Even on a small scale, say a new housing development, roads and streets are paved, creating an impervious coating over the surface of the land. This impervious layer prevents the water, both as rain and melting snow, from infiltrating into the soil, where it can be stored and can recharge existing aquifers and wells. Instead, the water remains on the surface, where it mixes with pollutants that collect on the pavement.
(Top) Note the water collecting in the gutters along the street. (Bottom) Observe the horizontal area covered with impervious materials comprised of the house roofs and a small portion of a school’s driveway and parking area.
Because paved roads and streets are lined with curbs and gutters, the now-polluted water is channeled into a storm drain. In addition, each house has an impervious roof that collects water and channels it into gutters along the edge of the roof. Upon collecting water, the gutters channel it, more often than not, out to the street, where it joins water from the street going down the storm drain. It is then conducted either directly into a sewage-treatment plant or directly into a ditch, stream, or river.
(Top) The opening through which water collected in the gutters of a house roof is emptying into the street-side gutter. (Middle) Water from a rainstorm is being guided in a street-side gutter toward a storm drain. (Bottom) Water from a street-side gutter is flowing into a storm drain on its way to the sea via the city’s water-treatment plant prior to being emptied into a major river.
When I was young, however, each home had a deep hole in the ground filled with gravel into which the water from the roof was drained; it was called a “dry well” and allowed the water to infiltrate into the soil. Why, I wonder, are they disallowed today?
In any event, none of this water is today usable by the local people. Beyond that, the storm water either adds to the cost of running the treatment plant, where it must be detoxified, or it pollutes all the waterways through which it flows, from its point of origin into the ocean—especially when people used the storms drain as a private disposal for substances that are toxic to the environment.
(Top) In contrast to the impervious roofs, streets, and parking lots, the open space of a school’s playground is acting as a catchment for water. (Bottom) Captured rainwater is infiltrating slowly into the soil, where it will be stored as groundwater and thus available for human use—as well as the landscape as a whole through vegetation, which captures energy from the sun and passes it on to animals in the food they eat, either directly or indirectly. The animals, in turn, nourish the soil by eliminating their bodily wastes, which nourishes the plants, which captures the sun’s light, which nourishes the animals in a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
The effect of roads, streets, parking lots, and the area covered by houses, all of which eliminate the infiltration of water, is cumulative. Enough roads, streets, parking lots, and roofs over time can alter the soil-water cycle as it affects a given community. Remember, the quality and quantity of water is a biophysical variable, irrespective the fact that many product-oriented economists and product-oriented “land developers” deem water an economic constant.
All these effects are hidden for some time in both the invisible present and the ecological lag period wherein they work synergistically in shifting the landscape from the more natural end of the continuum to the more cultural end. Beyond some point, these effects of urban sprawl upset the ecological integrity, and ultimately affect the quality of life, almost inevitably in the negative over the long term.
In dealing with this issue, one must consider that people’s generalized personality traits are an amalgamation of the dominant ways in which each person navigates life. They emerge from an interpretation of life’s experiences and are the springboard of both one’s personal limitations and capabilities. These traits are not cut-and-dried, however, but rather overlapping tendencies with varying shades of gray. While in the collective they form the diversity necessary for the existence of a viable human community, they can also be substantial barriers to sharing life’s experiences and thus a common understanding of the world we live in—the world we are constantly redesigning.
For instance, some people can take ideas seemingly at random from any part of a thought system and integrate them; these people have mental processes that instantly change direction, arriving at the desired destination in a nonlinear, intuitive fashion. Others tend toward thinking in a linear sequence, like the coupled cars of a train, wherein the mental processes crawl along, exploring this sidetrack or that sidetrack, while all the time constrained to a rigid forward or backward motion—and ultimately a dead end because every track terminates somewhere. If the nonlinear-thinker is at ease with open-ended abstractions but the linear-sequential thinker requires concrete examples of what is being discussed, their attempts to communicate may be difficult.
A public meeting in which the city’s water catchment is being discussed in terms of pending urban developments.
