map to enlarge. It is the same map that I posted on September 1. Already it is erroneously being called the "Wakeem" map. Compare it to the map at the top of this post. Note however that it includes 22 acres (a resort/golf course) in the middle of the open space and cuts into FEMA 39 in the southwest corner - probably to move developable land closer to Transmountain so that the City picks up less of the burden of the cost of Paseo. Of course, note that Paseo is not moved in the PSB proposal whereas it was in the earlier Wakeem proposal.

Here's what we know about the PSB: they are opposed to a Conservation Easement as the means to preserve the land. They have stated such at OSAB. Their goal is to re-appropriate the land in a few years which a CE would make impossible because it would be forever. Also, when the City Council was ready to rezone all of the land in the Westside Master Plan as URD (Urban Reserve District) in lieu of re-planning it under Smart Code, Mr. Archuleta and the PSB reneged on their agreement to go along and supported Rural zoning. Bottom line: Mr. Archuleta and the PSB do not want any land conserved - they want it all to be sold for development. What does this mean for petitioners should City Council decide to seek some process to come up with an alternative to the petition plan rather than voting in favor of the petition plan?

The Open Space Advisory Board (the same Board that voted twice to preserve the same land as proposed by petitioners and, in fact, turned down the Wakeem "Compromise" shown in the map above) voted to recommend a process for conserving the land and finding common ground (no pun intended) with all stakeholders. This process will require about 90 days perhaps 120. It includes working with Dover Kohl, a review of the Comp plan, the use of charettes, the conversion of the Westside Plan to SmartCode and a conservation easement for land preserved.

It seems to me that this will be a good process for petitioners and all stakeholders. However, if it seems that there is no resolution, if it seems that some are not negotiating in good faith (as PSB has done with their stance regarding a conservation easement), then the petitioners have every right at any point to return to the voters and seek a referendum election. Since I was one of the chief petition organizers, I can tell you that getting the necessary signatures will take just weeks - not months - because we know where to find enough voters now.

What does this entire process teach us (if the lesson has not already been learned)? EPWU should just be a department of the City run by a Director not a CEO, the PSB should be abolished and City Council should assume total responsibility in reality and not just as a matter of fact. There is just too much power held by one man and it is used to thwart sustainable growth in the City of El Paso. Equals seek win/win. Autocrats do not.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Random Thoughts about PSB's Strategic Planning

Scott Haskins facilitates strategic planning meeting as Nick Costanzo looks on.

I attended both days of the PSB Strategic Planning meetings. They were held at the TecH20 Center, one of my favorite places in El Paso - and a place that, if you haven't visited, do so. You'll enjoy your time and learn a great deal about water conservation. The sessions were facilitated by Scott Haskins from Seattle. (My only regret about the meetings is that I didn't introduce myself to Scott and talk "Seattle". He mentioned in passing the Cedar River watershed which made me think of Rattlesnake Lake and remember some great hikes with my children around that area. SPU's management of the watershed is a remarkable example of land and habitat conservation.)

I'd like to give some random thoughts about my experience these past two days. These are random and not in order of any importance or significance. I don't intend any detailed analysis. I'll think about more things later, of course.

The days were enjoyable and they were enjoyable because being with these people was enjoyable. I saw a real openness and energy in the PSB members that I have not seen before. It's always nice to get compliments when not expecting them and I was flattered when my e-letter was complimented by Maria Teran. She likes how I link items to more information. She said it was "regular and identifiable". She made these comments in the context of discussing communications from PSB/EPWU.

Speaking about communications, that topic really aroused lively comment among PSB members. Everyone (including myself) agrees that Christina Montoya deserves kudos. Whenever you talk web sites and communication with the public, people get excited. They like social networking. (I'd follow Christina's tweets and would "like" a PSB Facebook page.) Board Chairman Ed Escudero and member David Nemir along with Ms. Teran extolled the planning meeting as a forum to engage the public - their stakeholders. Mr. Nemir wanted to know how to publicize the planning meetings better. (One of the negatives for the two days was the fact that El Paso's press was not present. They would rather cover a small water main break that affects a few homes than the conservation efforts of our water and stormwater utility.)

