Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Time to Address Water Conservation on the "Macro" Level

This is the Sept. 23, 2014 U.S. Drought Monitor Map for TX

Above is the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor map for the state of Texas. According to their intensity index, El Paso is in a severe drought. In fact, most of Texas is either abnormally dry (yellow) or in worsening stages of drought - extreme (red) or exceptional (darkest color) being the worst.

A minority of us believe that Proposition 6 will be money poorly spent; but even if you voted for the proposition, it will be 10 years before there is any improvement of any kind.

In a recent op-ed piece for the El Paso Times, Rep. Marisa Marquez suggested conservation measures each of us at home can take. It's the usual "stuff": check for leaks, use drip irrigation, mulch and so forth. 

Now I understand that Democrat Ms. Marquez is smart enough (indeed she is one of the smartest legislators in Texas) to know that she must pick her battles. After all, we are a state ruled by Republicans whose only aim is to protect the natural gas and petroleum industries. Hoping for much more than home conservation in the near future is a pipe dream. However, one wishes that one day one politician would step forth and give a list of conservation measures leading to water sustainability that really address the issue on a "macro" not a "micro" level. Home conservation is good but it is a drop in the bucket.

So let me give a short list of challenges that must find local or state solutions and will require bold, persistent, undaunted leadership.

First, hydrofracking is just bad. It's bad for the water supply, it's bad for humans and their communities, its bad for the environment and all life. Rather than encouraging alternative energy technology, much like the vampires of recent cinema sensations, Texas sucks the shale for its gases. Hydrofracking works by using millions of gallons of water and sand and toxic chemicals. HERE is the best graphic that I know that illustrates the process.

A must see documentary that you can watch or stream on Amazon Prime is GasLand.  Here is the trailer:

A second "macro" area to look at is agriculture - crop selection and technology. Most of the farmers in El Paso's river valley raise water intensive crops such as Pima cotton or pecans. These same farmers control the Water Improvement District and a hand full of them have ruled as a board unchallenged, unmonitored and clandestine for decades. They will continue to get what they need from a drying Rio Grande for their pecan orchards. Yet, as one visionary Clint farmer explained to me, one pomegranate tree takes one-fifth of the water required for a pecan tree. Simply put, it is time that legislation is passed that regulates the kinds of crops that can be raised in an area based on water scarcity and needs.

We must also address our water management technology. Municipalities such as El Paso must reform landscaping and building codes so that they require rain water harvesting, "smart" homes equipped with the best in water conservation technology, and true xeriscaping not zeroscaping by concreting yards that then send water down the river where they can no longer recharge our depleting bolsons.

Water districts must begin covering canals or take other measures to reduce evaporation. We can take a lesson from India where solar panels are being used to cover canals. Do you think anyone will request some of that Prop 6 money for a project such as this:

Wow! Solar panel covers conserve water and at the same time reduce our dependence on the petroleum/natural gas industry with their water-intensive hydrofracking. The current bunch of oligarchs in Austin will never spend a dime for something like this - but is should be said and said loudly. 

Finally, the question of who owns water must be re-addressed and this I believe can only be done on the national level. Water laws are antiquated. Time to change them. Water is the property and right of every single person in the United States - indeed the world. Regulations, controls and innovations guaranteeing this right must be put in place.

Each home and business property can only do so much to conserve water. It is time that we have the boldness and the vision to address the matter on a bigger scale. Trust me - Prop 6 money will find more ways to get water to the petroleum industry. We must do better than that.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Ensuring a Sustainable Water Supply

Here is the slide show used at last Friday's PSB/EPWU Strategic Planning Session.

Just a few quick observations:

The PSB/EPWU is the only El Paso "institution" that intimately understands conservation. The entire plan is concerned with the technology, policy and, yes, conservation necessary to make sure that El Paso has water. The PSB was created in 1951 during what was a bad drought. Our drought today is worse.

