Friday, December 30, 2011

Regional Water Conference Provides Opportunity for Questions about Rio Bosque

Master Naturalist and member of the Board of Friends of the Rio Bosque, Sal Quintanilla told me yesterday that the ponds at the Rio Bosque are only one-third full. A Bosque advocate and volunteer since the 90s, Sal says that he has never seen this City of El Paso wetlands park so dry. Migratory birds such as American Wigeons are crowding in a very small area. Sadly, this makes them easy targets for poachers armed with shot guns since the City of El Paso police do not enforce the no guns in a city park regulation at the Rio Bosque. 

There may be an opportunity for conservationists, Bosque and eco-tourism supporters to ask questions about the water shortage at the Bosque. Richard Teschner emailed to say:

"Those of you who are concerned about the amount of water that Rio Bosque is (and is not) receiving will want to attend a regional water conference to be held January 4 (Wednesday) starting at 5 p.m. at the Kay Bailey HutchisonDesalination Plant on far-east Montana Street."

United States Secretary of Interior, Ken Salazar, will be present along with representatives of the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1, the International Boundary and Water Commission, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District and the El Paso Water Utilities.

Teschner added: "Our questions to these officials should all be all be 'positive' and 'up-beat' of course; but questions they will be."

Song of the Day: Lark in the Morning The San Patricios at Doyle Chandler Party Dec 27 2011

Be sure that you visit the San Patricios on Facebook.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

State Parks Need Your Help

I asked the Franklin Mountain State Par Superintendent, Dr. Cesar Mendez, how to donate to the park directly. He responded:

Greetings!  People can always donate directly to the park of their choice by going to that park and making a cash or check donation of $499 or less using the front desk, donation box, or self-pay envelope.  If someone uses a check they can write in memo section the purpose of the donation (to what park and/or specific purpose, etc.).  Donations of $500 or more from a single donor can also be accepted at the park level, but they have to be approved later on by the TPWD Commission, during their regular meetings.
 Regular donations collected in a given park goes to that park, unless specified otherwise. For example, when visitors make donations at the FMSP donation box or place money self-pay envelopes identified as donation, that money goes 100% to FMSP which is critical for our operations. But please consider that right now the Texas State Parks are in a critical situation as whole system and needs to fill the $4.6M gap in the budget statewide. Three ways to contribute to the whole Texas State Park System are: 1) Go to the website to make a tax-deductible, year-end donation.
 2) Make a donation when renewing your motor vehicle registration.  3) Most importantly, because visitor fees pay for about half of the operating costs, visit state parks. Thanks!  

Thursday, December 22, 2011

City and PSB Ignore Open Space Master Plan Priorities

The City of El Paso and the PSB are on an unfortunate course of rapidly building park ponds while neglecting valuable natural open space assets. The PSB recently approved $2.5 million expenditures from the 10% of your stormwater fee to go to park ponds, the lowest items on the priority list set by Open Space and Stormwater advisory bodies. In fact, as already mentioned, an additional $400,000 from that fee that should only be set aside for natural open space was spent on 4 acres of vacant land (the Johnson Basin) with no connectivity to natural open space other than a two block arroyo fragment which exists on land owned by the military not by the City of El Paso. It is walled-off from the view of El Pasoans by a rock wall topped with barbed wire. You can see pictures of Schoephoerster's perfect example of natural open space online – the same space EPWU official, John Balliew, bold-faced proclaimed “natural” to a December meeting of the Open Space Advisory Board.

PSB/EPWU officials claim that Jim Shelton of EPWU has not had the time to pursue other open space assets. I would argue that he has not been tasked to do so.

Johnson Basin may be a drainage asset and a potential location for a good neighborhood park. Creating that recreational/drainage space should come from the other 90% of the stormwater fee not set aside for acquiring natural open space . . . or from the Parks and Recreation budget which seems to have an additional $2.1 million for park ponds but not a penny for open space and trailheads.

