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Blight busting in Detroit – best of times/worst of times

29 May 2014

imageThis week, the City of Detroit rolled out its blight plan.  Of course, the national press highlighted the traditional “bad news about Detroit” story that we’ve heard for 40 years, replete with the traditional photo of the Ren Cen with a burned out house in the foreground.

The reports cite the negative big scary numbers: $850 Million to demolish most of the blight in the next five years; the City has access to about 1/2 of that; 84,641 blighted or nearly blighted structures and vacant lots, 1/2 of which should be demolished and cleaned up immediately; 93% of the properties held by governments need to be knocked down or cleaned up.

Well, that sure sounded bad but up at the Mackinac policy conference, Mayor Duggan told the most uplifting (in my opinion) Detroit blight story that I have ever heard. He talked about his goal to increase the City’s population by the end of his term – 3 years away.

Mayor Duggan talked about relighting the City’s streetlights, he talked about improved emergency response and about other issues.  But the best part of his talk was about blight. He discussed his new neighborhood approach – focusing on one neighborhood at a time; not waiting 3 years to take the properties back for taxes and, most importantly, telling owners of blighted homes to either agree to fix the homes in 6 months or lose them. Amazingly (to everyone including Mayor Duggan), many of the owners have stepped up and begun making repairs. The City has an auction site, which has gotten some national notice and, literally, thousands of people have shown up for open houses and the City has sold homes, sometimes for more than suburban homes. The Mayor discussed one neighborhood with 49 homes slated for demolition – after using his new approach, that list was cut to nine.

Certainly there are areas of the City that will need to be swept clean (and hopefully primed for redevelopment), and there are areas that won’t be addressed for a while, but the Mayor’s neighborhood program was a very uplifting breath of fresh air.

Climate change and infrastructure

27 May 2014

bumperstickerAfter that 100 year winter we just came out of, and the potholes it left behind, everyone seems to be talking about infrastructure.  Even the Michigan Legislature and Chamber of Commerce are supporting tax increases to support road and bridge repairs.  While potholes are annoying, sinkholes and bridge failures can be some pretty serious stuff, as has been recently reported.   President Obama has also spoken recently about infrastructure investment as he asks Congress to appropriate additional highway funds.

There has also been a slew of recent news about climate change including a national assessment report and reports of major antarctic melting.  Given all this news, our investments in infrastructure should take climate change into account. We all know about freeze-thaw and the havoc it can wreak on our roads and bridges. With weather becoming less predictable and more extreme, as we rebuild our infrastructure, we certainly need to think about doing it right the first time including:

  • Designing tougher, more resilient, lower maintenance roadways, bridges, facilities and roadsides;
  • Incorporating materials which will perform more consistently in weather extremes;
  • Better controls of runoff including pavement redesign and strengthening drain, river and stream banks and ditches to prevent erosion;
  • Stronger and lower maintenance bridge design;
  • Changes in roadside vegetation to ensure survival and water uptake during floods as well as drought and erosion resiliency;
  • Larger capacity pumps/pump stations to prevent freeway flooding; and
  • Better sewer and water lines to prevent failures as we experience more freeze-thaw, deeper frosts and drought conditions.

While the east and west coasts are expected to take the biggest climate-based hit (think Katrina, Sandy and California droughts and wildfires) drought, higher temperatures and stronger storm events threaten roads and we have already seen Great Lakes levels impact shipping and commerce.  A recent government report discussed the likely impacts on energy infrastructure including:

  • increased demands for electricity;
  • greater stress on the grid as we experience stronger storms; and
  • power plants’ vulnerability to water shortages.

From roads to utility lines, water lines and sewers, we are on the cusp of a brave new world.  I, for one, think that if we are about to invest billions in putting Michigan back together after many decades of neglect, we ought to do it with our eyes on the future and do it right the first time.  If that costs more, it will be worth it in failures and crises avoided down the road and will provide a base from which Michigan’s economy can grow.

Climate change adaptation; don’t put all your bananas in one basket

28 Apr 2014

Perhaps a thing of the past?

Perhaps a thing of the past?

Climate change seems to be in the press pretty much all the time these days.  There are stories about the UN reports on climate change (see also here); the President has a two-pronged plan (attack causes of climate change and harden systems against climate events) and, recently, the President requested $1 Billion in the 2015 Budget to support developing climate-resilient infrastructure.

A couple of years ago, a report prepared for the United Nations suggested that as the climate changed, three of the world’s biggest staple crops — corn, rice and wheat — would decrease in many developing countries, and the potato, which grows best in cooler climates, could also be affected by warmer temperatures and changing weather patterns.  The report suggested that bananas could replace potatoes in a warming world as a critical food source.

