Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Our Hatred of Trains is killing our local economy

Last Saturday, my wife had an epiphany. She has discovered the fact that I have been railing about (pun intended) that economies that do not adapt to peak oil by adopting sustainable transportation in the form of trains are losers. Up to yesterday, my daughters and her laughed at my obsession with rail transport and the history of our once strong southeast Wisconsin rail transportation network that has disappeared or fallen into branch line freight rail only decrepitude. My family’s first ride to downtown Chicago on Metra commuter rail changed that quickly.




Daughter and Friend at Harvard Illinois Metra Station.

A scene you won't see in Wisconsin, the state of Automobiles uber Alles.

More below the fold to see how trains can help our local economies in an age of expensive oil.

The story begins with one of my daughter’s favorite bands, the Plain White T’s. Originally, my wife and daughter, with a friend, planned to go hear them at Summerfest in Milwaukee. A quick check of the band’s schedule indicated that they were also playing at Taste of Chicago. Now, to go to Summerfest, it is a 50 mile drive from my house, which would require burning 5 gallons of gasoline which would cost $23 at todays prices (my wife’s car uses higher grade gasoline). Plus, parking would cost a minimum of $10. Additionally, there were the tickets to go see the band, which cost $16 apiece. That brings the out of pocket costs to nearly $80 or more, not including food. We looked at going to the Taste of Chicago instead. The Metra schedule worked out and the price to travel downtown worked out to a paltry $5. Metra weekend pass and the kids traveled free. Free trolleys run from the Metra station in downtown Chicago to the Taste of Chicago. Think if we had preserved the T, M, E, and RL interurbans, we could have gone to East Troy or Burlington, or even Lake Geneva (the original intent was to expand the electrified rail to that point) and done the same thing in Wisconsin.

Instead, my wife took the short 12 mile drive to Harvard, Illinois and hopped the train with my two daughters and one of my daughter’s friends. The icing on the cake was that the food coupons for the Taste of Chicago also paid admission to see the band. Total tab for 4 people for this event; $37.50, and that included an $5 cab fare back to the train station in Chicago and $1.50 to park at the Harvard train station. It also included plenty of food! My family was impressed at how well the train ran, the ride, and meeting different people. They want to go again!

Needless to say, our money and our time went to Chicago and not Milwaukee, thanks to the availability of the train. My wife and kids probably would have still gone to Chicago even if the admission to the concert was the same price, because who needs traffic and parking hassles, and $30 to be exported out of the region (with over 60 percent of that out of the country in the form of oil imports). The money would stay in the local economy if we had the trains that existed 50 years ago.

Now lets do a little exercise: Lets assume Wisconsin politicians and elites were a little more enlightened and a little less parochial, and a concerted effort was made to save the old Chicago and Northwestern line to Lake Geneva, and it’s beautiful historic train depot, razed in 1986 despite its placement on the national register of historic places, and Walworth County were part of the RTA. Lake Geneva would have a Metra station like Harvard, Illinois. We would be having people coming to and from Chicago by rail to Lake Geneva, and many of the hundreds of cars currently clogging the downtown would be left at home. The weekend tourists would be paying the $5 per person to come up by train. The average vehicle would cost $28-30 dollars in current fuel costs just for the fuel to go from Chicago to Lake Geneva, while a family of 4 with two young children would only pay $10 to ride the train. This would free up 18-20 dollars for that family to spend in the local economy rather than on fuel, or even make it possible for them to come in the first place. Assume 3 8-coach trains come up every weekend day and are 4/5 full. That would bring in 3000 people not driving, and with an average cost savings of 50% over driving, would conservatively free up about $5-10 per person to spend in the local economy (more for those traveling singly or couples) which would pump up to $30,000.00 into the local tourist economy each weekend day. Note that this does not include the well-paid jobs that would have stayed in the region for conductors, train engineers, and track construction and maintenance.

Almost everyone I talk to now in the region wants rails to be expanded and brought back. Short sighted decisions in the era of cheap gasoline and muscle cars do not need to be defended. The “freedom of the car” is now a financial albatross around our collective necks, as the above discussion proves, and the southeast Wisconsin and Walworth County transportation status quo is indefensible, no matter what the Waukesha papers, Randal O’Toole, Scott Walker, Paul Ryan or the other cheap labor conservative Republican politicians and transportation “consultants” that dominate our local politics say. That trains are wasteful is another myth that needs to be relegated to the dustbin of history along with the Ptolemaic astronomical model.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Closing GM's Janesville Plant - Why should we care?