The problem with park ponds is how they are designed. The Parks and Recreation Department sees them as traditional turf parks. Without seeking the advice of her Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, Department Director Nanette Smejkal, has plowed ahead now that she has made away with $2.5 million of open space money for 8 park ponds which were the lowest priorities on the open space master plan. Unfortunately, that leadership style does not take advantage of the kind of expertise she could have tapped into for the design of her parks. Park ponds should be designed for passive rainwater harvesting. UTEP Professor of Engineering and Hydrologist, John Walton, explains:

“The ‘park ponds’ should not be seeded with turf because this commits the City of El Paso to long term waste of water as well as high maintenance costs. Instead stormwater areas should be designed to employ passive rainwater harvesting. Passive harvesting of stormwater flowing down drainages occurs when small depressions are placed within the flow path that capture a portion of the passing water and infiltrate it into the subsurface. The infiltrated water is stored passively in the soil and used to water trees and shrubs. Even in the desert climate of El Paso the technique produces dense green shade trees with no need for artificial watering. Passive stormwater harvesting also reduces the peak storm discharges leading to lower flooding potential.”

Read a Master Thesis about this methodology.

Just for established turf (not newly laid sod or seed), AgriLife (your Texas Agricultural Extension Agency) experts calculate about 1.3 million gallons of water per acre per year or 27 or 30 gallons of water per square foot of turf. Warm seed turf grasses can go as much as 58 gallons per square foot. Taking into account our desert climate and not to mention a drought, what were PSB members thinking when they agreed to take $2.5 million of open space money (a cash account) and give it to Parks and Recreation for park ponds? Again note that El Paso’s Parks and Recreation Department spends zip, zero, nada on any kind of natural open space.

Keeping all of this in mind, it is much easier to see why the Johnson Basin purchase is even more egregious.  Open Space Advisory Board Chairman, Charlie Wakeem, wrote in an email that Johnson Basin “meets none of the criteria for Opens Space preservation.”

Wakeem says that “OSAB agrees that Johnson Basin is a drainage asset and could also be a park asset that ought to be acquired” but not with the 10% of your stormwater fee (on your water bill) that goes into a cash account to buy ecologically sensitive land. There are several criteria for open space (none of which Johnson Basin meets in spite of Mr. Shoephoerster’s and Mr. Balliew’s claims). Wakeem enumerates by quoting the Open Space Master Plan:

·         "Open Space is any area that has not been developed or that currently has no significant structures on it.  These spaces have some combination of natural scenic beauty, natural resources that are deemed worthy of preservation, or have a cultural or historic significance to the area or region."

·         What is Open Space?:  "The common thread in all definitions of open space is the notion of lands that have not yet been substantially altered by man, or that preserve some vestiges of the natural environment in the urban area that surrounds them."

·         The Amount of Undeveloped Land Remaining in El Paso:  "Land for open space must be preserved today, or it will be consumed over the next 20 to 40 years."

·         Mission (in part):  "....El Paso's Open Space Trail Network will be attractive and easily accessible to all.  It will be the site of many kinds of healthy recreational activities, and provide numerous opportunities for educating the public about the Chihuahuan Desert ecosystems."

·         The Plan for El Paso & Plan El Paso:  "Goal:  Protect and promote ecologically sensitive areas, such as aquifer recharge zones, hillsides, bosques, arroyos and wetlands." 

It would have been better to fund park ponds (and all agree that dirt holes should be better rainwater/drainage/recreational assets for the City) incrementally with other funds since they are at the bottom of open space priorities. The 10% of the stormwater fee for open space goes into a cash account at the rate of about $117,000 per month – not enough cash flow to afford the purchase of open space from a cash account unless allowed to build up over time. Just the Palisades cost $2.5 million. With the $2.5 million raid by Parks and Recreation, the fund is now just above $100,000. Because it is a cash account with insignificant cash flow, expenditures for projects such as park ponds will always have the advantage. In short, one wonders if any other natural open space acquisitions can be made especially since Master Plan priorities are ignored by City politicians and PSB technocrats.

The fact that the open space account is a cash account goes under one of Mayor Cook’s favorite rubrics: “No good deed goes unpunished.”  Why is the stormwater/open space account cash? Recall that it was established post-2006 flood. There are two reasons.  First, architects of the fund didn’t want people to feel that open space advocates were taking advantage of the situation and costing them the extra debt service just to buy amenities. And, secondly, the revenue was leveraged by the Storm Water utility.  It allowed Storm Water to have an additional $4 million up front to do a more urgent CIP project that would have been postponed too many additional years. The result of the good deed: you, your open space, your natural open space priorities, sensitive eco-systems, etc., etc. are getting (to put it bluntly) screwed.

Enough said . . . for now.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Schoephoserster's "Perfect Example of Natural Open Space"

Here are pictures of PSB member and UTEP Dean of Engineering, Richard "Dick" Schoephoerster's "perfect example of natural open space":

View from Piedras and Pierce, the old William Beaumont gate. 
Click, of course, to enlarge this and the following photos.