Attempts led by the clandestine and powerful Builders Association and City Council members who are in debt to the Builders to make the PSB/EPWU a city department are just wrong. In their minds it's a matter of revenue and the protection of the builders from paying impact fees and the rejection of the visionary Plan El Paso, the most hated document by the Builders Association. Conservation is the last thing on their minds. Build, build, build. Sprawl, sprawl, sprawl. Guzzle, guzzle, guzzle - no water in short time. Thank you, PSB, for being conservation oriented. Of course, EPWU's product to sell is water. If they limit the amount, they bring in less revenue. Thank heavens for innovators such as John Balliew, who know that other products must come off the line as well. They are working on it.

They conserve better than conservationists. For years we have been hounding and howling to bring more water to the Rio Bosque. They have a plan that not only does that but recaptures more water for the City!

Finally, we see a strategy for capturing more rainwater which includes the regulating pond that will benefit the Rio Bosque.

Here's the dark cloud: Council recently imposed a fee for street repairs and has the EPWU collect that fee through our water bills. The fee goes to the City. Council could have just accepted the counter-proposal for a larger EPWU budget to do the same job. However, the current Council had ulterior motives: enact the fee and, in time, raise it. More especially, Council wanted to get its hands into the governance best done by the PSB. The first major problem with the fee is that it makes it harder for the PSB to raise rates that will go to critical infrastructure needed now or soon. The second major problem is that the fee does not encourage conservation of our scarcest and most precious resource: water.

Friday, September 26, 2014

PSB Strategic Planning Meeting

I wasn't able to make today's meeting - the first time not to do so in several years. A friend took notes for me. I'm expecting the slide show presentation from the EPWU's Public Information Office. I will post it for you and continue discussion next Monday.

After visiting with my friend, three general points can be made:

First, the public was missing! What is the biggest challenge El Paso faces? Water. We are in the most serious drought since 1951 when the City was guided by wiser persons. There were two newspapers back then: the El Paso Times and the El Paso Herald Post. Water was their daily front page story. The public positively responded to the creation of an independent water utility. 

But today? The public remains uninformed about the seriousness of the water issue. Besides the Consumer or Citizen Advocacy seat on the Board (now held by Chris Antcliff), the key player to be there for the people is the Mayor. Mayor Leeser was absent.

The second point is that, in spite of the public's disinterest in what the PSB/EPWU does, the PSB/EPWU is strategically planning ahead. I'm not going to go into all of the presentation now. However, it was clear that, under John Balliew, our water utility is making very wise choices. But don't think that you shouldn't be involved. As a first suggestion, ask your City Rep to have all building and landscaping codes reviewed and updated with the conservation of water in mind. Also, let's get a Charter Amendment that takes the fate of the PSB/EPWU out of the hands of City Council.

Finally, all of us in the conservation community need to begin doing a better job of educating the public, our city government and our business community. We've been preaching to the choir too long.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bolson Tortoises of the Chihuahuan Desert  by Rick LoBello

Bolson tortoises live in two locations at the Zoo, on the north side of the Americas Land exhibit where they live with our peninsular pronghorns and javelinas and across from the entrance to the El Paso Water Utilities Discovery Education Center.
Bolson tortoises live in two locations at the Zoo, on the north side of the Americas Land exhibit where they live with our peninsular pronghorns and javelinas and across from the entrance to the El Paso Water Utilities Discovery Education Center.
The bolson tortoise is an endemic species of the Chihuahuan Desert that was only recently discovered in 1959. Biologists use the term “endemic” to describe any plant or animal species living in one particular place or region. Of the 156 reptile species living in the Chihuahuan Desert, 24 species are endemics. This tortoise is also known as the Mexican giant tortoise or yellow-bordered tortoise. In Mexico it is called tortuga grande, tortuga llanero or tortuga topo.
Long before the coming of the first European explorers to North America, bolson tortoises are believed to have lived in the El Paso region during the Pleistocene Epoch that lasted from 1.65 million to 10,000 years ago. It was during this period about 14-30,000 years ago that humans migrated to North America. More than likely some early humans might have eaten tortoises as a source of protein.