As we all know, GM has announced that Janesville's manufacturing plant will be closed in 2010, thanks to the runup in fuel prices and demand destruction for the guzzling SUVs made by it. Before we gloat and say "I told you so, you should have known it was coming" about GM's short sighted business decisions, we should look at the implications of this closing. Janesville has been kept afloat with a viable middle class with good paying union jobs thanks to the presence of this facility, and it's shuttering, accompanied by the loss of the good jobs, will initiate a death spiral for the city, if something is not done to mitigate it. And, I think some of our county's denizens probably work at GM or one of it's suppliers in Janesville, thanks to our cheap-labor based local economy. Unlike us here in Walworth County, Janesville does not even have a tourism base to attract people to it, so even those cheap-labor jobs will be foreclosed to it.

Lets look at an alternative scenario. The GM plant is centrally located, and served by two rail lines, which both cut through Walworth County. One is the Wisconsin and Southern, which goes through Darien and Walworth on its way to Fox Lake, IL and Chicago. The other is the Union Pacific, which follows a route from Janesville through Sharon, WI on its way to Harvard, IL and Chicago. These lines are being kept afloat partially by the vehicle and parts shipments to and from Janesville, and the loss of this business will hurt the railroads and potentially lead to abandonment of these lines as non-profitable. In a future of peak oil, maintaining and improving these rail lines will be essential to the livelihood of our county and region, and potentially the only way it will be economically viable to obtain goods from elsewhere as fuel costs become prohibitive for the current trucking-based distribution network.

We could save both the jobs and maintain the infrastructure vital to our future by retooling and re-using the Janesville GM plant to provide manufacture and servicing capability for passenger and freight rail locomotives and rolling stock. The existing location with extensive rail connections provides an ideal location for such a facility, and would provide net benefits to both Janesville and the region as a whole, including Walworth County. The unions could be put to work making trains as part of our complement of silver BB's to cope with oil depletion. The ancillary manufacturing facilities, such as Lear, that now make seats for GM SUVs could instead make seats for passenger rail coaches.

There is no reason, other than status quo inertia and inability of the powers that be to think outside of the box, why we cannot promote and implement such a long term solution. We have ceded manufacture of rail equipment to the Europeans, Japanese and Chinese; perhaps we need to look at doing something here to recapture American know-how. The Wisconsin state government provided incentive packages for GM to stay and retool the plant, and now they are looking to claw back
the incentive monies
from GM. Perhaps the state could use these monies, if they can get them back, as seed money to get the ball rolling, or to get the trains on track, so to speak.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Landscaping as if Water Mattered

On this Earth Day, it's time to take another look at how our landscape choices are impacting the planet. Last year I posted a diary here taking our default landscape choice, the lawn, to task over its extreme dependency on petroleum, and accompanying waste of this dwindling resource. It is not only oil, however, that our landscapes waste. They waste productive human labor, money (over 45 billion dollars per year in the United States), fertilizers that could be better directed to crop production, but most of all, they waste and abuse water. Water is the basic resource upon which life depends, but our current landscape choices behave as if it were limitless. The current turf-dominated landscape both attempts to get rid of water, and to introduce it at the same time, thus contributing even further to squandering of water resources. Below the fold, we talk about how landscaping affects our water resources and explore sustainable, water conserving alternatives to the wasteful dominant landscape paradigm.

Water is a critical issue these days. Most of our surface and ground water is salty, polluted, or otherwise unfit for human consumption. Water shortages have led to conflicts, and open warfare. Large centralized corporations such as Bechtel in Bolivia have attempted to corner and privatize water, even making it illegal for individuals to harvest rainwater for their own use. In Colorado, archaic water laws also make it illegal for property owners to utilize rainwater collected on their own properties, citing the fact that it diminishes the downstream supply of water. Even in our neck of the woods, a contentious battle has been fought over access to the Great Lakes, where municipalities outside of the watershed boundary in sprawl suburbs in Waukesha County have attempted to gain use of Lake Michigan water to solve their water shortage and contamination issues. Much of this water use is a result of our water squandering, turf-centric landscape, and if more sustainable water use practices were adopted in our area, a reduction in the “need” for Lake Michigan water would definitely be a result.

Turf is wasteful of water due to its high water demand to remain green, but lack of tolerance to flooding. In many areas, even in the wetter eastern half of the country, droughts of several weeks to months occur in summer, causing the turf to go brown, which the suburban lawn fetishist finds unacceptable. To get the right moisture levels, expensive irrigation systems are built to pull out groundwater to water turf lawns and golf courses, while on the other hand, sites are graded and piped to get rid of excess rainfall as quickly as possible without allowing it to soak into the ground and recharge the aquifer. A combination of turf, asphalt roadways, rooftops, and other pavement such as sidewalks forces water to run off, intensifying flooding (runoff peak flow) and robbing local groundwater aquifers of their recharge water, which reduces base flow of streams (that flow that derives from ground water, not direct runoff of rainwater) , stressing water dependent ecosystems and human development dependent on these water resources. An extreme example of this is Atlanta, suffering from a long term drought exacerbated by poor land use practices that deplete and degrade local water resources.
According to Food not Lawns, 270 billion gallons of water is used every year in the U.S. to water turf grass. Up to 30 percent of water use in the eastern U.S. and 70 percent of water use in the more arid regions of the west are devoted to sustaining this landscape model. Think of this when considering piped irrigation just to keep your expanses of turf green.