El Pasoans have this beautiful view along Pierce Avenue of Schoephoerster's perfect example of natural open space.

Rock climbing at Johnson Basin, a part of Schoephoerster's perfect example of natural open space.

Christmas at Tom Mays Unit of FMSP

Click to enlarge.

Transmountain Petition Update

At yesterday's City Council meeting an update was given on the process for re-doing the Northwest Master Plan which includes the preservation of the Scenic Transmountain Corridor. Planning and Development staff announced the following schedule for public input on the NW Master Plan and Scenic Corridor. I will confirm the schedule after the first of the year. However, all of you who want to see the corridor preserved in perpetuity (forever) in its natural state, should set aside time now on your calendars:

Tuesday, January 24th - Hands On Session, 5 to 9PM, Canutillo HS Cafeteria

January 23 - 28 - Weeklong Open Design Studio - Location to be announced

Saturday, January 28 - Work in Progress Presentaion, 9AM - Noon, Canutillo HS Cafeteria

April - May Review and Adoption Process

Stakehold meetings for January charrettes are being planned now. 

It was reported to me by a City Council member that Planning and Development plans to have a final resolution in April. However the Dover Kohl timeline suggests that a final adoption of the NW Master Plan may not occur until winter of 2012.

Prior to Council, I wrote the Mayor and Council members this email message:

Mayor Cook and Honorable Members of City Council, I understand that today’s Agenda Item 7D is the update you requested regarding the preservation of land known as the Scenic Transmountain Corridor and the Northwest Master Plan. On December 5, 2011, I met with Mr. Carlos Gallinar of Planning and Development and Mr. Jason King of Dover Kohl.  Two other persons who want to see the Scenic Corridor preserved in perpetuity in its natural state accompanied me. We discussed the upcoming process. We had a good conversation and Mr. King took copious notes. I remain committed to the process laid out by Planning and Development in conjunction with Dover Kohl. All of us who signed the petition remain steadfast in our pursuit of seeing that the Scenic Transmountain Corridor is preserved in its natural state in perpetuity. “Islands” within that corridor for resorts or other purposes fed by roads cutting through that corridor are unacceptable. Preserving the natural arroyos without slicing through them or truncating them remains the goal. If Paseo del Norte does run through that land, elevated roads over the arroyos are essential. We understand that the process for a new Master Plan which includes the preservation of the Scenic Corridor takes time. The time line before you today seems lengthy and we hope that we can be more expeditious without compromising good planning. I personally remain confident in the City’s Planning and Development Department, the leadership of Mr. McElroy, and the expertise of Dover Kohl. Wishing you each all the best, happy holidays, and the love and comfort of family and friends this season, Jim H. Tolbert

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Borderland Mountain Bike Association President, David Wilson has written an open letter encouraging that more money be spent on trails, trail improvements, trail heads and signage. He's right that there are great mountain bike trails throughout the Franklins which are also great for hikers. The City of El Paso owes a debt of gratitude to BMBA for creating most of these trails. Now they have actually funded the creation of trail head parking for Redd Road - an unprecedented action. 
For more information about mountain biking and bike trails in this region, go to
Here is Dave's letter:
It has come to my attention that the funds set aside for the acquisition of open space might be used to improve green spaces around the city.  Last year there was a pretty heated debate about using these funds to build trail heads and trail head parking at some of the newly acquired open space and it was finally determined that they could not be used for those purposes.....ONLY for the acquisition of new lands to be preserved as open space.  To hear that board members are considering the use of this funding to improve green spaces seems to be pretty contradictory to what was determined sometime last year.

I don't think you'll find many people who would have a problem using this money to improve green space, but it would only be fair to use this money to improve our open spaces as well.  The Convention and Visitors Bureau is spending a large amount of city money to promote our city as a mountain biking destination.  Mountain biking will be featured on the cover of the spring Visitors' Guide, Texas Monthly magazine, and Southwest Magazine (the one in every seat of every Southwest plane).  At present, our city is not ready to play host to mountain bikers who are unfamiliar with our trails and their access points.  At present, we have NO mountain bike trail heads and NO mountain bike trail head signage except in the Tom May's unit of the State Park.  We have some great trails, but few of them are signed.  Without a gps unit that has a track file for the trail being ridden or a guide, it's sheer luck if a visitor has a good mountain biking experience.