Unfortunately, now there are reports that the Cavendish banana that most of us buy at the grocery store is under threat of a seemingly unstoppable fungus.   You might say that this is alarmist non-sense and an entire fruit couldn’t be wiped out.  However, you’d be wrong – it happened with an earlier variety of banana called the Gros Michel which virtually no American under the age of 50 has ever eaten.  These bananas were reportedly in every way superior to the ones we eat today but were largely wiped out by a fungus similar to the one that is now ravaging the Cavendish variety.  This is an example of the risk of  cultivating only one type of fruit or vegetable – the same sort of mass production technique that led to the potato blight and famine in Ireland.

Of course, the best method to adapt and become resilient to climate change (although not the most economical) is to diversify – something we Americans have become less inclined to do when it comes to our desire for predictable and consistent groceries.  Will the fruit companies win the fight against the fungus? Will we replace the Cavendish with a new single type of banana (there are still hundreds of varieties mostly unknown to the United States)?  Will we find something else to grow instead of corn, wheat, rice and potatoes? Perhaps the much touted but less well known superfoods of quinoa, freekeh, or teff?  Time will tell, but one thing seems certain, greater diversity leads to greater resilience.  This is something that no environmental law or regulation is likely to fully address.

Change is hard – with great technology comes great upheaval

23 Apr 2014

carcharger

For the last 60 – 70 years, we have lived in an era of significant stability.  That seems to be over.  We’ve all seen how the internet has changed certain businesses (music, newspapers and bookstores).  Technology can be a huge boon but it can be quite disruptive.

The transition from gasoline to electric or hybrid vehicles has been somewhat bumpy as governing bodies struggle with whether dealerships are required and how to pay for roads when less (or no) gasoline will be used.  This is a growing issue as more electric and hybrid vehicles take to the road and as the condition of our Michigan roads continues to cry out for repairs.

As I’ve blogged about before, recent rhetoric suggests that Oakland and Macomb Counties may declare their independence from the DWSD.  With both counties now spending money to evaluate their options, what happens next is less clear. Given that DWSD has apparently not set its rates high enough to cover all the infrastructure improvements needed over the next 5 – 10 years, it is possible (although perhaps unlikely) that a Macomb-Oakland system might actually cost less to develop, construct and operate than the DWSD system.  Such a separation could lead the DWSD to owning over-sized water and waste treatment systems relative to their customer base and the oldest waste and water lines which are likely most in need of repair.  Given DWSD’s well publicized collection issues, this has to be making the investment community nervous as reflected in two investment firms’ recent subpoenas.  This much turmoil would seem to make the DWSD’s recent RFP less appealing than usual.

as with prior technical revolutions, change tends to be messy and the larger the change, the greater the mess

Finally (for the moment), we have seen many advances in the development of solar energy – some of which we’ve discussed on this blog – while those are exciting, they, like changes to gas driven cars and changes to 100+ years of centralized water and sewer systems, challenge the status quo.  For over 75 years, utilities have generated and supplied the electricity and natural gas that we consume in our homes and businesses from centralized points. As part of the deal, those same utilities have maintained the infrastructure needed to both generate and transmit gas and electricity.  So, what happens when people can start generating electricity on their own roofs?  Some hail it as a triple win (saving money, the environment and societal benefits) but most solar generators stay “on the grid” and as a result sometimes are contributing electricity to the grid and other times are drawing on the grid.  Under most systems, including Michigan’s, smaller generators can sell their electricity back to the grid at the utility’s retail price – so called “net metering.”

The ability to sell excess power back at the retail -not wholesale- price, raises the question of who pays for the infrastructure necessary to provide the electricity to those on the grid.  Utilities argue that those installing solar are not paying their “fair share” of such costs.  There are those who say that the price of electric service includes roughly 50% for non-generation expenses.  Some experts argue that there is no such “cost-shifting” occurring because there are savings on power plants, transmissions lines, lost energy as well as the ability to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals without utilities having to make the capital investment.  This is a tough debate and is not something easily reduced to 60 second soundbites and at present is being decided on a state by state basis.

Ultimately, the challenge of existing infrastructure combined with legacy costs makes the transition in technology and improving efficiency much harder and far more political than a “free market” would prefer.  But, as with prior technical revolutions, change tends to be messy and the larger the change, the greater the mess.

Earth Day at 44…. still crying?

22 Apr 2014

Earth Day brings me right back here

Earth Day brings me right back here

Happy Earth Day 44.  We have come a long way from the challenges and problems that led to the first Earth Day -  a 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California; the dead zone in Lake Eriesmog in Los Angeles and burning rivers in the Midwest.