These two approaches can be thought of as product-oriented thinking and systems-oriented thinking. Product-oriented thinkers tend to focus on perceived products—economically desirable pieces of a system—in isolation of the system itself. Thus, they are likely reticent to accepting the fact that removing either a desirable or undesirable piece of a system can or will negatively affect its productive capacity as whole. Such a restricted view usually breeds a misunderstanding of both the component and the system of which it is an inseparable part. System-oriented thinkers, on the other hand, are inclined more toward a holistic approach by focusing primarily on the processes that govern a system’s functional capacity.
To demonstrate how these two ways of thinking might play out in the public arena, let’s imagine a couple of scenarios within a city to which the council and its planning staff must respond. In the first scenario, a small group of people living in the outskirts of the city want to build a church whose membership would most likely have a maximum of fifty or sixty people over time. In the second scenario, a developer wants to build a shopping mall in a densely populated suburb well within the city limits. In both cases, an issue arises with the parking lot. First, let’s deal with the church.
When the church members presented their plan to the city council and the planning staff, it becomes apparent that cost is an issue. To alleviate some of the potential debt burden, the church members want permission to gravel their parking lot instead of having it covered with asphalt. Upon hearing this request, a member of the planning staff immediately says it is impossible to gravel a parking lot because the regulations called for the surface of all parking lots to be asphalt. On this point, the staff member is adamant.
At length, after much discussion and the continual staff rejection of the church’s proposal, the church members say they would appeal the decision. There was, however, one member of the city council who had listened quietly to the whole discussion. Only now, when the church members say they will appeal, does the councilperson speak.
To everyone’s surprise, the councilperson points out that a graveled parking lot makes good sense in the case of the church for the following reasons:
1. With a graveled lot, the infiltration of rain would help recharge the groundwater, and was acceptable in this case because the parking lot was far enough removed from the aquifer the city used for its drinking water that the lot could not possibly affect the water’s quality.
2. There would be relatively few vehicles parked on the lot at any one time, and then infrequently, so pollution from oil, etc., would be minimal.
3. There would be no need for a connection to the city’s storm-drain system because the infiltrating water would be purified by its slow travel through the soil toward the distant river.
4. The city would save money over time on the inevitable maintenance of its storm-drain system because an extension would not have to install.
5. Additional money would be saved because the water would infiltrate into the soil, rather than being collected in the storm-drain system, where it would pass through the city’s water-treatment plant, adding to the annual cost of the plant’s operation.
6. As well, the surface of the parking lot would be much less expensive to maintain if it was graveled instead of paved.
After more debate, the city council voted to extend a waiver and allow the church to gravel its parking lot.
(Top) A gravel driveway into a gravel parking lot. (Middle) Young grass growing in the gravel of the driveway. (Bottom) Note the porosity of the gravel through which rain and melting snow can infiltrate the soil and thus add to the groundwater.
Hearing about the waiver granted the church, the shopping-mall developer goes to the city council and the planning staff and requests the same waiver for his shopping mall, putting forth the argument that it would save the city money. But in this case, the vote is unanimous in opposition to the waiver, which is denied because:
1. The aquifer, wherefrom the city draws its drinking water, flows directly under the site of the prospective shopping mall.
2. The volume of vehicles would discharge so much pollution over time that the probability of its negatively affecting the aquifer is virtually certain.
3. It is in the long-term interest of the citizen to protect the quality of their water from this source of potential pollution.
4. If the aquifer becomes polluted, it would affect the entire city as an irreversible, negative circumstance.
5. The immediate cost to the developer of paving the parking lot would be negligible when compared to the inevitable, long-term, negative, social-environmental impact of such a waiver and the ultimate cost to the citizens in a reduced quality of life.
Whether a shopping mall or a sports stadium, the parking lot is large and impervious. The question is: How much of the remaining open space, agricultural lands, and forested areas can we afford to give over to impervious surfaces, such as roads, roofs, and parking lots—especially in the face of global warming as attested by melting glaciers and rising sea levels worldwide?