Bolsons are the largest tortoises in North America reaching 18" in length and weighing up to 30 pounds. The species was discovered by accident in 1959 when scientists working in an area where the boundaries of the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango come together, came across the species by chance. The story goes that they found a tortoise shell being used as a dish to hold chicken feed. When they asked the rancher where the shell came from he pointed into the desert describing the “la tortuga grande del desierto,” the big turtle of the desert. Not long after, a new species of tortoise was described and given the Latin name Gopherus flavomarginatus.
Today bolson tortoises survive mainly in one small area of northern Mexico near Torreón, Coahuila called the Bolsón de Mapimí. I first came to know this species during the spring of 1990 when I was working for the Big Bend Natural History Association. Big Bend National Park Superintendent Jim Carrico, Chief Ranger Phil Koepp and I joined officials from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department on a trip to visit critical bolson tortoise habitat in Mexico. We were joined by scientists from California who were studying the bolson tortoise at the Bolsón de Mapimí Man and the Biosphere Reserve and Research Station in Durango. Soon after we returned the Los Angeles Times published a story about a proposed reintroduction effort that would return bolson tortoises to their former Pleistocene range in Big Bend National Park. Twenty-four years later there are no plans to return this species to the park, but the effort remains on the radar screen of Big Bend park officials.
Bolson tortoises live in two locations at the Zoo, on the north side of the Americas Land exhibit where they live with our peninsular pronghorns and javelinas and across from the entrance to the El Paso Water Utilities Discovery Education Center. The Zoo Education Team also has some bolson tortoises in our education animal collection. These tortoises are shown to Zoo guests during special animal encounter programs and as part of Zoo Adventure classes for school children.

During the winter months from about November to February bolson tortoises hibernate in underground burrows and as are result are not visible. The bolson is the only animal at the Zoo that hibernates in its exhibit.
The El Paso Zoo is working with the Turner Endangered Species Fund and the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park in helping with a reintroduction project near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico at the Ladder and Armendaris Ranches. Zoo staff is assisting research scientists in determining the gender of baby tortoises, as part of a larger effort to breed bolson tortoises for eventual release into portions of their former range.
According to the IUCN Red List “this species is listed as Vulnerable because it has experienced a population decline of up to 50% over the past 3 generations. It faced catastrophic levels of exploitation during the middle of the 20th century, with subsequent lower levels of exploitation. At present the species is protected from direct exploitation and part of its extent of occurrence is protected, but some subsistence collection and habitat degradation impacts likely still occur. With the worst impacts over, it is rated Vulnerable (under A1) rather than Endangered (under A2). About six separate subpopulations exist, comprising some 7,000 to 10,000 adults, collectively occurring over about 7,000 sq. km."
You can help support El Paso Zoo conservation efforts my making a tax deductible contribution to the El Paso Zoological Society.
Tortoises, like these Galapagos tortoises, are one of several dozen species of animals at the Zoo that get to enjoy pumpkins during Boo at the Zoo.  This year’s Boo at the Zoo is planned for October 25-26.
Tortoises, like these Galapagos tortoises, are one of several dozen species of animals at the Zoo that get to enjoy pumpkins during Boo at the Zoo. This year’s Boo at the Zoo is planned for October 25-26.

Attend Tonight's Sierra Club Meeting

I've been away and I apologize. After 9 days in the hospital (heart issues) and a week of convalescence, I am starting up slowwwly.  

Tonight's meeting of the local chapter of the Sierra Club promises to be a good one. It will take place in the backroom of the Singapore Café, 4120 N. Mesa. MAP

If you'd like to come for dinner, come at 6 PM. It's dutch; but, if you have never eaten at the Singapore, you will be delightfully happy. MENU There are many vegan dishes on the menu. Just be sure you specify vegan when you order.  