The first Earth Day led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of environmental laws like the Clean AirClean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.  As the EPA and its state counterparts have continued to regulate, there has been a backlash of business and media outcry which certainly impacts the public’s views.

The challenges we face today are more complex and likely more daunting than those of 44 years ago.  We still have oil spills, but they are from rail cars, pipelines, larger ships and deeper wells.  Lake Erie and many other bodies of water are still challenged by more diffuse and “below the radar” sources of contamination.  While reducing the impacts of asbestos, lead and NOx from our daily lives, and healing the ozone hole, we now face questions regarding greenhouse gasses, smog impacts from and in China unlike anything LA ever faced, and the challenges and benefits posed by fracking.

Once the “low hanging fruit” of easy cleanups were “picked,” what we were left with was less shocking or engaging than dead fish and burning rivers.  Consequently, there’s much more debate about the best way to address them or whether they need to be addressed at all.  The issues are just as important – maybe more so, but it’s unlikely that our polarized nation would agree on what changes would be best, if any.

Of polar vortices and Great Lakes

30 Jan 2014

Photo courtesy of Space Science And Engineering Center- University of Wisconsin - Madison

Provided courtesy of Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC), University of Wisconsin-Madison

A recent report tells us that evaporation isn’t well understood and that we may see more of it in the fall and early winter than in the summer.  According to the report, the relative humidity plays a bigger role than the temperature and as we know, it’s awfully dry in the winter. One quote from that report is staggering – “a 1-day loss of 0.5 inches of water from the total surface area of the Great Lakes represents a volumetric flow rate of 820 billion gallons per day – nearly 20 times the flow rate of Niagara Falls.”

The repeated polar vortices we have been experiencing have provided greater ice cover and, thus, there should be a later start to the evaporation season this year.  The Great Lakes are reportedly 62% covered in ice, which already ranks this winter as 17th most coverage in the last 40 years. 1979 had the highest ice cover at 94.7 percent.

Weatherwise, this high ice cover may mean less lake effect snow, colder days, less runoff when the snow melt comes (although it’s been a very snowy January) but again, less evaporation.

It’s certainly better (waterwise) to be here than, say, California, where Governor Brown declared a drought emergency which likely will have significant impacts on farming and the foods eaten across the United States.  This could be good for Michigan farmers.  2014 is already shaping up to be an interesting year for water and the Great Lakes.

Water, water everywhere.

29 Jan 2014

Picture006Did you ever think about where your water comes from and what may be in it?  I have a good friend who never thought about the fact that there was a finite amount of water and that certainly some of what came out of his tap had, at some point, likely passed through someone else’s bladder. What that means is that treatment of wastewater has an impact on drinking water quality and the public health.

We’ve recently learned that the DWSD and the local counties have been trying to work out a deal to “regionalize” the Detroit Water System – thus far – to no avail.  Also, just this week, rumors have surfaced that the DWSD may be cutting 40% of its staff – a reorganizing of the system which, if successful, could lead to lower operating costs, lower borrowing costs and may make a multi-county regional deal more likely. If not, the system could be back in trouble.  There have also been rumors of a possible sale of the system or that the Detroit Emergency Manager might strike some sort of deal without Oakland and Macomb counties – which hold many of DWSD’s customers.

This is a big deal because the DWSD supplies drinking water to 126 communities in southeast Michigan, other than Detroit, serving roughly 40% of the state’s population.  The system is one of the Country’s oldest, dating back to the 1830′s and the infrastructure issues involved are huge, given that the system has five water treatment plants treating water from two intakes in the Detroit River and a third in Lake Huron. As we reported earlier, because the DWSD was able to achieve compliance on the other *ahem* end, it was finally let out of what was then one of the oldest ongoing lawsuits in existence.

However, wastewater treatment plants (which discharge treated sewage) don’t always clean everything out of the water and that failures to catch chemicals like pharmaceuticals, can have impacts downstream.  Sometimes, the chemicals get caught by accident without the operators even knowing it! A draft MDEQ report also tells us that there are problems in Michigan’s rivers (some of which may have been there all along and better testing is just now bringing it to light) with higher levels of pathogens of the sort our sewers and septic systems are supposed to eliminate.  While the City’s drinking water meets federal and State standards, those standards don’t test for everything that winds up in the water.  We’ve come along way from the 1969 fires on the Cuyahoga and Rouge Rivers, but we’ve still got a long long way to go.

As far as drinking water, one hopes that the treatment deals with every possible chemical and pathogen but we know that it does not. With a need for infrastructure upgrading and impending staffing cuts, the time seems right to strike a regional deal that benefits everyone in both the short and long terms. Let’s hope the region can pull this off. Sound water and wastewater systems are important for both our health and our economy.