A lack of familiarity with alternative, sustainable landscape models permeates the design and civil engineering community, and perpetuates the current model of water mismanagement, where rainwater is not thought of as a resource, but something to be removed from the site with all deliberate speed, in order to compensate for the poor absorptive capacity of shallow rooted lawn turf and accompanying impervious land surfaces to service vehicles. Turf grasses typically have root systems that penetrate less than 6 inches into the soil, in contrast with most native plants such as prairie plants and trees, which can have roots that penetrate 4 to 15 feet. Water is also contaminated for the downstream user through several pathways – the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides that are not taken up by the turf grass , the lack of a deep, complex root system and layering of vegetation , and erosion promoted by the shallow roots of the grass, which does a poor job of holding the soil, especially on slopes.
After leaving the turf lawn, road and roof at great speed, the water is often dumped into a centralized, highly engineered water management system, that is supported by commonly used hydrological (water) engineering models. These are designed to “meter” runoff to reduce pulses of stormwater and filter it before it enters the natural surface water system, but because of the lack of living components, often fail at these tasks, especially in water quality. Such systems begin where water is routed from lawns, streets and low areas into underground storm sewer pipes, that either empty into engineered detention basins, or directly into natural lakes and streams. In some areas, mainly large cities, the storm sewers are connected with the sanitary sewers, leading to even more surface water pollution problems during times of heavy rain. The infrastructure, requiring a good deal of pipes, excavation, and grading can be very expensive. Some developments use open ditches and swales instead of storm sewers, which do reduce the runoff somewhat, but would do better if native vegetation was used. These conventional practices leads to inappropriate land abuses such as these:

This dry detention basin with gravel filter does little to cleanse and infiltrate rain water before it enters the natural watershed.

To add insult to injury, detention basins such as these systems require expensive heavy equipment and engineering to install and the gravel lined drains are prone to clogging with sediment over the long term. Also, the dirty runoff water has little time to precipitate out sediment before it is directed into other surface waters. The runoff from the basin in the photograph travels directly to Delavan Lake via an underground storm sewer, thus contributing to pollution of an already overly nutrient-rich lake.

Other detention basins try to use rip-rap to solve erosion problems. This also fails to filter the water, can be expensive, and eventually these areas grow in with weeds and opportunistic vegetation, making scenes such as this even more hideous Examples of how turf grass fails to hold the soil are shown here in this photo of a collapsing stream bank and erosion by a school.

The monomaniacal devotion to turf leads to landscaping like this (extremely steep slope along highway with mowed grass). Research indicates that turf is a poor landscape choice on steep slopes, as runoff from it and leaching of chemicals is far greater for these areas than on a level surface
Research into the relative runoff of turf grasses versus native vegetation in my region has determined that wooded areas along Wisconsin lakes (warning, PDF) have at least ten times less runoff than turf areas. Native habitats also generate less than half the nitrogen and phosphorus leaching to the lakes as do the turf areas. Nitrogen and phosphorus are the principal nutrients that lead to imbalances in lakes causing excessive algae growth and sedimentation, “blue baby syndrome” from nitrates in the ground water, and overgrowth of weedy vegetation in and near the water. A study of a sustainably landscaped house in a suburb of Chicago (Elmhurst), showed that runoff volume is reduced by 50-80 percent by using native vegetation and other water-conserving landscape treatments relative to the standard turf model.
In a nutshell, our current landscape model wastes and pollutes surface and ground water, lead to conflicts over water usage and rights, push water quality problems on to others, worsen flooding problems, causes erosion, and destroys fish and wildlife habitat through degradation of lakes and streams. This model sends the water downstream or squanders it under our feet, making it a problem for someone else. Like most other “solutions” of the economic status quo, our current rape and scrape, green rug landscape model imposes great external costs to the rest of society.
Fortunately, there is a toolbox of solutions that address all the problems that our conventional landscape model visits upon our waters. A combination of new paradigms and old ideas which were used in previous times of scarcity to make our landscapes conserve and clean the water, and even provide on-site water to serve potable uses. The idea of this new paradigm is to trap the water on site for local usage, or return it to the groundwater for collective benefit, rather than to move it off at all deliberate speed.
Local sustainable landscape solutions for water conservation and filtration run the gamut from rain water harvesting systems such as cisterns to collect roof-top runoff, rain barrels (a smaller version of the cistern), French drains to direct runoff directly into the soil to help it absorb the water on-site, bioswales and rain gardens that utilize native plants to trap and absorb runoff waters, permeable pavement and pavers, and green roofs, which use soil and vegetation to absorb rainfall. Native deep rooted vegetation or drought adapted native plants (in the West) are used in lieu of grass where possible. Biofilter basins are use pollution-tolerant native wetland vegetation to filter and absorb rainwater from contaminated surfaces such as pavement. Even cultivated vegetables and fruit trees save water relative to the demands of lawn turf as part of a permaculture solution. Greywater systems also provide beneficial re-use of indoor wash water for landscape irrigation should the above solutions not provide enough water for on-site use. The house in Elmhurst Illinois uses nearly all of these water saving techniques, and the amazing result is that, relative to the conventional landscape, only 20 percent of the water leaves the site with the sustainable improvements.
Cisterns are an excellent way to conserve water in the landscape. For example, in our area, a 10,000 gallon cistern combined with the 37-inch annual average rainfall and a 2,000 square foot roof can provide enough water to serve the TOTAL annual water needs of a family of four with moderate water conservation (use of high efficiency appliances, and moderate landscape water demand). A one inch rainfall over the same 2000 square foot roof area generates 1,247 gallons of water! Some water –poor areas, such as on islands in the Caribbean, require rainwater harvesting systems for all new development, and the state of Texas actively promotes these systems and provides a free comprehensive how-to document on the Texas Water Development Board website (warning, PDF). . At least there is one good thing coming out of Texas, in spite of the fact that that state hatched the Bush Regime. Progressive landscape firms, especially on the west coast, are integrating and installing these systems in their landscape designs. An excellent example of a cistern system and other water conserving measures is the Chicago Center For Green Technology.
The Chicago Center for Green Technology and the 168 Elm Street Elmhurst property also utilize green, vegetated roofs. First popularized in Europe, American cities such as Chicago and New York are beginning to promote them. They consist of a layer of soil and vegetation on top of a membrane. These roofs provide the benefits of vegetation, including cooling and runoff reductions of up to 75 percent relative to conventional roofs. Properly designed and installed, they can outlast conventional rooftops. A green roof in Switzerland has lasted nearly 100 years.
The Elmhurst house and the Chicago Center for Green Technology also showcase the use of native vegetation in rain gardens and bio-swales to collect and infiltrate rain water. Sustainable residential developments such as Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Illinois, and Tryon Farms, in Michigan City, Indiana integrate forest and prairie vegetation into their development, as well as bioswales, rain gardens, reduced or porous pavement, and greatly reduced or absent turf areas. At Prairie Crossing, roof and pavement runoff is routed through a series of vegetated treatments, starting with rain gardens, vegetated swales, biofilters, detention ponds, and finally to native vegetated swales exiting the property. By the time runoff water reaches the detention ponds at the last step of this “treatment train”, the water is so clean that it has allowed the community to introduce thriving populations of three endangered fish species endemic to northern Illinois that depend on clean surface waters, and are thus endangered for that reason as lakes are fouled by encroaching sprawl development. In areas where turf is desired for recreational purposes or for residential usage, strategically placed berms, or terraces, landscaped with trees, shrubs, perennials or native plants, can also slow down, trap and infiltrate turf runoff
Naturalized detention basins and native vegetated buffers along lakes and streams, the last step in the on-site water conservation and filtration system provide both beauty and water quality benefits relative to turfed waters edges. Research has indicated that native buffers at least 30 feet wide provide the greatest benefits to water quality. The complexity and deep roots of the native vegetation also provide a variety of nutrients that actually cycle into the water and benefit a diversity of aquatic life. Streams and lakes are not a closed system from the adjacent land, and nutrients and carbon cycle from land to water and vice versa. Preservation of native vegetation in and around ponds greatly improves water clarity by trapping sediments and absorbing nutrients from the adjacent land. The photos shown here show an obvious contrast between ponds bordered by native plants, and those with turf or rip-rap stone shorelines. “Neatness” of the landscape along ponds and streams does not translate to cleanliness of the water in them.
In concluding, there are a wide variety of tools to make our landscapes conserve and clean our water resources. The potential exists, if these are widely adapted, to reduce water usage in the landscape by a factor of at least 50%, and perhaps more, by adopting sustainable techniques as described above. These tools also greatly reduce the level of maintenance needed, especially that dependent on fossil fuels. There is hope to remake our landscape model to improve our waters, not degrade them.

Note: Most of the photographs of disastrous detention basins were taken near Williams Bay in our county, less than a mile from our house. The native planted detention ponds are located just south of the border, in Harvard at the defunct Motorola plant, and at the corner of Huntley and Randall Roads in Carpentersville, Illinois. It is ironic that Illinois native landscapes are ahead of the curve relative to our local area, when Wisconsin is supposed to be the leader in environmentalism!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Endorsements for April 1, 2008 Election!

We have lots of ideas about how the county can be made more sustainable, and self reliant. We wish that local citizens could implement these ideas on their own, but unfortunately, most of us do not have the financial resources and wherewithal to push these on a larger scale. The cost of land alone precludes the preservation of open space and groundwater, let alone investing in the infrastructure of sustainable transportation, development, and renewable energy without either lots of private monies or a tough, progressive regulatory environment from local and state government that pushes these policies.

Currently, we have a system by which the powers that be, public and private, profit from a status quo system that fails to acknowledge local ecological and resource limits (groundwater, physical space), as well as global issues such as peak oil and climate change. Most of the big money is on big boxes and auto-dependent sprawl type developments such as Jackson Creek in Delavan Township and the Mirbeau-Hummel development on the south side of Lake Geneva (the latter has made a few concessions to some green development principles due to citizen pressure). Therefore, unfortunately, we have to pay attention to the officials we elect and the referendums we vote for to get some change and push us away from becoming Crystal Lake and Lake in the Hills North (without commuter trains and transit buses).

That brings us to Sustainable Walworth's endorsements for the April 1 political contests. These include county board, local village, township and city offices as well as the statewide governor veto referendum, the Mirbeau-Hummel development referendum for Lake Geneva, and the Supreme Court race.

First of all, our endorsements for the statewide races:

Louis Butler for supreme court: His opponent Gableman is bankrolled by the most reactionary big money lobbying outfit in the state, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), staunch defender of powerful economic interests, increased corporate power, and the fossil fools in state and national government. Gableman has also run a dirty campaign based on innuendo, half truths and race baiting, with some of this invective paid for by WMC. Therefore we endorse Louis Butler.

Governor Partial Veto: We advocate voting NO on this referendum, keeping the power of the veto pen as it is. Reactionaries in the state Assembly want carte blanche to push through their disgusting legislation and derail commonsense items such as the Great Lakes Compact. Its funny that they wanted the partial veto when Republicans, including Tommy Thompson controlled the governor’s office and blew up the budget (anyone remember Klauser and his bloated department of administration?)

Local Referendum:

Mirbeau-Hummel – The developers of this project, upon considerable public resistance, have tried to make this project more green by clustering, open space, and some natural area restoration. However, there are too many other things wrong with this project, including lack of specificity in state of the art green building and landscaping practices, likely increases in water usage and runoff, and increased traffic and pollution impacts from what is likely to be several thousand new cars in the area. There is also not enough mixed use – where are the local food sources? Layouts that require significant auto usage. The project projects full build out in 25 years, at which time our oil resource is projected to be severely constrained as we will be past peak in oil production worldwide. Therefore we advocate voting NO on Mirbeau Hummel. Send it back to the drawing board and redesign it for the realities of peak oil.

County Board Races:

District 1 – No enthusiastic endorsement. Neither candidate seems to be addressing sustainability issues. Mr. Muzatko appears to be supporting the status quo. His opponent Rick Stacey wants to streamline zoning and regulation, which could lead to even more sprawl and inappropriate development.

District 2 – Joe Schaefer. He supports protection of natural areas and open space. His opponent Bill Norem supports expansion of large businesses and industry into the county, which could be problematic depending on which businesses come in and whether they would take the tax breaks and run. We are pro-good jobs and economic development, but only where there are environmental and conservation benefits as well (green industry).

District 3 – Ann Lohrmann – Endorsed for desire to address cheap labor economy in the county, bringing in high tech, emphasis on educational issues, and preservation of rural areas.

District 4 – No endorsement – Both candidates seem to want to support status quo – expand tourism (cheap labor and more traffic – I would be more enthusiastic if we had trains or other public transit to bring in the tourists) and liable to decline with peak oil, and “increasing the tax base” without specifics as to how. We all know that many forms of development, while creating short term increases to the tax base, create many costly long-term environmental and economic externalities.

District 5 – No endorsement. Lukewarm candidate platforms.

District 6 – No clear endorsement. Both candidates both want growth to be controlled and responsible, and appear to be open to suggestions on this topic and on keeping/making the county more sustainable.

District 7. Sonja Berg-Schlesner – Clear endorsement here. The incumbent David Weber appears to be supporting the same old status quo stuff, which is the creeping transformation of the county into the typical Chicago sprawlburb. Ms. Schlesner is clearly thinking outside of the box, which is refreshing. She is the only candidate who specifically is advocating for bringing in renewable energy development, and tackling environmental problems in particular. The economy of the future is in addressing these areas. She has a scientific background in conservation biology, which is a refreshing change in government over the same old myopic small-town boosters that typically enter local government.

District 8- Dan Kilkenny. He has expressed interest in smart growth, serving on the Smart Growth Tech Advisory Board and with water/sewer issues, being involved in the Delavan Lake Sanitary District. His opponent Jerry Waelti was a vice president of the Wisconsin Asphalt Pavement Association, standing for Auto-Petroleum industrial complex, Status quo. Kilkenny for District 8.

District 9 - No endorsement. Both candidates fall short. One (Bob Carlson) is a lawn care company owner, which is not a sustainable industry. The second (Jim Van Dreser) says we need growth in residential (demand destruction from no local jobs and peak oil) and retail development (again not future-sustainable and a cheap labor base). Nothing very exciting here.

District 10- Pauline Parker. Not a clear cut difference between the candidates; however she seems more concerned with the environmental aspect of the county and preserving agriculture, which is critical when long-distance food transport becomes uneconomic due to the effects of peak oil.

District 11 – Nancy Russell. Advocates for our water resources, which is highly critical in this lakes region. Her opponent is running for both County Board and Mayor of Lake Geneva. Lake Geneva residents should vote for her opponent, Spyro (Speedo) Condos for mayor of Lake Geneva (not County Board) over his mayoral opponent Bill Chesen, since he is opposed to Mirbeau-Hummel and rampant annexation and expansion of the city boundaries (read cancerous growth). Chesen appears to be firmly within the box of conventional wisdom, a position we cannot afford to take these days.

REMEMBER TO VOTE ON APRIL 1!

In our next post, we will tackle an analysis of Mirbeau-Hummel and why we oppose it. This analysis can be also used as a method to critique other large-scale mixed development projects.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Replying to A Commenter

Apologies for the long hiatus, but I lost my password and was also caught up in work and family affairs. One of my resolutions for the new year is to use my temporary work downturn to begin to build this community and post on a regular basis. To that end, I retrieved my password and lo and behold! an anonymous commenter posted a comment on my "manifesto" or Sustainable Walworth call to arms. Therefore, I will excerpt his comment and digest it, with respect to our community. Let the debate begin...

First of all, Anonymous wrote: "As a resident of Walworth County, I agree with some of your ideas, we need to be smart about future growth. I would like to see some alternative transportation options, like buses, however I do not want to see a whole train system in Walworth county."

Buses and jitneys (smaller van-type demand response vehicles) are useful options for local transit and feeder routes, such as to the Harvard Metra Rail Station to Chicago. They would be a useful first step in preparing Walworth County for the first stages of peak oil that we are now beginning to experience ($100.00 a barrel oil today). However, longer term, an electrified rail system using existing trackage and new trackage down the rights of way of existing roads is far more sustainable. Rail cars and locomotives have a fifty-plus year service life, unlike buses, which typically hit the boneyard by age 15.. as does the personal car. Plus, electrified rail can use wind, alternate energy more efficiently than a bus (however I am not opposed to electrified or locally produced biofuel powered bus transport), and rails take up much less land space. Also, if trains are used for freight, they can eliminate much trucking, which destroys the roads (ever drive on I-43), and reduce our dependency on oil. Face it, we need to move away from oil posthaste. I would like Anonymous to comment on what his objections to rebuilding rail here are.

I would love to see more waterfront land dedicated toward public access use for people who live in Walworth County. I am a boater who likes boating on Lake Geneva, but access is limited.

Here here. Williams Bay has a nice area to hang out by Lake Geneva that is publicly owned with good parking and by the lake. Unfortunately the train station that serviced it years ago is gone. Another problem is that most waterfront land is already developed and extremely expensive. A 2-tiered fee system for boating with lowered fees for County residents and higher for out of state/area residents may help the locals with better access and provide monies for lake management, restoration and access.

Anonymous said "Growth in inevidable (sic), Sho-deen, was just a stupid idea. Instead of retail and residential development we need more manufacturing business in Walworth County. Lets give tax subsidies to business that will provide higher paying jobs.

I am all for helping relocalize manufacturing and developing high-wage jobs. We need to concentrate on attracting companies that look to the future - sustainable building (see my links), renewable energy such as wind and solar - attracting installers and fabricators, farm equipment, and sustainable agriculture initiatives. We also need to emphasize quality and durability, which will demand higher wages and skills. Stuff that is built and used here will command more respect from customers, command a higher price and hence a higher wage. If you want high paying jobs, rebuilding the rail infrastructure is a good start. For blue collar labor, the railroad industry has some of the highest wages and benefits. As for tax subsidies, they can be dangerous, and must be structured properly to avoid give-aways to firms that "take the money and run", staying around for only a few years before closing up shop. Furthermore, to save on shipping costs and environmental impacts, we should force manufacturers and big retailers that move in to build only where there is access to rails, or to provide that access themselves. 18-wheeler long haul trucking is an environmental and fiscal dead end in the age of peak oil.

Residential developments, if approved, will need to be built around an entirely new paradigm, that emphasizes sustainability and local self reliance. Future posts will build on this theme and also provide a critique of residential developments as currently built here.


Finally, Anonymous concluded with "If your sustainable Walworth blog is just a site for tree huggers and environmental wackos who are brain washed by Al Gore, you will never get anywhere."

Previously, the writer was quit reasonable in tone. Now comes the ad-hominem and strawman attacks reflective of someone who has had a little too much of the Rush Limbaugh corporate apologist arguments for preserving the oil industry status quo and endless "growth", regardless of general benefits to society, let alone the environment. Name calling is not a way to win over converts or to endear yourself to an audience.

For an antidote to the Rush Limbaugh arguments carrying water for the oil companies and Wall Street elite, I would advise dear Anonymous to google search the "Limbaugh Lie of the Day". The commenter on that podcast takes apart these specious arguments and proves that renewable, local economies increase our well-being with a side benefit to the environment.

Now, I would assume Anonymous wants public access to the lakes for fishing and other activities. The status quo course of ever increasing resource usage, inappropriate development and "growth" will ruin our recreational resources that he is so proud of.

Face it, we all want comfort, security, a clean environment, safe and durable products, nutritious and safe foods, gainful employment, and clean water. It behooves us to work together so we all can have these things for many years to come.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Back to Basics

Back to Basics


I have resided in Walworth County for the last ten years, and like any area on the edge of an expanding megapolitan region at the tail end of the oil age, we are at a crossroads. Our county’s unique resources and amenities can be preserved through sustainable and local development (as in economize, localize and produce), or we can retain a cheap-labor, environmentally degrading, extractive economy dependent on the whims of outside forces and a declining petroleum resource, as our current path is dictating to us. I have spoken with many friends and they feel the same way I do.

This is why I have become interested in starting a Sustainable Walworth blog, with the hopes of eventually kick-starting a Sustainable Walworth movement in which we celebrate and preserve our unique character and give hope to the next generation. This aims to be a clearinghouse of ideas, independent thought and discussion as to how to sustain ourselves. Walworth County is a special place because of our beautiful lakes and countryside, environmental resources, ample agricultural base, potentially vital small towns, and potential of access to the culture of urban centers in Chicago and Milwaukee. We need to emphasize ways to preserve and enhance these special things.

Why do we need a new direction? I write this as the cost of basics (food, energy and shelter), and our dependency on the external economy to provide them, skyrockets each year, consistently outpacing the average rate of inflation. Energy is shipped in via massive power lines from off-site coal-fired and nuclear plants. Our transportation system in Walworth County is nearly completely dependent on the personal automobile and trucking paradigm, with the exception of a few decrepit, lightly used freight rail lines. Public transit is non-existent as the last passenger commuter rail service was discontinued in the early 80’s, and public bus transit exists only in the form of a few resort shuttles in Lake Geneva, despite a population that exceeds 30,000 within a ten-mile radius in the center of the county and a massive influx of tourists in the summer and on weekends. In spite of our plentiful, fertile farmland, most food is shipped in, with the exception of a few farm stands in summer. The money spent on energy and food is largely shipped out of the region or even out of the country to fill the coffers of the utility industry, the oil companies, car companies, and suppliers of oil imports, and daily drains the pockets of our citizens and leaves the local economy. A retail and service-dependent cheap labor economy forces our citizens to go elsewhere for gainful employment, racheting up our dependence on expensive energy and road-based transport.

It is time we rebuild our local economy and ecology. Our county has substantial potential to provide basic needs through its local economy for its citizens, without resorting to this over-dependence on external sources. Rich farmland has the potential to provide our citizens with excellent, locally grown foodstuffs. Many areas have the basic infrastructure in place (railroad tracks or centerlines of existing road beds), which can be upgraded to begin a shift to transportation alternatives, and many locations have the potential to produce local, clean energy through wind, solar and in a few locations, small hydropower. Re-tooling our existing developments in the right way and providing sustainability guidelines for new development will help conserve our water resources, and the quality of our lakes and streams, and promote a greater sense of community. This will provide the added benefit of helping to preserve our region as a tourist destination, which is one of the main engines of our county economy.

Unfortunately, it seems that many recent trends in our county are aping those of the sprawl suburbs of Chicago and Milwaukee, particularly Waukesha County. Developers with deep pockets are buying up vast chunks of land with the hopes of cramming in large, high profit developments – local sentiments and environmental quality be damned. Such developers are attempting to use money and influence to play off local governments against each other, or insert themselves into small entities, such as townships, that lack the resources to regulate them. Developers with deep pockets are also salivating over the remaining undeveloped lake front land, large open spaces, and natural areas, and we have no funded mechanism for land conservation like the forest preserve and conservation districts of our neighbors to the south.

As a result of this trend, lake watersheds are becoming overdeveloped and runoff from this development is compromising our crown jewels such as Geneva Lake and Delavan Lake. The county picks on easy targets such as small homeowners and contractors, while allowing deep-pocket developers to chop up virgin land such as the recent destruction of one of the last high-quality remnant wooded slopes above the Lauderdale Lakes chain. Vast sums of cash were expended to rehabilitate Delavan Lake nearly 20 years ago and now runoff from development and inappropriate land use has degraded the lake to an algae-choked state similar to its condition before restoration. Part of this is due to the pavement and impermeable surfaces that are becoming ever more frequent, with poor quality stormwater management.

The paving of the county is also evidenced by Lake Geneva traffic gridlock throughout the summer and on many weekends, no thanks to the removal of passenger rail access in the 1970s that could now be reducing the congestion and pumping more money into our local economy. This traffic gridlock is, according to the Wisconsin DNR, contributing to local air quality that trips the non-attainment levels mandated by the U.S. EPA. The standard auto-dependent big box stores have popped up, and traffic lights and jams are sprouting up like weeds. We are moving towards Crystal Lake style congestion, without the Metra trains that they are fortunate to still have, or even worse, Waukesha County, which is slated to hit 500,000 souls in the near future, nearly all of whom will be clogging the roads with their personal cars thanks to the knee-jerk resistance of local politicians to trains. Even the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, who should know better as a public, non-partisan planning agency, fails to think outside the car box, with flawed studies dismissing commuter railroad extensions to the county, and a long range plan that includes new road construction and highways. These flawed studies are based on usage demand assuming inflation-adjusted gasoline prices at $2.35 a gallon through the year 2030. As we all know, gasoline prices have exceeded this price by nearly 50 percent, and most sources studying peak oil indicate peak oil will have long since happened by 2030. Unless we can wean ourselves off the black crack, the downslope from peak oil is likely to lead to ever-increasing fuel prices above and beyond the general inflation rate.

Our petroleum dependency is also shown in our landscapes. Lake and stream front property owners are improperly applying pesticides, clearing native vegetation, planting invasive species, or overusing the turf lawn, which contributes to global warming, wasteful use of oil, and general mis-allocation of resources. All the while, as our environment degrades and it becomes harder and harder to keep up with the cost of necessities, our state, local and federal politicians dither and obsess about god, guns and gays, while neglecting the basic, everyday bread and butter issues.

I have two school age children, and not to sound trite, leave Walworth County to them as good or better a place as what I know now. We need to think outside of the box that the powers that be are putting us in, or they will inherit a worse place.

How to get us out of this mess? We have the ability to take a new and different path, unlike the sprawl suburbs of Waukesha County and our neighbors to the south. We need to learn from our past history and the best of what’s new to come up with better ways to feed us, to move us about, shelter us and in a resource-limited world, to economize, localize and produce. We need to impress on the powers that be that they need to begin paying attention and return to the basics that sustain us, and help them by acting as a clearinghouse for new and better ways. In future postings, we will look at green building, local agriculture, sustainable landscaping, sustainable development, transit-oriented development, ways to build transportation alternatives to the car, supporting local manufacturing, production, and professional expertise, and retrofitting our built spaces. We will look at things that can be done at an individual level, as well as changes to county-level policy that support long-term sustainability of our resource base.

Big projects such as Sho-Deen’s proposed Jackson Creek mega-development in Delavan Lake’s headwaters have opened our eyes to what could be if outside forces steer us, and baby steps such as cooperative meetings of local officials, and regulations such as non-phosphorus fertilizers in Delavan Lake region indicate that the time is right for a new paradigm for the county. People are hungry for alternatives, as evidenced by the last election, when the “bums” in Delavan Township that supported the unsustainable sprawl Jackson Creek development were removed from office. We invite you to join us and help brainstorm solutions, and to lend your support.