In these scenarios, despite the fact that the church members and the developer are both narrowly focused on self-serving economics, the planning staff has successfully decided in favor of a systems approach in their land-use decisions, suggesting that a person’s understanding can change if the matter presented in a logical, dignified manner. We can surmise, therefore, that the scope of a person’s frame of mind, which simultaneously represents the person’s own familial and cultural foundation expressed as conceptual limitations, has its unique construct, thereby determining the possibilities of the person’s understanding.
Now, let’s consider a real water grab based on the self-centered demand for continual economic growth:
LAS VEGAS— August 3—The Bureau of Land Management today released its long-anticipated final environmental impact statement for the pipeline right-of-way for the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s “groundwater development project.” The project envisions unsustainably siphoning more than 37.1 billion gallons of groundwater per year from at least four valleys in central Nevada and pumping it 300 miles to the Las Vegas Valley.
“The federal government’s own scientists are confirming this Las Vegas water project would be an epic environmental disaster,” said Rob Mrowka, a Nevada-based ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s really no exaggeration to say that the natural, cultural and social heritage of central Nevada is at grave risk from this project.”
The impact statement discloses that more than 137,000 acres of wildlife habitat will be permanently destroyed or changed because of the lowering of groundwater tables—by up to 200 feet in many areas. This will drive declines in species like mule deer, Rocky Mountain elk, sage grouse and Bonneville cutthroat trout. Most at risk will be species associated with the springs and wetlands that will dry up as the water beneath them is sucked away.
“Some of Nevada’s rarest and most unique species rely on wetlands and springs,” said Mrowka. “They’ve evolved over tens of thousands of years in response to isolation and fragmentation of habitat that occurred after ice ages. The Las Vegas water grab could undo all that and put them on a very real path toward extinction.”
Scientific research reveals that many of these species are often found in only one or two springs. As the springs are dewatered and flows are altered and eventually stopped, at least 25 species of Great Basin springsnails will be pushed to, or over, the edge of extinction. Also affected will be 14 species of desert fish such as the Moapa dace and White River springfish; frogs and toads will fare little better, with four species severely threatened by the dewatering.
Other impacts from the project disclosed in the BLM’s impact statement today include ground-level subsidence in excess of five feet on over 240 square miles and tens of thousands of tons of new dust generated from dewatered and denuded lands.
The impact statement envisions a multilayered scheme of monitoring to detect impacts, followed by mitigation measures to reduce the impacts. This approach is flawed in several ways. First, it places the Water Authority in the driver’s seat to do the monitoring and then faithfully report and address it — a scenario that defies reason and credibility. Second, it assumes that any observed impacts can be successfully addressed, while sound science suggests that the lag time between pumping and observation of the impact makes this virtually impossible.
Finally, it assumes that the Water Authority will have adequate funds available to conduct the monitoring and successfully mitigate damage. Experiences from a similar situation in the Owens Valley of California reveal that tens of millions of dollars are spent annually to mitigate just one problem: dust. “Given the $15.5 billion price tag of just constructing and financing the pipe, promises to mitigate the impacts are frankly laughable,” Mrowka said.
The public and elected officials now have at least 30 days to provide further comment and input to the BLM before a final decision is issued.
“This is a critical time for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, its Board and all elected officials to take action to put the brakes on this disastrous and unneeded project,” said Mrowka. “There’s still time for the Authority to table the project and begin the much-needed dialogue with the community on better options for meeting the Las Vegas Valley’s future water needs — high among them sensible growth management.”1
When people’s experiences and their shared understanding meld, a predominant worldview emerges—one tempered by each person’s degree of self-control. And today—more than ever—we humans need the self-discipline to protect our water resources, including local open spaces, for their biophysical capacity to capture and store water on a sustainable basis, which is becoming an increasingly urgent ecological service in the face of global warming—the effects of which, while they can be ameliorated to some extent, are irreversible.
1. Center for Biological Diversity. BLM Analysis Reveals Massive Damage From Las Vegas Water Grab. http://www.commondreams.org/newswire/2012/08/03-1 (August 3, 2012).
Text and Photos © by Chris Maser 2012. All rights reserved.