Promptly at 7 PM presentations will begin which will include slide shows of hiking and kayaking trips around the country.

Here is the reason why I think you should attend and get involved: 

Carol Miller, a wildlife rehabilitator and President of a Neighborhood Association, will bring you up to date on the City of El Paso's plan to cover the 27 acre nature park on the south side of Keystone, 4100 Doniphan, with parking lots and buildings, a Sun Metro stop and fueling station for city trucks. Carol is hoping to find "ways to save at least part of this area for the neighborhood to come and enjoy the birds and animals that live on this site: roadrunners, jackrabbits, squirrels, birds." Carol imagines "corridors, an oasis here and there" and she hopes we can not to have a fueling stop in a place that endangers wildlife and people.

Read Carol's "Another Open Space Lost" HERE.

If the City's project can't be completely stopped (and I recall Joyce Wilson being hell-bent to do this), I sincerely hope that we can take Carol's lead and prevail upon city planners to be more creative. Of course, this means applying Green Infrastructure/Low Impact Development - something Planners know about but City Engineers really don't. 

Get involved with your local chapter of the Sierra Club:

Also check out and get involved with the Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition. Visit and like them on Facebook.

Just get informed and involved.

It is time for us to stay on top of issues and be more active in supporting conservation efforts wherever we can in El Paso. An ordinance to protect all wetlands might be in order and a complete re-writing of our building codes which should include ideas for a smart house from EPWU as well as GI/LID. (Remember: less concrete, less destroying our mountains.) Most of all, let's not let the clandestine, backroom boys shelve our Plan El Paso.

Finally, with Rosh Hashana beginning, learn more about the concept and practice of shmita. HERE is a good blog post to help you understand an ancient practice to bring us more in harmony with the earth and with one another. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Take the Fate of the PSB out of the Hands of City Council

[As a follow-up to yesterday's blog, I am publishing this op-ed piece written by Dr. Rick Bonart. Rick served on the PSB from 2009 until 2013 when City Council voted him off that Board. Emma Acosta led the despicable charge. David Crowder wrote an excellent piece in the El Paso Inc. regarding the ouster of someone who truly did put the "Public" back in the "Public Service Board".]

As the former citizen advocate from the Public Service Board, I want to comment on El Paso City Council's latest actions regarding the El Paso Water Utilities/Public Service Board - adding a new franchise fee and again proposing to eliminate the Public Service Board. These are horrible ideas.

It has only been a few years since former Mayor Cook convened a blue ribbon committee to review these very issues. The committee recommended that City taxes should not subsidize water rates, nor should water rates subsidize the city's taxes. Follow up studies were conducted and verified that the economic arrangement where the PSB already pays the City ten percent of its revenue is fair and comparable to other cities throughout the region. They also concluded that the PSB creates value for the City!

Ultimately, what’s in the best interest of our community is a sustainable, low cost, supply of water. Availability of water will be this region’s ultimate economic driver giving El Paso an edge in attracting new growth.  The citizens of El Paso have enjoyed low water rates and a reliable supply thanks to the policies of the PSB.
City Council’s meddling and undermining the PSB is bad policy. The PSB was established to set rates and policies to protect our precious water resource without political influence. The new franchise fee usurps that principle. It sets the bad precedence of City Council dictating how the PSB handles utility business.

Ironically, certain members of City Council were successful in decreasing Electric Company rates by arguing how harmful high utility rates are to the local economy.  This new fee is nothing more than a back door tax that increases a utility bill.  The franchise fee will be tacked onto water bills; but proceeds will go toward paying for city projects.  By so doing, what you pay for will be more obscure. From water projects to quality of life bonds, it's important that citizens understand the true cost of the projects they vote for. 