I encourage the City (Council, the PSB, the Open Space Advisory Board, the Parks and Recreation Department, and the State Park) to work together in completing the mountain biking infrastructure needed to truly make El Paso a mountain biking destination as well as mitigating user conflicts and impacts that are currently happening at common access points.  The BMBA is committed to finishing the trail head parking lot on Redd Rd, but after this project, our coffers will be empty.  The Redd Road location needs extensive signage on trails found on city land and State Park land.  The park has begun the process for signage on their portion.  The BMBA will continue to advise the bureaucracies free of charge.

Please don't divert Open Space Acquisition funds for green space unless you are willing to do the same for current open space.
David Wilson, President of Borderland Mountain Bike Association

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Special Invitation: Hike and Mountain Bike the Johnson Basin

Johnson Basin as seen from William Beaumont. Click to enlarge.

Hard Core Hikers, Mountain Bikers and Outdoor Enthusiasts,

Come help make a video for You Tube of the gorgeous Johnson Basin leading into the Schoephoerster Trash Preserve. PSB Board Member, Richard (“Dick” to those who know him best) Schoephoerster, called this land “a perfect example of natural open space” during a public meeting of the PSB on Wednesday. Nestled between the Cemex Quarry, the concrete and asphalt of the Alabama corridor, commercial buildings, residences, the William Beaumont complex and a Lower Dyer neighborhood near Assumption Church and Travis Elementary, this lovely 4 acres of open space was purchased with $400,000 of your Open Space money (without having to trouble anyone by going through the Open Space Advisory Board – or even, as it now seems, the PSB itself). You can see some pictures of this “perfect example of natural open space” here.

Help us make a video that will showcase what will surely become the premier new natural, recreational open space (referred to as the Johnson Basin).

Please do join us this Saturday at 1:30 p.m.  Meet at Truman and Copia. Please do bring your back pack. Bring solid, ankle high or higher boots. I’ve heard something is really piled high here. Do bring very high-powered binoculars so you can spot the wildlife.  Maps, gps, and compass are optional in case you might want to try orienteering.  

Jim Tolbert
Publisher of the elpasonaturally blog

P.S. Seriously. Please do come and be part of this video! Pass the word to others. 

The Johnson Basin Scam

PSB took nearly $400,000 of your money set aside to purchase valuable, natural open space to buy 4 acres of vacant land along with a few houses in the lower Dyer area of the City. Johnson Basin is situated near Assumption Church and school and west of Travis Elementary. It abuts William Beaumont military land on the west. It is roughly between Pierce and Lincoln Avenues on the south and north and Copia and Justus on the east and west.  Here is a picture of the area from a URS study:

Click on picture to enlarge.

Between the Johnson Basin and William Beaumont is a tall rock wall with barbed wire in some places and an iron grate where an almost 2 block fragment of what once was an arroyo flows onto the basin, narrowing to a mere ditch, bending to the north where it abruptly dead ends without a culvert at Lincoln Avenue.

The purchase of the Johnson Basin was never approved by the Open Space Advisory Board. It suddenly appeared last month in a handout "Open Space and Park/Ponds" along with its acquisition price of $394,247. OSAB never vetted it in contradiction to Mr. Ed Archuleta's claim to the PSB at their meeting this past Wednesday. More egregiously, it seems now that PSB never vetted or approved any of the purchases making up the Johnson Basin. Nevertheless, PSB members let is slide in spite of the fact that Mr. Archuleta dismissively confessed that he may not have brought the purchase or purchases before the Board. (Purchases over $25,000 must be brought to the PSB. Elpasonaturally has an Open Records Request for documents that show the agenda and minutes of meetings when the purchases were discussed and approved.)

At the last PSB meeting, member Richard Schoephoerster pontificated that the Basin was a "perfect example of natural open space." Really, Dick? Let's take a look at it shall we.

Click the above to enlarge. The questions were asked by the person who got this Google map. I can best answer the questions by simply describing what happens from the Basin to the mountain. A tall rock wall divides the basin from William Beaumont, the military medical campus that owns the property along Pierce Avenue  to above Louisiana. An iron grate divides the ditch in the Basin from the wider arroyo on William Beaumont property. That "arroyo" ends less than 2 blocks west where the old Piedras entrance to the hospital exists. West of Piedras is a retention pond which sits below parking lots on the north and to the west. Run-off from these lots feed into the retention pond. There is no connectivity between that pond and the arroyo fragment to the east. There is no connectivity between that retention pond and any natural feature to the west. A spillover is constructed at the east end of the pond and there is one across Piedras at the beginning of the arroyo fragment. It would take quite a rain event to spill any water over from one side to the other. In essence, there just isn't any connectivity. Beyond the retention pond to the west toward the mountain is the paved parking lot of Beaumont, a residential area, a commercial area, the cement and asphalt of the Alabama Street corridor and then Cemex. Where the mouth of McKelligon Canyon once cut down through this area there is only a large culvert that crosses under Alabama and comes out across the street from someone's garage door. Looking at that door and house one can see the Beaumont campus to the east. 