Ed Archuleta made my day both yesterday and today. Our State Wildlife Biologist, Lois Balin, attended yesterday and asked what could be done for important wetlands/habitats especially the Fred Hervey Plant and the Rio Bosque. I followed up with a question about the Bosque and Mr. Archuleta made it clear that providing the Bosque year-round water was easy. (This has currently been a crisis. Watering is done by hand by a few volunteers. Trees are dying.) Mr. Archuleta also mentioned that he has in the past considered seeing if the PSB could take over the management of the park. (When asked about that, John Sproul, the park manager/curator/conservationist, said that he knew that at one time the PSB wanted to look at the Bosque as a reservoir - not quite what the rest of us would have in mind.) The big problem with the Bosque is what Chuy Reyes and the Irrigation District are doing to the Bosque - denying them water and draining their groundwater - and they are draining the groundwater. (More on that in the future.) If Ed can help (and I intend to keep pushing on this one), he will be a hero in yet another way.

Then today Mr. Archuleta gave his thoughts about the property at now closed Houston Elementary School. That property may not mean much to many but it means much to me and my neighbors and our neighborhood association. The Newman Park Neighborhood Association, of which I am the current President, abuts the neighborhood, Manhattan Heights, where the school is. It has fabulous playfields that shouldn't go to waste. Mr. Archuleta mentioned building some kind of water storage with playgrounds above and permeable material in between. Best of both worlds and a way to utilize a perfect place for kids and teams to play and to prevent a blight between our neighborhood and Five Points.

Again, a big downside was the absence of El Paso's press. There were more from the public yesterday than today - but still a low number. Thank heavens I got the word out and a handfull of citizens showed up. Perhaps if PSB members are looking for opportunities to have a freer and in-depth conversation with the public, they should consider scheduling such meetings in the evenings or over the weekends. I understand the stress evening and weekend meetings puts on staff (and the staff management reports were super and should be heard by more El Pasoans); but, that kind of venue would get more people involved. (I'm thinking punch and those little cookies with sticky fruit on top as well.) Perhaps combining a public forum with tours of TecH2O Center and the de-sal plant on a Saturday would be just the ticket.

Of course, we are a far way from transparency in policy-making. There remains some serious and sober discussions about sustainability and rates. It did apperar as if several of the board members see the energy to be had by being open. I just hope that, in the days to come, many will also see the reasonableness of conserving 792 acres of open space known as the Scenic Corridor and conserving land and habitat by refusing to put a major thoroughfare (Paseo del Norte) through that beautiful mountain land. Frankly, no financial plan or formula will be harmed by the preservation. The PSB's fiduciary responsibility also includes protecting open space from garbage, building attractive trailheads, and conserving land and protecting it from encroachment by being sure that what is conserved has adequate buffers. They do a great job in just about everything that they do. It would be great if they would also join hands with petitioners and save the Scenic Corridor.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Some Food for Thought

PSB Board Member Katherine Brennand shows her support for conservation of Castner Range.

The PSB Strategic Meeting schedule has been changed. Below is the “current” schedule. Note the change for tomorrow:

Thursday, September 8, 2011 – TecH2O Center

9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. Continental Breakfast

10:00 a.m. Strategic Planning Meeting #1

Friday, September 9, 2011 – TecH2O Center

7:00 a.m. – 8:00 a.m. Continental Breakfast

8:00 a.m. Strategic Planning Meeting #2

Not much information regarding the agenda. However, there may be a number of items that they should look at including:

  • Sustainability of water and long range implications especially noting that water rights are being bought up from farms in Hudspeth County (Dell City); assume 2 million (or even less) people in El Paso in coming decades X 130 gallons per day per person – what’s the plan?
  • What about real cost of water? Selling land and development really doesn’t pay for it.
  • What plans are there to conserve other natural resources including land? What are their plans for the NW Master Plan? Why are a few acres in the Scenic Corridor so sacred to them?
  • What about information sharing with PSB members themselves. Reportedly, that’s been a real problem – keeping Board members in the dark (not to mention the public). Did El Paso Times or the Inc. report let you know about the strategic planning sessions in a very visible story at least in one of the main sections?

Just food for thought. Remember, public comment is appropriate.

