An interesting perspective on Harvey

September 1, 2017 · Posted in Bloggers and blogging, Business and industry, Delmarva items, Personal stuff, Radical Green · Comments Off on An interesting perspective on Harvey 

This is going to be another one of those “unless you’ve just crawled out from under a rock” posts, because that’s about the only way you wouldn’t be submerged in coverage of Hurricane Harvey and its aftereffects on the Houston region in Texas. If you thought Noah was just a Biblical character and the story of the Ark simply a parable, imagine what 40 straight days and nights of rain could do…less than a week’s worth dumped over 50 inches on some hapless portions of Texas.

Anyway, there’s an estimate that Houston was bathed in nearly 20 trillion gallons of water, and if I recall my formula correctly a cubic foot holds roughly 7 1/2 gallons – thus, an area of 2.6 trillion square feet would have been submerged one foot deep. In turn, that works out to an area 1,632,993 feet on each side, which equals 309 miles – 95,653 square miles, to be exact. Imagine not just Maryland and Delaware under a foot of water, but all of Pennsylvania and the majority of Virginia as well. Put another way, under that same deluge all of Maryland would be drowned beneath about 10 feet of water.

What make this relevant is an article written by Jon Cassidy in the American Spectator that I came across. When people talk about planning it piques my interest for obvious reasons: architecture is my chosen profession, but I know just enough about land planning and civil engineering to be dangerous – one area I learned a little bit about in the position I have now (albeit when I had my first bite of the apple a decade ago) was the technique required for doing stormwater management and other civil work. Coming here from Ohio I found out stormwater management is a BIG f’ing deal in Maryland, much more so than in my home state.

This is important because the blame for the extreme flooding in and around Houston is being placed on the rampant growth and large amounts of impermeable surface in that area. But, as Cassidy writes, development is many orders of magnitude shy of being the primary cause:

The idea that pavement is to blame for Houston’s flooding is, to put it simply, idiotic, even comical. The daily journalists on their deadlines haven’t had time to realize how out of their depth they are, but the (Texas) Tribune has no excuse for its shoddy reporting. The committees that awarded those prizes should be ashamed of their inability to spot the obvious hole in the narrative, which has been there all along.

The turf surrounding Houston is not, in the words of the county official the Tribune singled out for abuse, a “magic sponge.” Yes, it absorbs some water. Yes, of course, impermeable surfaces produce runoff. But no, absolutely not, no way, no how, could the clay and sandy soil around Houston have absorbed this deluge. The poor absorptive capacity of our soil is a matter of record, but that didn’t really matter. Even if our turf had the absorptive capacity of the Shamwow, Hurricane Harvey would have overwhelmed it.

study by the Harris County Flood Control District, which focused on the same Cypress Creek region that interested the Tribune, found that a residential development with 50 percent impervious cover would indeed absorb less water, creating more runoff. To be precise, the development would absorb exactly 1.79 inches less rainfall than an undeveloped property. But we got hit with up to 51.88 inches of rain during Hurricane Harvey. That’s more than rainy Seattle got all last year.

So even if the Tribune had had its anti-development agenda fully realized, it would have made no difference. The soil would have absorbed the first couple inches of rainfall, and the next 50 inches still would have had to go somewhere. Back in 1935, when the area was almost entirely covered by natural wetlands, it still got flooded.

Cassidy has an unlikely ally in Charles Marohn, the creator of a website called Strong Towns. (It’s often cited by the mayor of Salisbury, who seems to be an advocate of so-called “smart growth.”)

Harvey is not normal times. We can’t look at this event the way we look at other flooding events. The devastation in Houston from Hurricane Harvey is not the result of the accumulation of many bad decisions. It was simply a huge storm.

The Texas A&M research I highlighted above suggests reckless wetland filling robbed Houston of 4 billion gallons of stormwater storage capacity. For context, the Washington Post is reporting now that Harvey dumped 19 trillion gallons on Texas—a large portion of that hitting the Houston area. That means that, had those wetlands never been filled, they could have accommodated at most .02-.1% of the water that fell in Harvey.

Exactly. Soil has a carrying capacity of drainage, and some soils drain better than others. If you’ve spent any amount of time in Florida, you’ll know it rains nearly every day but the soil drains quickly because it’s quite sandy. Places with a lot of clay, though, aren’t as fortunate. To manage stormwater, the common technique involves collecting the overflow from impermeable areas and placing it in retention ponds where it can be released for drainage in a controlled fashion. It’s why you often see bodies of water along roads, highways, and inside developments – they’re not necessarily there for looks, but as catchbasins.

