Friday, June 1, 2012
The Petition, Transmountain and the Rio Bosque
Left alone, the natural environment provides us with many benefits including cleaner air and water, carbon sequestration, better soil, greater biodiversity which promotes human health as well. All of these benefits are called ecosystem services – one good reason to preserve open space in its natural state. Other reasons for preservation/conservation include human health and recreation, eco-tourist dollars, and quality of life. Natural open space is good for us mentally, spiritually and emotionally. So where do things stand with three key open space issues in El Paso – the Transmountain West project, the NW Master Plan and the Rio Bosque?
I get more phone calls about the Transmountain West TxDOT project currently than anything else. The extensive and quickening bulldozing is very disconcerting to say the least. So far the Judge overseeing Sierra Club’s lawsuit against TxDOT has not ruled on an injunction to stop work. The contractor plows ahead and many of you have reported the wide devastation including the removal of some foothills.
The NW Master Plan is a separate but related matter. The new plan is the direct result of trying to find a “compromise” with petitioners who seek to preserve in perpetuity 780 acres in the Transmountain Scenic Corridor along with keeping arroyos in their natural state and preventing any major road construction through the area (Paseo del Norte). I authored the petition and coordinated efforts to get the necessary number of signatures to bring it to City Council. Where do things stand with the petition? Simply put: on-hold as City Planning and Attorneys work out further details of the City Council approval of a Dover Kohl scenario. Understand this: there is no time limit as to when to gather signatures to put the petition language to voters if what the City Council ultimately does is unacceptable. So far, there have been benefits as the City wrestles with the Master Plan so there is reason to be patient.
What are the benefits? First and foremost that a new NW Master Plan was even undertaken with smart growth/smart code in mind is a big benefit. However, smart growth/code is not enough when it comes to preserving arroyos in their natural state. Nature has created ways for water to flow “historically” through arroyos while still maintaining the ecosystem. Any kind of development near or along a development increases that flow rate. Unless accounted for in some way, the velocity of stormwater can become quite destructive. We all know that rainwater washing off our roofs, sidewalks, asphalt and other impermeable surfaces races downhill. Our urban development has removed many features that can soak-up and otherwise handle stormwater: plants, natural ground, natural swales in the landscape and so forth. Just like the development that has created urban sprawls of cul-de-sacs and strip malls, smart growth development (although it addresses density and quality of life issues while preserving more natural features) does not address stormwater management. So, whatever the development may be along arroyos, that development impacts water flow in the arroyos and engineers will all tell you that arroyos need to be modified in some way to provide flood control.
A tool for preserving natural features such as arroyos in their natural state is green infrastructure/low impact development which employs more pocket parks and linear parks and shallow depressions to manage stormwater rather than one big drain – the arroyo itself. Such a tool makes all the arroyo modification unnecessary. A benefit of being patient as the City works out issues: the City (at least the Planning Department) is learning about green infrastructure/low impact development. They are learning (as we all are) that before you can Master Plan and long before you can plat, you have to do a drainage study and you have to use your gi/lid toolbox.
Another benefit for waiting before considering moving the petition forward to the ballot is that the City is learning about conservation easements. The internal conversations have been happening. Unfortunately, elpasonaturally has heard that top City officials are still hoping to find a way to do a so-called “conservation covenant” which would ultimately give them an out with preserving natural open space in perpetuity. In the minds of petitioners, that’s the biggest deal breaker and the one that will send them back into the streets. The fox guarding the chicken coop?! Let’s hope the City gets real.
Seeing a potential for possible City equivocation, many, many petitioners have begun asking whether there shouldn’t be a whole new petition – one that calls for preserving all City owned lands on the west side including the NW Master Plan area and all properties north of it.
So, for now, the petition effort waits. There are benefits to waiting. Nevertheless, with the TxDOT behemoth moving closer to the State Park, pressure is being felt to take the next step with preserving land in its natural state.
Oh – one last goodie about the TxDOT project before moving on. An alternative entrance into the Park that would not create the huge interchange that TxDOT favors would cost $2 million. The TxDOT proposal is $7 million and TxDOT is already saying that is what they will have to spend – no modifications. Why should our government spend $2 million of our money when they could spend $7 million?
So what is happening with the Rio Bosque, a City of El Paso wetlands park managed by UTEP’s Center for Environmental Resource Management with huge eco-tourism potential (not to mention its value as a provider of ecosystem services) that only gets a paltry $10,000 from the City’s Parks and Recreation Department budget? The Rio Bosque is a wetlands area drying up as Water District #1 pumps more water adjacent to the park while denying the park any access to effluent from the EPWU’s Bustamante Treatment Plant. Possibly two good things are happening now. First, thanks to Rep. Eddie Holguin in whose district is the Rio Bosque, the City Council next Tuesday, June 5th, will take up this resolution (Item 10A on the Agenda):
Discussion and action that the Mayor be authorized to send letters on behalf of the El Paso City Council to the President/Chief Executive Officer of El Paso Water Utilities/Public Service Board, (EPWU/PSB) the members of the Public Service Board, the members of the El Paso County Commissioners Court, and the General Manager of El Paso No. 1 expressing the City of El Paso’s appreciation for the efforts of each entity to help find a solution to meeting Rio Bosque’s water needs during the growing season and expressing the City’s strong desire that each continue to work diligently until such a solution is found and fully achieved.
Secondly, at the next OSAB meeting, Mr. Rudy Vasquez will present the EPWU’s timeline from a feasibility study that would provide a long-term, sustainable supply of water to the Rio Bosque. That meeting will be held this Wednesday, June 6th, at 1:30 p.m. in the 8th Floor Conference Room at City Hall.
Two more things about the Bosque:
I have learned (but have not had confirmed from MCAD/Public Art) that the Heath Satow sculpture intended for the Bosque will now go to the Zoo. The Zoo is a better place to showcase this artwork and, perhaps, it bodes well that the City wants to spend money on the Bosque that will truly benefit the wetlands. As elpasonaturally pointed out before, the City was willing to pay $170,000 for a public arts project but nothing to help with the real issue of water at the Bosque.
Secondly, if you care about the Bosque (and other open space issues), plan to attend one of two public meetings Thursday and Saturday (June 7th and 9th) of next week regarding the updating of the City’s Parks and Recreation Master Plan.
Not on our discussion list today but certainly worth mentioning now and later is the space definitely worth preserving: the Vista Del Aguila National Wildlife Refuge Proposed for El Paso, Hudspeth and Culberson Counties. See Ramón Rentería’s El Paso Times story about the gathering support for this critical refuge just east of us.
More later on the newly appointed and what seems to be conservation and environment-unfriendly PSB Land Policy and Revenue Sharing Blue Ribbon Committee in response to City Council’s wanting to review its relationship with PSB as its land manager/land designer.
Note one big thing (and I’m sorry it’s at the bottom of the letter): Ed Archuleta, the CEO/President of the PSB/EPWU is really doing some good things regarding preserving open space. The El Paso Times editorial alluded to it today. Elpasonaturally has been a critic of some of his policies and leadership style. It’s time for praise and all I can say at this time is: “Thank You, Mr. Archuleta!”
Finally, although all of us have different religious convictions or none at all, I do think that you will find the Kabarak Call for Peace and Eco-Justice inspiring. I hope you will take just a moment to read this short but powerful statement.