Now here’s some food for thought regarding the petition and the Scenic Corridor:

  • Since petitioners are not willing to compromise on land and all want the removal of Paseo del Norte, how can a second petition for an election be prevented if Council does nothing on the 20th or tries to extend or votes the proposal down?
  • As stated before, Paseo could be an interchange to no where. El Paso has an interchange to no where. Here are the coordinates: 31.809394,-106.539134. Check out the Google maps link. TxDOT built it. The Army Corps put in a dam. End of story.
  • The “box” of 792 acres really gives a buffer to development encroachment. Shrinking it anymore gives permission for encroachment.
  • All of us need to advocate for immediate open space conservation of all Natural Open Space and arroyos already promised in the original Westside (Northwest) Master Plan . City Council and the PSB have already voted to change all acreage in the NW Master Plan to Urban Reserve District until smart code is implemented. The problem with a zoning designation is that it can always be changed to residential or commercial or industrial or whatever. 792 acres (the Scenic Corridor) and all the other areas previously promised to be preserved should be preserved under a conservation easement. The remaining acres should be rezoned using smart code ASAP.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

White Sands September Events

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Here is an excellent article on Transmountain by Lisa Kay Tate published in the August 2011 El Paso Scene. Note that All Rights Are Reserved". Publisher, Randy Limbird, was kind enough to share this with me and my readers.

Transmountain Road: Past, Present, Future

Friday, September 2, 2011

Widening Rift?

Rio Grande Rift from space. White Sands is at bottom of the picture.

Because of the Virginia quake that shook D.C. and NYC followed quickly by the fury and floods of Irene, there was another seismic event that may have had more significance yet was overlooked.

On Monday, August 22nd, just before midnight a 5.3 earthquake occurred near Trinidad, Colorado. The Colorado Geological Survey issued a preliminary report with pictures. It is believed that the quake was the result of movement along the Sangre de Cristo Fault which is part of the Rio Grande Rift system. What’s a rift? Forces on the earth’s crust can cause it to thin, then fracture (fault) and spread apart. The Rio Grande Rift began between 35 and 29 million years ago (although some date the event between 29 and 20 million years ago.) The Rio Grande Rift extends from Chihuahua, Mexico to Leadville, Colorado. Considering that in May there was a swarm of earthquakes in Chihuahua, Mexico just 85 miles from El Paso and just below Fort Hancock, Texas (an area also part of the same rift system), one must wonder what the continued widening of the crust beneath may portend – if anything in our lifetimes.

Here is some interesting speculation as well as information:

By the way, the Rift in our area is not visible because sediment from the ancient Lake Cabeza de Vaca has filled it from rim to rim. The Rio Grande’s movement south finally drained the lake about a million years ago into the Gulf of Mexico. Sediment is clearly visible along I-10, the bluffs above El Paso High and along Alabama. How deep is the sediment in the Rift below El Paso before you hit bedrock? Geologist Eric Kappus tells us that the depth below the Airport is 10,000 feet! On the west side it’s variable but “MUCH” less. Wow! The highest peak in the Franklins, North Mount Franklin, is 7,192 feet high (not counting all of the mountain that you don’t see below the surface which is about 18,000 feet total uplift!) Our Rio Grande Rift rivals the Great Rift Valley in East Africa – the place of our evolutionary roots.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Where We Are on the Petition Ordinance

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Here is where things are today with the certified petition:

This past Tuesday it was “introduced” to City Council. There was some question about 14 acres of the land described in the petition having already been conveyed by the City to TxDOT. City Attorney, Charlie McNabb, made it quite clear that the petition was perfectly okay and the slight variance does nothing to impeach it. All the petitioner leaders whom I have spoken with have no difficulty with an ordinance that accommodates for the conveyance of those few acres in the past.

September 20th has been set for Council to make a final decision on the ordinance proposed by the petitioners.

As the ordinance came closer to being introduced, the usual backdoor politics began. For the first time since the entire debate about preserving land on the Westside began, Ed Archuleta signaled that he was willing to make some compromises. His “compromise” still would exclude 314 acres. (See the map.) 22 of those acres are stuck in the middle of what would be conserved as open space and would be for low cost housing. (I guess people will have to “fly” over the open space to get to their homes. Of course, PSB’s suggestion is really a ploy to open “open space”.)

When I asked Nick Costanzo what was so vital about these few 314 acres, I didn’t get a straight answer. Indeed, there was the tired old attempt to say that our water rates are kept low as if land sales really count and as if EPWU’s incremental block billing system doesn’t simply give an appearance of low rates. In between Nick’s hemming and his hawing was the sense that leaving Paseo del Norte where it is currently planned is sacred to the PSB and their plans. (I believe that it is sacred to them because it is sacred to their developer – dare I say – “masters”.)