Of course, not every area has managed stormwater and in times of extreme weather they flood. During Superstorm Sandy in 2012, a large part of downtown Salisbury flooded, causing damage to several buildings. Other parts of town are often under water after a heavy rainfall of 4″ or more, with one significant headache being the closing of Business Route 13 at its intersection with Priscilla Street, adjacent to a large pond.

But even the best techniques would fail under a deluge like Harvey, and that’s the point. We design for 10- and 100-year flood events, but it’s prohibitively expensive and, frankly, unnecessary to worry about 500- or 1000-year events like Harvey may have been. Those cases are truly acts of God and the best we can do for those is pray for minimal loss of life. We can rebuild a building, but we can’t get the 30-odd victims of Harvey back.

Back to routine: Here at this residence, we’re getting set for one last school year. With the distractions of summer over, it will finally be time for me to get serious about writing once again. While it’s looking more like a wrap by the middle of 2018 rather than the spring, I’m still thinking I have a good start on The Rise and Fall of the TEA Party, and with recent developments there may be an entirely new hook to expound upon as I increase the word count.

So I haven’t forgotten. However, I also want to get a little bit into the 2018 campaign and perhaps get back to doing this blogging more often than a couple times a month. We will see.

But the year of my discontent seems to be closing – not that I miss being politically active, but going forward I’m not going to studiously avoid it, either. (I will miss the WCRC Crab Feast, though, but only because my grandson’s first birthday is being celebrated that day. Family first.) If nothing works its way onto my calendar for that Saturday I might make the Lincoln Day Dinner in October.

So that’s a brief update. All those impatient because I do other stuff besides politics may get their wish as baseball season winds down.

A tone-deaf city government

November 25, 2014 · Posted in All politics is local, Business and industry, Campaign 2015 - Salisbury, Delmarva items, Maryland Politics, Politics · Comments Off on A tone-deaf city government 

It took several months longer than anticipated – and we don’t yet know exactly what the toll will be – but last night 80 percent of Salisbury City Council gave 100 percent of local property owners another tax to pay by approving a stormwater utility on a 4-0 vote, with newly-appointed Jack Heath being absent.

Council President Jake Day “doesn’t expect” the fee to be more than $20 a year for homeowners, and expects to raise $1.25 million annually from the “rain tax” – and yes, I think the moniker is appropriate given the business fee will be determined by the amount of runoff they produce. According to the latest Census data, though, there are 13,401 housing units in Salisbury so my public school math tells me that businesses are going to pay almost 80% of the total, to the tune of almost $1 million annually.

Interestingly enough, I was quoted in the Daily Times story from last Thursday from a post I wrote in February when the idea came up, and I think the point is still valid: we don’t know what impact there will be from this tax hike on the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay. It seems to me that the timing isn’t very good on this one, particularly as the state and county are working to make these entities more business-friendly and new taxes tend to work in the opposite direction.

I was curious about something, so I took a look at the city’s latest budget that was adopted in May. In it, Mayor Jim Ireton points out that “(t)his budget shows levels of monetary surplus at incredibly healthy levels for both the City’s General Fund and the City’s Water and Sewer Utility.” But it also is using some of the proceeds from the wastewater treatment plant settlement on sewer infrastructure, so why do they need this new tax now? Granted, it’s also stated in the budget that ratepayers get a 2.5% break on water and sewer rates this year, but the extra $20 fee will likely eat that savings up and then some.

The budget also makes the case that the $100 a month, give or take, that a residential property owner pays in property taxes provides a cornucopia of services, a palette which includes stormwater management. So we’re already paying for the service with our property taxes, but instead of adding the penny or two that would cover the additional services the city wants to create a new special fund. Currently the Water and Sewer Fund comprises roughly 1/3 of a city budget which runs about $50 million, with property taxes chipping in about $22 million toward the General Fund. With the city of Salisbury increasing the tax rate regularly, it’s doubtful we’ll see a corresponding decrease in property taxes to offset the new fee.

And while I’m not an expert on the city charter by any means, my question is why can’t the purview of the Water and Sewer Utility (which has a large surplus) be simply expanded to stormwater? Generally infrastructure improvements to the stormwater system involve changes to the remaining utilities as well, so the same work may well come out of two (or three) different funds given the city’s idea. It may be more efficient and less taxing on the city’s residents to amend the charter to add stormwater to the existing water and sewer utility.

So let’s review: the fee would cover something which is already supposed to be paid for, in an amount we haven’t quite determined yet, to achieve projects for which we don’t know the scope but are supposed to address a problem Salisbury contributes little to and is only compelled to deal with because the state refuses to stick up for itself and tell the EPA and Chesapeake Bay Foundation to go pound sand. What could go wrong?

Just remember all this come Election Day next year.

Update 11/26: I actually stumbled upon this as I was researching some items for my next post today, but it’s worth pointing out that Salisbury has justified its adoption of a stormwater utility by saying the town of Berlin has one in place.

The same group, called the Environmental Finance Center – which is part of the University of Maryland but serves as a regional hub for an existing EPA program – did studies to justify the need for Berlin (2012) and Salisbury (2013). The results were pretty much the same, although the suggested fee was higher in Berlin than it was in Salisbury, where they recommended a $40 annual fee for homeowners. Notably, the Salisbury report also recommends fee increases after a period of years – see the chart on page 15. So the problem won’t ever be solved and the program will run an annual surplus that likely won’t be rebated to taxpayers. Moreover, unlike a property tax from which religious-based entities have traditionally been exempt, they have to pay the fee as well.

Also, the fingerprints of the notoriously Radical Green folks of the Town Creek Foundation are on these reports. It’s a group which believes:

We think that true sustainability and resilience – in an increasingly unstable, crisis-prone world – will depend on fundamental transformations of the systems (including the value systems) by which everyday life is organized. These include the systems by which we make and consume energy, food, and materials, and the systems by which we make and enforce social decisions.

We’ve already seen the results of a national “fundamental transformation” over the last six years, and many millions would like to transform back to where we were. But a tone-deaf government just wants to take more out of our pockets rather than prioritize existing resources.

Twenty bucks is twenty bucks

The “rain tax” is probably coming to Salisbury.

Eager to jump on that bandwagon, the Daily Times reports that Salisbury City Council unanimously agreed to move a bill to create a stormwater utility forward for final approval at a future meeting, a date to be determined but likely in the next 60 days. All five of the Salisbury City Council members are Democrats, as is Mayor Jim Ireton, who backs the proposal. Jeremy Cox’s story quotes City Council president Jake Day as saying “There’s no good argument for not having this in place, to have a funding system to pay for things.”

Bull.

There’s a great and very simple argument: we have no idea if what we would be doing will have any significant impact on Chesapeake Bay. As vague as the Phase II Watershed Implemetation Plan for Wicomico County is in terms of how many assumptions it makes, there are two things it doesn’t tell me: the overall impact of Wicomico County presently on the health of the Bay, and the economic impacts following the plan will have on business and our local economy. Does the $20 I would spend each year make a dent, or is it just another way for government to reach into my pocket for dubious benefit? Less than national average fee or not, it takes away from my less-than-national-average salary.

The argument by Brad Gillis also rings true. Because the state requires most new development to adhere to overly strict stormwater guidelines, those who have will still be paying the rate on top of the expense others didn’t put out. Stormwater retention isn’t cheap.

And, of course, there’s the very real possibility that the $20 of 2015 will be $35 after 2017 or $100 sometime after that. Once enacted, I’ve rarely met a fee or a tax that’s decreased and because the goal is so open-ended this just seems like another excuse to reach into our pockets in perpetuity.

This is a state where I pay bridge tolls to subsidize a superhighway I’ll probably never drive, pay a gasoline tax out here in the hinterland to prop up a boondoggle of a public transit system in the urban core (complete with pie-in-the-sky light rail lines many of those along the route don’t want), and get to watch a governor for whom I didn’t vote – twice – play whack-a-mole with expenses that pop up by “borrowing” from dedicated state funds and floating bonds to make up the difference. Why should I trust the city of Salisbury to be prudent with my money when the regulatory goalposts are sure to shift? Ask David Craig about the state and what happens when they change their mind.

Several years ago I proposed a moratorium on new Chesapeake Bay regulations so we could figure out whether all that we had put in place would work. Of course, for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Town Creek Foundation, and other denizens of Radical Green there’s too much money for their coffers at stake to ever agree to such an idea – and it’s such fun to figure out new offensives along our flanks in the War on Rural Maryland.

Needless to say, my reasoning probably won’t change any minds on Salisbury City Council, or that of the mayor. I know Jim Ireton, Jake Day and Laura Mitchell to a greater or lesser extent, and they’re decent enough people, but they seem to have this idea in their head that government central planning is the solution and for every need there has to be a new fee to pay for it. When the “need” is a mandate from on high, that’s where I object. Twenty bucks is twenty bucks for the tapped-out homeowner, but those who are job creators will likely pay a whole lot more and it’s just another incentive to locate elsewhere, in my estimation.

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  • 2018 Election

    Election Day is November 6 for all of us. With the Maryland primary by us and a shorter widget, I’ll add the Delaware statewide federal offices (Congress and U.S. Senate) to the mix once their July 10 filing deadline is passed. Their primary is September 6.

    Maryland

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    State Senate – District 38

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    Delaware

     

    U.S. Senate

     

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