This new fee on business will be totally regressive in two ways. First, because it's a set fee per entity, a small mom and pop operation will pay the same fee as a huge corporate entity. Second, it's not tied to consumption. Currently as with your electric bill, consumers have control over the size of their bill by limiting consumption. Tiered water rates have been the most effective conservation measure initiated by the water utility. This new fee removes that discretion.

So why would City Council attempt such an awkward solution for such a relatively small (less than half a percent) shortfall? Surely 3 million in savings could be trimmed from an 800 million dollar budget. The answer is simple. It’s a first step. Once instituted fees and taxes never expire, rather they perpetually increase. This fee is only for non-residential customers, however it doesn’t require a crystal ball to realize residential customers will be ”fair game” and tapped to balanced the next  budget shortfall.

Unfortunately, Council’s assaults on the PSB has become an annual event. Members of City Council threaten to increase the PSB payments to the City, take over and sell off PSB land holdings, add fees, or, as with Representative Acosta’s latest suggestion, dissolve the PSB altogether.

City Council should keep water rates and city fees separate, support an independent Public Service Board, and act to repeal the franchise fee. I’d like to propose a Charter Amendment to require that the dissolution of the Public Service Board rest in the hands of the voters and not City Council. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Somebody Kill this Vampire Once and for All Times

It's become almost an annual or semi-annual event: an attempt to dissolve the Public Service Board and put control of the water and stormwater utilities directly under City Council control as a department of the City of El Paso. Like the living dead rising from the grave for fresh blood, this attempt has been coming up periodically. 

The most recent sighting of the Vampire came in this message from Rep. Emma Acosta's office:

"Representative Emma Acosta, District 3 authorizes the placement of the following item on the Regular Agenda for the Tuesday, September 9, 2014 City Council meeting:

"Discussion and action to review, amend, or dissolve the City of El Paso ordinance that created the Public Service Board, charged with the management and control of the water, sewer, and drainage systems of the City. To analyze, recommend, and determine the most desirable and best interest of the citizens and rate payers of the City of El Paso, in any changes, amendments, or repeal of the ordinance."

I spoke with John Balliew this morning. Although the motion has been withdrawn, there is every reason to be wary that it will re-appear sooner rather than later because the Vampire has recently drawn new blood in the form of a repugnant, unfair franchise fee which forces EPWU to collect money from non-residential customers in El Paso (read mostly Mom and Pop businesses that are already struggling in El Paso's economy.) PSB did not authorize the fee - Council did. So, as Emma must want to push the point, who needs the PSB?

Several points and please remember them:

We need the PSB as the very best way to preserve our most precious asset: water.

Take over the PSB and start selling the land to the sprawlers (what useful idiots for the sprawlers such as Emma really want) and we will soon collapse our water supply.

Balliew offered a better idea: let the EPWU assume pavement costs when mains break. Invest in newer infrastructure. Council rejected this idea because they really don't want the fee to cover an expense item in the budget - they want it as an ongoing way to raise revenue. 

This Council is NOT business-friendly. They are sprawler-friendly, Schwartz-friendly, Rubin-friendly but NOT business-friendly. They continue to plunder the wealth of businesses and homeowners to pay for the increasing costs brought on all of us because of unchecked building sprawl. Counting city taxes and the franchise fee almost 20% of the water bill paid by one of El Paso's oldest businesses and major employers goes to the City! 20 percent!  Rather than build the wage and salary base of the City in order to enlarge the amount that sales tax pays for city services rather than property taxes, Council raises your property taxes, forces your business to pay yet another fee, and allows the sprawlers to laugh and sing all the way to the bank. BTW, I believe that, in time, it will be obvious that Tommy Gonzalez is the pick of the back-room boys who like sprawl. (It wasn't unanimous you know to choose him and the Mayor really did break a tie. Happy now, former Mayor Wardy? Doug? Jerry?)

So, don't think that the Vampire has gone away. It may take an amendment to the City Charter to drive the wooden stake through its evil heart.