Mayor John Cook’s sincere hope is that an alternative can be worked out using the Open Space Advisory Board as the venue. Indeed Costanzo was at OSAB’s meeting yesterday for that very reason.

TxDOT was also there to give an update about the final changes that they have made to their Transmountain plans for which they have a FONSI. When asked whether they would still build the Paseo del Norte interchange even if Council or an election should exclude the building of Paseo through the Scenic Corridor, Mr. Ray Davolina of TxDOT, very nicely said that it made no difference. They have their money, their plan and their green light to build. That is what they are going to do. They still have no real safe means of getting people into and out of the State Park except a frontage road on the north side of Transmountain that could route people to the Paseo del Norte interchange. I guess that, if Paseo itself is not ever built to connect with the interchange, then that interchange becomes a very expensive way to provide safe access and egress from the Park. TxDOT’s plan still allows making a left turn into the Park for cars going east – but soon that turn will be against two lanes of traffic with an estimate of 70,000 vehicles per day. So strap on your rockets – unless a Sierra Club lawsuit stops the folly completely.

OSAB adopted a proposal that recommends that discussion begin that might (and I emphasize “might”) lead to an alternative to the petitioners’ ordinance – a discussion to be worked through Dover Kohl (this still has to be approved) and Planning and Development and most certainly will include the PSB. At least now the PSB can discuss matters in the open. The public just needs to be aware that they will say just about anything to manipulate the outcome. Just yesterday Costanzo said that they would build a safer road to the Park. Huh!? Now they will have to tell the public why 314 acres are so important.

To be sure, as a member of OSAB, I voted for the proposal. (And note that twice before OSAB has voted for all 792 acres even when shown a map similar to the one Mr. Costanzo revealed yesterday.) The proposal to discuss does not change the fact that it is up to petitioners whether they want to discuss further or whether they want a straight vote from Council and will follow-up with their intention to do another petition asking for an election if their ordinance is voted down. The proposal simply gives another means for land to be conserved in perpetuity as open space. In fact, a perpetual conservation (one accomplished by a Conservation Easement) entered into immediately by the City with a land conservation organization such as Frontera Land Alliance is essential to preserving the open space. Anything short of that will not do. The fact that City Council and City Planner, Matthew McElroy, have already made it clear that the rest of the NW Master Plan will be done in compliance with Smart Code is also a good thing. Smart Growth is the way the City is going so expect under-the-table push back from some.

Besides conservation of the open space in perpetuity, two more conditions are essential and not debateable. First, any fees associated with the easement for surveying, administration, a conservator shall be paid for by the City (or PSB). And, second, any infrastructure that must be built should be at a minimum and limited to utility needs, with Green Infrastructure/Low Impact Development standards including proper re-vegetation.

One more thing. Any discussion to be had must begin and move forward quickly.

With respect to preserving the Scenic Corridor, keep in mind one historical fact: the very first petition (which was not written as an ordinance) which was signed by 2,000+ people and so far another 1,300 people online calls for the preservation of all of the land in the NW Master Plan. The current petition which petitioners have legally brought before City Council is the compromise with a land description that calls for conserving 792 acres and the condition that no major roadway (Paseo for example) can be built through the land. That’s the compromise.

By the way, you, your friends, your family – even unregistered voters or newcomers – can sign the petition to conserve all of the land in the NW Master Plan. Sign it online. You can even comment. Several hundred have signed it since I have begun to publish the fact that it is still online.

Please comment on this blog post of this e-letter. It will be powerful to hear others speak out. Also, I invite anyone – anyone – to submit anything about any of this subject to me for posting on the blog. I will even post anything written by Mr. Archuleta, a developer, anyone. Elpasonaturally believes in talking about things in the open. If our debates and conversations all were done with transparency, then there would be much more trust.

Seen Any Burrowing Owls?

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Red and Green Chile War Festival

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New Blog on the Block

Rick LoBello has done it again. As creator of the web site for the Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition and other sites (including the very popular Facebook group Share El Paso with Native Plants and Wildlife) connecting people with nature, Rick has begun a blog where organizations can post post their events: