Jan 19 2011

Water Resources 101

Today I attended a seminar sponsored by USGBC northern chapter about water resources. For me, who isn’t entirely knowledgeable about water resources, and more importantly, water law, I found it very informative for the lay person. Water law in Colorado is very complex, and to the lay person, it doesn’t seem to follow logical sense. For example, their are senior water rights, junior water rights, and the fact that you can’t collect rainwater and store it to water your garden, because that water is technically owned by someone else. Colorado Water Law is unique in this nation. Basically, Colorado Water Law is based on the concept of first in time, first in line. This goes all the way back to the gold rush days in Colorado. There are established water rights going back to the 1860’s.

Where it gets really interesting is ditch water versus well water, municipal water versus agriculture water. Until the 1960’s (and my dates could be a little fuzzy), those farmers that drilled wells could irrigate no matter what, even if the neighboring farm with ditch did not have enough water to irrigate. It is was finally decided that wells could impact downstream water flows, and so well water became subject to the same first in time, first in line law.  All was pretty much well and good until 2002 when the most severe drought this state has seen hit. That is when the state had 3,000 wells or so shut down to preserve the senior water rights. It is also the year when Aurora came within 7 days of running out of water.

While the drought ended, it did get everyone to start talking about a long term game plan to satisfy all users. Of course, so far it has been mostly fighting, lawsuits, engineers, etc. that is fighting the fight without any real meaningful discussion. Then there is the whole issue of municipalities buying up farms for the water rights and then drying up the farms to convert that water to municipal use. When that happens, then the farm land can no longer be irrigated, except for possibly with treated water. This has the obvious problem of taking prime farm land out of production, and therefor less food production. The other problem is most municipalities are building up the water supplies for drought conditions. One idea being floated around is to have municipalities create agreements with farmers for them to simply lease water from the farmers during drought years. This does not take the farms out of production (except in the worst of years) and the farmer still has income in those years. Seems like a win win to me.

Then there is the flip side of the whole debate, about getting municipal water users (meaning you and me) to get serious about conserving water in the first place. Most of the water that is used, is for landscaping, mostly turf grass. We need to get away from the idea that everything needs to be covered with turf grass. We need to use more dryland grasses, or other techniques to reduce water thirsty grasses, and only use them where they are used, such as in backyards.

What do you think? What are your ideas for dealing with the water issues?

Dec 16 2010

LEED for Neighborhood Development

LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED ND for short) is another in a series of rating systems published by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) that encourages green building and development. LEED ND is for new developments, primarily residential communities that when employed, requires such communities to incorporate sustainable and green building strategies for the entire community. This program is entirely voluntary, and it promotes many good ideas such as storm water management, reduction of impervious surfaces, preservation of existing trees and natural areas, solar orientation, walkability, multi-modal transporation, higher density and mixed uses. All this is good.

As with all of the USGBC rating systems, certain prerequisites have to be met, and this is where I start to have issues with LEED-ND in specific. The one prerequisite that I have the biggest issue with is the requirement that the minimum density be 7 units per acre. The theory behind this is that 7 units per acre is really the threshold where a mass transit system becomes feasible. That is all well and good. However, what this does, is it relegates this rating system to larger cities that not only have a mass transit system, but more importantly, where the market will support this kind of density. 7 units per acre is typically the lower end for townhome communities, and is extremely dense for single family detached homes. Don’t get me wrong, I support higher density, but also realize it isn’t for everyone.

But what really gets me, is there are thousands of smaller towns and communities across the country that the market simply can’t support this kind of density for anything more than a building or two. LEED ND therefor totally ignores these communities. I think this is wrong, we should encourage all communities to incorporate sustainable practices and green developments, not just large cities. Of course, this doesn’t prevent sustainable projects from being developed in any town or city, but it does prevent the national recognition that projects in big cities can achieve.

May 31 2010

Glenwood Canyon

I have been driving through Glenwood Canyon my entire life, first as a passenger in my younger years, and in later years as a driver. On rare occasions, I even ride my bike in the canyon. In my younger days I used to be terrified of driving through the canyon. In those days it was a two twisty road. What really got me though was how close it was to the river, and more importantly the lake caused by the dam for the powerplant. In my young eyes, I often worried about driving off the road into the river.

These days, Glenwood Canyon is one of my favorite places with it’s sweeping highway, numerous rest areas, the bike trail, and of course, the breath taking scenery. This year we visited the canyon during Memorial Day Weekend. They canyon is gorgeous right now with most everything in bloom.

The construction of I-70 through the canyon caused years of lawsuits by environmentalists, years in design, and the better part of the 80’s in construction. The result however, in my eyes, is one of the most beautiful stretches of highway I have ever been on. Not only is the highway an engineering feet, it is also a work of art. The highway hugs the canyon walls, swooping through the canyon with tunnels, several bridges, and viaducts. A lot of care was taken to preserve as much of the vegetation as possible. You will see the highway going over full grown trees, skirting rock formations, and for me, getting the highway above the river!

Also incorporated into the canyon are four rest areas (quite amazing considering this stretch of highway is only 10 miles long), a bike path that runs the full length of the canyon, and launch areas for rafters and kayakers. If you are in the area, be sure to check it out.

May 22 2010

Urban Decay, Grand Junction

Recently on a trip to Grand Junction, Colorado, I stumbled upon this rundown condo complex. Being a native of Grand Junction, I watched this complex get built, and so was totally floored with how much it had gone into disrepair.  This complex was built around 1983 about the time of the big bust in Grand Junction. While certainly not high quality construction in the first place, they were still rather nice condos for the time. My guess is these were used as rentals over the last couple of decades, and not maintained at all. I knew that the landscape had died some time ago, but I was still amazed to see how fast something that can fall apart due to lack of maintenance. These buildings will need to be gutted and almost rebuilt if they are to come back. Of course, then there is also the issue of the ridiculously small windows that were common in that time period. I will have to check back from time to time to see if anything happens with these.

May 17 2010

Right Sizing Detroit

Detroit has ambitious plans to demolish up to 10,000 vacant and derelict structures this year, most of them likely to be homes. This represents about 1/10 of the estimated 90,000 such structures in Detroit. One of the more notable homes to be torn down is the historic home that used to be the boyhood home of Mitt Romney. Ironically, it is located in a posh neighborhood. From pictures I have seen, it looks like it was undergoing a serious remodeling that was simply abandoned some time ago. This has a few people up in arms simply because of its historic nature. Of course, Detroit has far bigger problems than this one house, but it does have some magnificent homes, both in good condition, and those abandoned.

Detroit is one of those cities that is getting serious about trying to match the physical size of the city with that actual population. Long term plans for the abandoned areas arn’t known yet. Detroits mayor has been quoted as saying as large portions of the city will need to be rebuilt from the ground up when the time comes. I believe it, if streets aren’t used, much less maintained, they fall apart pretty fast. Then there is the water, sewer, and other utilities that decay rapidly, particularly in a humid and wet location such as Detroit. Some areas will be used for urban farms, but I suspect mother nature and forests will take over other areas.

With the current economic crisis compounding the problem, approximately 30% of Detroit’s housing stock is sitting vacant. That is a staggering number. Before the economic upheaval, there was already significant rebuilding and redevelopment going on, working from the downtown area outwards. That has now stalled, but that concept is hardly unique to Detroit.

I find urban decay as fascinating as development and construction. Maybe even more so, watching how fast the built environment can disintegrate when abandoned. What do you all think?