You can see pictures of all of this including the Johnson Basin by going here.

Certainly Johnson Basin probably is the site of some flooding during rains. Johnson Street runs down toward Dyer. A ditch with culverts pass under Travis Elementary and then to the Pershing Dam. Streets in this neighborhood were often designed to be the stormwater passageways. Haphazard development meant that drainage and neighborhoods didn't always fit together. Nevertheless, the money to fix the Johnson Basin should have come from some other place than money to buy natural open space as well. 

The mere 2 block arroyo fragment along the south side of William Beaumont has no connectivity, is cut-off in fact from non-military El Pasoans, is not ecologically sensitive, has no aesthetic value, and is, in fact,  a trash dump and trash collector. Since Mr. Schoephoerster calls it a "perfect example of natural open space", let's name it for him: the Schoephoerster Trash Preserve.

Question: will PSB do the right thing and give the money back to Open Space and take it out of some other part of their budget? Keep in mind that Open Space money is a cash account. After Parks and Recreation made-off with nearly $3,000,000 of it and Ed and Company took $400,000 for their Johnson Basin Scam, there may be less than $600,000 in that account today. Should the opportunity arise to buy a special piece of natural open space property, the money won't be there until slowly replenished by the 10% of your stormwater fee - replenished unless dipped into again with no regard to the process, of course.

More to report on all of this for sure as well as the Park/Ponds boondoggle.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Perhaps There IS Money for the Rio Bosque

We have been following progress (what there is of it) at the Rio Bosque, a site that has the potential for massive tourist eco-dollars for El Paso and El Paso County but receives treatment that would make Cinderella’s plight under her step-family seem like pampering a celebrity on Rodeo Drive. Judy Ackerman reports:

“On November 13th the Bosque started receiving some water from the Bustamante Water Treatment Plant; about 45% of the effluent or about 7,000,000 gal/day. By the 28th water in the old river channel in the park had almost reached the visitor center. Because the park has been so dry for so long, and the water table has dropped so low, the water is sinking into the ground instead of filling the old river channel. On Monday 28 Nov, John Sproul started diverting the water to fill the wetland cells, but it still has not reached the cells. This is the first time since 1998, that we have not had water in the wetland cells in the month of December. It is particularly sad since this is a banner year for waterfowl in the U.S. – the best in 35 years – but we are not getting to see them.

“El Paso Water Improvement District #1 is ready to start construction on the turn-out that will make it possible for the park to receive water from the Riverside Canal, when water rights are donated to the park and water is available. However, they will not start until El Paso #1 receives payment, in advance, for the cost of the construction: $8,424.”

Although the money has been raised, we must remember that building the turnout does not mean that the Irrigation District will move the water from the Bustamante that EPWU has for the Bosque. Once in the canal or drain, the water belongs to the District and their General Manager, Chuy Reyes (brother of Silvestre) is like Scrooge before any ghostly apparitions. At the last Open Space Advisory Board meeting, EPWU’s John Balliew said that the long term solution is building pumping, piping and plumbing infrastructure directly to the Park at the cost of $1 Million. That money, the Bosque does not have. Or do they?

Parks and Recreation Parks Pond Project graphic presented to the recent PSB Budget meeting. Click on image to enlarge.

Currently the Parks and Recreation Department of the City of El Paso is going after nearly $3 million from money set aside for purchasing open space. They want that money for 8 more Park Ponds, similar to the recently completed Saipan project. That $3 million would be for shrubs, trees and sod only. To complete their park pond projects there is another $2.3 million for irrigation from the City of El Paso. At its past Wednesday meeting, Open Space Advisory Board members voted to recommend that the money set aside for open space purchases be retained and not used for park pond projects. If the PSB concurs at their next budget meeting, then Parks would be left with $2.3 million and have no money for trees, shrubs and sod.

What can Parks do with a measly $2.3 million? $1 million of that would provide water to a City park – the Rio Bosque. I’m thinking about some well-deserved glass slippers.