Monday, January 31, 2011

A-1

I typed in his name. Seven letters. Class? 2014. I pressed enter. Stared at the screen. I looked at him; reached for the yellow piece of paper.

“A-1.” I handed it to him, “you are immediately eligible for the draft. Next!”

There was a momentary hesitation. A bewildered look crossed his face, an audible exhale, and a sag in his shoulders. “What is this?” He half asked, half accused.

“If you have questions, please move to station 2 where you will receive a pink slip. Be sure to read it in its entirety. Thank you, next.” The two flags behind me wilted without any wind. The American flag and the Skidmore flag—signs of security in my life. Now I was handing young men draft cards. It scared me. I hadn't personally checked on my name. I had not been on the other side of the table. I had no curiosity to type in my name.

The procession continued. As people entered the dining hall a bouncer separated the men from the women and told the men to get their draft cards. I couldn't believe this was happening. I had put up a wall as I entered names and class years. My face was sympathetic and my response was angry. I was angry at myself. I gave cold responses that sounded like indifference, but masked an extreme distaste toward myself. I couldn't believe I had been roped in to help with this mess.

I had been working in the office, when he came in to inform me that he needed more volunteers. In accordance with Obama's recruiter open access policy, Selective Services would be on campus giving a census and designating students. It would be an attempt by the government to maintain an up to date database in the event of a draft. I had volunteered before I knew that.

As I sat at the desk, I began to mechanically process boys at a steady pace. A-1. Death. Go fight—your life is the government's. My face was locked in a permanent scowl. I could not give away how I really felt as I gave these slips to these barely men.

I stared at the screen. A nonsensical excel spreadsheet of hastily typed names and class years. I was relieved to step out of my role for a moment and reflect that those slips were fiction. The pink slip at station two explained that this was a provocative demonstration to get the student body thinking about the weight of being a nation at war. It is true, we are at war. I do not feel the impacts everyday. Even though I was in on it, I still felt strongly. The simulation achieved its objectives, and I continue to ponder the implications of what war means to this country.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

UDHR Failure

The international human rights regime. Is it real? I believe not.

The most striking aspect of reading the UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights) is the obvious lack of adherence to it by any nation in the world. This failure is an obvious flaw in any logical extension of the philosophy. To say that there exists something in name only is to say that it does not exist at all.

To elaborate, it is best to dissect the meaning of regime first. Regime can be defined generally as a set of guiding principles or policies that govern a body; an established pattern. Other definitions include regulation or enforcement. Even excluding the regulation and enforcement aspects it is clear that there is no “regime.” Under this very broad and liberal definition of regime, it would be expected that the UDHR would be followed by the signatory nations. Even if not followed in a broad sense, violating nations should constantly strive to define or institutionalize the UDHR. Instead, there is no public debate. In the United States, there is not a large public debate on better forming our legal system to adhere to the UDHR. The US is largely concerned with domestic law and how it conforms to the Constitution. This kind of narrow thinking keeps the UDHR, an international declaration, from gaining traction. It is not part of the domestic debate. Therefore, even if the voluntary gatherings of international elites agree on the UDHR, it does not penetrate to the masses; there is no outrage or political pressure to maintain a standard.

How does the UDHR exist in name only? The UDHR names many rights that are basic and hard to argue with. In fact, for a government to govern a people, they have to give some rights to function. Rights, as a concept, do not drastically alter any day to day function of government, now or ever in the past.

Even small isolated tribes agree to certain rules in their society, guarantees of fairness and security that are essential to maintain order. These tribes do not call them rights, but to compare their society to a modern Human Rights government; the tribe would easily bestow many “rights” already. Rights, as a modern term, are a new description of a very old thing. Nothing was changed in the renaming. There are still huge violations in the international community, there is no enforcement, and there isn't a public consciousness about their “rights.”

The best test of whether a regime really exists would be during times of stress or conflict. If the regime truly exists, it would persevere through transition. Instead, violence and hatred in places like Kosovo, Rwanda, and Sudan have made it painfully clear that Human Rights governs nothing. There is no established pattern; people—in times of conflict the only governing force—do not stay conscious or aware of human rights. Thus there are the typical condemnations from countries without conflict. There is never an attempt to stabilize and maintain human rights from even these outside governments. When the day comes that the conflict ends, there are the typical promises to follow the UDHR, a re-signing or a national speech, but the continued destruction of those rights on a daily basis undermines completely the notion of regime.

I'm not against Human Rights, but I can't be against something that doesn't exist. The discussion in class of the pragmatic approach utterly negates the idealistic approach. Human Rights are or they aren't, and giving nations leeway to say maybe enervates the movement. As long as countries continue to give Human Rights that maybe status there will never be realistic progress.

Sure there are problems of definition. How do we give people the right to life? Does that include health care? I say it does not matter until every country acknowledges that no country is actively trying to fulfill the requirements of the UDHR. We cannot win the race if no one is racing.

Further, enforcement is essential. As long as countries can continue to function without consequences for their blatant and unacceptable infringements to Human Rights, no regime could possibly exist. Governance calls for the governed to follow certain rules of conduct, a rule of law to exist. That Human Rights cannot establish or enforce it to me is a sad testament to its nonexistence.

Its proponents expound the ideals of how such a modern concept could influence the world yet I don't see it. Human Rights language is almost surreal in its utopian expectations as well as trivial in its overly condescending vision of basic rights. I had hoped that there would be more bite to the document. Instead it smacks of lost cause, an orphan in the international community.

I suppose I am ultimately fighting less the document and more the lack of commitment to it. No penalties for violators, no plan for conformance, no pledges to use it, no vigorous debate on implementation, just dead air and ineffective UN delegates. If I were to write such a document, I would have established multiple enforcement tools to maintain it. Without the Supreme Court, our constitution would be meaningless. This is the same way. I am disappointed that this supposed regime is so non-existent.

There is much to improve on in our Human Rights Regime. I look forward to seeing if this semester can convince me of its existence as well as its effectiveness.

Oasis Part 6 (Revised)

Oasis Part 6 (Revisited): Spring in the Desert

The 2007 Amendment to the regional plan in Washoe County Nevada added Spring Mountain (previously Winnemucca Ranch) to Reno's City Limits. The process of adding Spring Mountain had been a long and controversial one, its formalization in the 2007 Amendment was a victory for its proponents and seen as a huge loss for its detractors. The elements leading up to its inclusion show how the intersection of politics and institutions can create an adversarial environment with drastic consequences on the future of the region.

This regional plan was modeled after the one in Clark County (the one with Las Vegas). It would be county wide, have a Regional Planning Commission (RPC) composed of citizen planners, have a Regional Planning Governing Board (RPGB) composed of elected officials from the three local governments, and have a full staff of planners.

There were several drawbacks to the plan though. The first major obstacle was the definition of region. The 'region' according to the plan and state law encompasses only Washoe county. In reality, the geography of the watershed alone crosses two states, and five counties. In terms of population and census defined areas the Region should encompass the Tahoe Region, Carson, Douglas County, Fallon, and Fernley. Defining the region as the county's boundaries and excluding places like Incline Village meant that the regional plan would never be regional.

The second hurdle for the regional plan was its power. The regional plan holds very little in terms of enforcement capabilities. If a local government were to violate the regional plan, there are few options with a minimal chance of punishment or being overturned. A citizen or other entity can bring suit against anyone that violates the plan. The appeals process for citizens or for other governments is long and expensive with an uncertain outcome. Adherence to the regional plan is basically voluntary. While the proposal is in litigation though, certain aspects are allowed to move forward and a complete freeze is almost impossible. Further, because judges are elected in the state of Nevada, developers also have a chance to contribute large sums of money to campaigns.

Third, the prevailing attitudes in Nevada prevent the regional plan from holding significant weight. Because developers fuel the region's growth and fund the area's representatives, breaking out of the 'good ole boy' mentality is next to impossible. Even developers that oppose actions from other developers have a fear of speaking up. There is an attitude that by sticking with other developers, there is a far greater likelihood of one's own project getting passed. It's not necessarily wrong. By presenting a unified front on projects, the developers collectively represent huge sums of money and the majority of houses built in the region in the last 30 years. Without the complexity of each individual issue or each individual developer's perspective, there is a strong force moving the region to make many of its decisions without significant discussion.

Much of this unified front is based off the individualist attitude of the state. The cowboy west mentality has bred generations of Nevadans obsessed with low government interference and private property rights. “Do what you want with your land and don't let the government interfere.” This attitude works great in a state with wide open lands, few people, and ample resources for everyone. In Nevada's increasingly dense metropolitan areas this is a recipe for disaster. Regardless of position on specific projects, there need to be open and honest channels of communication to manage the collective resources of the region. This has not been the case.

In fact, it is extremely formal and adversarial. Communication in the region exists almost solely in the form of council meetings with a short comment period where a commenter must designate whether he or she is for or against the proposal. But projects are subject to large changes and what one may vote for very well may not be the project that results. This is further exacerbated by the low requirement for finality of a project during the entire process of approval. A project can change drastically during every stage and thus concerned parties are often left to guess at the supposed impacts of theoretical—always subject to change—projects. It even makes attendance at meetings difficult. Often they are held around during regular business hours. It may be a developer's job to get projects approved, but concerned citizens often work other occupations, unable to go to many town hall meetings.

This is further exacerbated by the flippant attitudes that many council members often take toward public protests. “They are fringe NIMBY anti-growth activists that couldn't possibly represent the voting public.” “If it the project were such a big deal why are there so few protesters here today?” These attitudes have been openly voiced by council members during hearings. There is an active effort to marginalize opposition to development.

In the case of Spring Mountain, the name alone has been changed during the entire course of the proposal process, preventing concerned parties from even being able to name the project they are concerned with. Overall, there is not much room for opposition or even discussion on a project. The moving target of proposals, the ingrained politics, the lack of collaboration, geographic limitations and individualist attitudes are huge hurdles for a more cohesive regional plan.

Spring Mountain is a proposed development about 30 miles outside of Reno's current city limits. It is in a region that contains few if any homes around it. It is mostly a large open space; a wild desert landscape west of Pyramid Lake. There is one road running from Reno to Spring Mountain currently. It is a two lane highway that sees very little traffic. The Spring Mountain development will eventually house 26,400 residents. Skidmore College is located in a city—Saratoga Springs—the size of this development. It is literally building a town from the ground up in an area without any services currently there. Everything will have to be built there; new roads, water, police, fire, schools, power. Everything; 30 miles outside Reno.

It will generate 3.5 million gallons of sewage per day, 117,175 average trips per day (originally proposed at only 40,000), use 4,847 acre feet of water per year, generate 12,000 housing units, generate 1,869 students, need at least 5 miles of new highway, and develop 6,105 acres of open space. This is no small project. The logic for approval is odd to say the least. The handbook states that Spring Mountain is in the TMSA (Truckee Meadows Service Area) but that is because the RPGB (the elected ones) approved an amendment putting Spring Mountain in the TMSA, then approved the development. Its conformance was rigged, approved before it was evaluated.

Let's talk transportation. The Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) prepared a report voicing many difficulties and problematic elements of Spring Mountain's disconnected location. Without explicitly calling the project a nightmare, the RTC reports numerous misdirections in the initial proposals, and cites easily calculated cost nightmares. In terms of roads only, the RTC report says the development will never pay for it. There must be new multi-lane road generation: the shortest route to 395 would be the most expensive, or Winnemucca Ranch Road and Pyramid Highway must be converted from 2 lane facilities for almost 20 miles. “The internal capture rate (trips not going to Reno) may be unrealistically high.” Spring Mountain is out of RTC's Regional Road Impact Fee (RRIF) and even if it were the new fees would “not capture...100% of its legal share of needed new capacity improvements.” Further, the proposed 2012 improvements to Pyramid Highway will be insufficient for the traffic generated by Spring Mountain. When it is built it will cause more congestion on the already crowded roadway. The rest of the report is littered with problems and cost deficiencies.

Because the development is a 'Special Planning Area' it does not have to conform to the Regional Plan or submit certain aspects to the RPC for conformance or revision. In fact, the handbook cleverly disguises its inclusion in the 2007 amendment as justification for conformance when it realistically has no requirements at all. This sort of circular logic pervades the entire handbook. Nothing quantitative is said, there are only qualitative, politically approved statements.

Looking at the costs of residential developments currently in the city's limits and how they never pay for themselves, it goes without saying that a development like this could easily bankrupt the city. Even more worrisome is the precedent this development sets; Reno's city council is willing to bend over backwards to scratch the back of a developer whose project does not fit into the regional plan. How can the local governments ever turn down a development that they don't see as advantageous to the region or even in line with the regional plan? The short answer is that they can't. The regional plan holds no weight; no enforcement, no conformance.

Next: Everything everyone already knows and what makes it nice—for real this time.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Important People

A short story:

I met him once. I didn't know he would become the most influential man in the modern world order. I honestly didn't even know I had met him.

I was cleaning out my attic the other day. Amongst the dusty boxes that fill every suburban house were a couple from my college days. Things such as old typewritten reports, badly xeroxed pamphlets, the odd handwritten note, and a couple of old letters about student loans. It was a poor collection of my wilder youth; I am not sure what I was trying to save in those papers. In one of the folders, a picture fell out. It was me at the banks of the river with two of my best friends. One would become my wife, the other would aimlessly drift through his twenties, eventually settling into an unhappy desk job with an overbearing wife. The sun was glaring into the camera and our faces were slightly blurred. My future wife was pushing me into the water while my other friend looked on in slight disgust at our flirtatious behavior.

I slipped the picture into my pocket, a gift for when she got home. Two if a clean attic—a task she had been nagging about for months—counted as another. I then proceeded to actually clean the attic. I opened the dormer window, let in a cool spring breeze and separated the boxes into keepers and tossers. It was an arduous task; taking the souvenirs from 18 years of independent living and categorizing them by importance. The difficulty was compounded by the number of items that were my wife's. I really could not explain why she kept all her old sun dresses. They were more large floral patterns in terrible colors and outdated styles than they were anything wearable. I supposed that she wanted to use them as spare material for patching up any clothes our two young children wore—abused. I set them aside in a pile designated, “she can figure it out” and continued working. By three, my lungs had filled with dust and the attic was more or less clean.

There was enough space to put the frame of my oldest child's twin bed--the top bunk in a set--in the attic; another artifact of growing up. We had recently purchased a full-sized bed for our oldest daughter, something she insisted be, “pretty and practical.” I laughed at the thought that a 7 year old would know practical, but we eventually settled on a sturdy minimalist frame and pink sheets with butterflies—something she believed, and I hoped, she would never grow out of.

As I lugged up portions of the twin frame to their new resting place, I tipped over one of my college boxes. I swore to myself, set the frame down, and stooped to pick up the contents. As I hastily scooped every bit up, an old assignment fell out. It was a series of interviews I had done with students about current issues at the time. It was a 101 course containing open-ended questions to test our interviewing abilities. The writing was bad, the attached handwritten notes were even worse. It was a B plus nonetheless and I thought I could smile a bit if I just read through one. I skipped to the notes I had scribbled during my interviews and saw something peculiar. One of those I had talked to was now the leader of the World Economic Integration Committee.

Effectively more influential and powerful than the president of the United States, the WEIC head controlled and maintained all capital flows in the world. No army could go to war without his approval, no one could be fed, no one could buy or sell without him having some say in it. He had pushed through the adoption of a world currency and countries were steadily ceding much political power to him to maintain their struggling governments.

I knew he had attended the same college as me. He was a senior when I was a freshman, I could never have known at that point. I looked at the notes; I had completely forgotten that I had even met him. Nothing important about the notes, his perspective on the issues seemed particularly well informed, but nothing out of the ordinary. I scanned the page for a meaningful connection; something to show that I had seen greatness before me. The quotes were mundane.

I strained to remember the conversation. We were in an almost empty cafe. It was late at night, the end of the semester. I was scrambling to get the essay done before my presentation and he had graciously given me an hour and a half of his time. I was nervously sipping on a cup of coffee hoping that it would somehow give me the brain power to wrap my head around calculus. During the interview my head was in another place. He was just a quote log to finish up a lame essay for a boring class.

The next week I would be done with my first semester and back home to my girlfriend. This was far before my wife. She was a pug-nosed girl with a lilting voice, something that simultaneously drove me up a wall and made me deeply devoted to her. Visions of our very awkward first sexual experiences flooded my brain. It was the first month of college, she came to visit, and my room mate had gone to a concert two towns over. I took out the free condom the RA's had passed out during orientation. It was a short affair, first times always seem to be that way. We held each other on the twin bed, and fell asleep naked.

Our relationship quickly devolved after that first semester; sometimes distance is too much. I can't say I didn't expedite the process. I found my current wife at a party where I didn't know anyone promptly after the break-up. It was my attempt at getting out into the world. She walked me home after too many drinks; I remember formally introducing myself in between dry heaves over the toilet bowl. Something must have been endearing about my sincere apologies, profuse thank yous, and off-kilter non-sequiturs. We ran into each other several times until I found myself entwined in her life, a partner in crime. Drunken trespasses onto the tops of buildings, inane competitions, and late nights doing nothing.

I drifted back to the cafe. As I interviewed the future WEIC Head, my mind was traveling to the post-finals future. I mechanically walked through the interview questions, dutifully wrote what he said, and took his signature to verify his statements.

I trudged forward with my bewildered life. College was overwhelming. When I met my future wife, I was happy to become part of the chaos instead of fighting it. The first night I kissed her we had filled up on cheap vodka and found ourselves enjoying the view from the roof of the history museum. A security guard yelled at us and we quickly bolted. In the midst of climbing the chain link fence, I knew my wife was great; that we would be great. Back in her room we collapsed in fits of laughter. We fell asleep on her floor in our clothes.

As the late afternoon sun lit up the dust particles, I finished reading through the professor's notes. Sloppy research, wandering paragraphs, strong thesis—all unremarkable. I kept trying to see his face, hear his voice. Nothing came. I wasn't really paying attention at the time. Who was he? All I could remember was a light blue sweater and a short dusky blond haircut. He was put together—probably.

I took another look at the interview notes, smiled, and put the paper into the box. I had the WEIC Head's autograph, a snapshot of another time. I put the rest of the papers away, closed the window, and walked downstairs to greet my wife. The attic had been an adventure, and she would surely love the picture of the us at the river.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ben and 5 Dayton J

I suppose it is time to describe the four people that do not live in my house even though it feels like they do.

Ben did live in our house. A lot of his stuff still does. Aside from his random fits of anger, Ben is pretty level-headed. He has his way of doing things and walks around in that world of routine. His skinny figure is always accentuated by his outfits. There is always at least one item of clothing that seems comically large on him. Some days it’s his plastic sunglasses, other days it is his overly large shoes or enormous coat. He has an obsession for pop culture; he watches trashy reality shows like “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and walks around the house singing opera versions of the latest pop songs—in his underwear. He graduated early and now the only signs of him are all of the things he left behind: some ugly black shoes, some wooden coasters from South Africa, and a couple blankets. There is probably more, lord knows we keep finding it all around the house. He has a blog, everyone should read it.

Then there is Jacob. Jacob likes history, but not his major. He is a veritable encyclopedia on all things historical. The best way I can describe him is Baloo the Bear from the Jungle Book in appearance, and a toned down version of him in demeanor. Things seem to roll off his hairy back. His diet is composed of ketchup and cheese. I’m pretty sure he could just live off of meals composed solely of those two ingredients. After spending time at his house I have been able to pick up on some of why he is the way he is. He loves his dark gray cat Hobbes and lives a mostly sedentary lifestyle. A defense mechanism developed to avoid doing chores, something his task driven mother has plenty of. That’s not to say he’s lazy, he mostly goes with the flow of things; letting things run their course through him. The best times with Jacob are the quiet nights where he has shared something important.

Katherine is excitable. Her voice steadily rises in pitch until it is a mere squeak. When she laughs, I get the sense that it isn’t something everyone is privileged to hear. She has firm composure similar to that of James and lets her guard down rarely in front of acquaintances. The easiest way to see her open up is when her hands start talking. In terms of people who have transformed themselves immensely in the time I have known them, Katherine is up there at the top. Korena always refers to her eccentric sense of style freshman year (think patched up jeans and can tab necklaces) as evidence of her change, but I think it is far more subtle. I think that she has become comfortable showing her personality without wearing it around her neck. She used to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders, now it is something she can take off and relax without. She is driven and intelligent, focused on her chemistry and happy with herself.

Korena is the founder of our friends. At least that’s how she characterizes herself. And I can’t disagree—completely. She did bring all of us together in a sense; her warmth and persistence driving all of us together when we otherwise would have been indifferent. She is a hopeless romantic; believing in the fairy tale when the world stares her right in the eye. Korena and I get into huge fights, one time we fought to the point of exhaustion; taking all of our anger out on each other. At one point it devolved into wrestling matches. She fights hard for what she believes though, and if the world isn’t that way she goes out and tries to make it so. Despite our different points of view I commend her for her hopeless romanticism. It takes a lot of effort to care for and smile at everyone all the time; somehow she manages it. Other times though, she eats everyone out of house and home. Food is an obsession for her; a tangible connection between love and food exists. Therefore she eats as much of it as she can find—food, not love.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

5 Dayton I's Residents

It’s always nice to see my friends and get back to Skidmore. For much of my college career I have felt like I am not strong enough to be an adult. During my time here I have found that adults suck. Being mature is not something people do. As I leave here I realize that being perfect, being the people we thought our parents were when we were kids, is not being human. That won’t stop me from trying, but it will keep me from getting frustrated.

It was nice to see my house when I got in. Natalie is our newest resident. She is an enthusiastic individual that has a slight tendency to over extend herself. She is doing her social work internship this semester so I barely see her. What I have noticed is how much more like a home 5 Dayton I feels. It is full of decorations and actual equipment. Natalie likes to cock her eyes in funny ways, unabashedly contorting herself to entertain us as she tells stories. Sitting and hanging around with her is almost paradoxical to her ebullience. But it is always rewarding conversation.

Tom has returned this semester as our foreign exchange student where he will be playing the role of the kooky kid with a shaky grasp of English. At first, I thought Tom was a little absent minded and off because he didn’t quite get English or America. As I’ve gotten to know him a little better it seems to me that he is somewhere between here and space. He is a good cook, he once cooked for 20+ people, but he never gets portions right. There were a stack of lemons hanging out in our kitchen for a while before he made lemon pie. Most of the lemons went bad. He is kind of a nutball. Case in point: Halloween. My only memory of him on Halloween night is watching him in his Princess Leia costume get carried off by a midget.

James is probably going to be my companion for the semester. He is the only one around during the day and his class schedule is similar to mine. We have already spent two lunches together. James is quite particular about how he does things. He has developed a system for everything, logically organized his space. He has been waking up early so far, he is still on Turkey time and it’s odd to hear that he has already worked out, eaten, and done laundry by the time I get up. He is generally very feline in his mannerisms, although he would deny it—he hates cats. One word to describe him is precision. His clothing, his gait, his work, his handwriting; everything about how he presents himself is a precise representation of how he perceives himself and how he wants others to perceive him. Despite this precision, he is lots of fun. Around his friends all of those presentations are diminished by who he actually is—snide, witty, sometimes clumsy, sometimes insecure, and very caring.

2 Days in Professors

The first couple of days of classes are always hectic. I’m never really quite sure what is going on. I suppose that because none of my professors seem to be on target either I should not worry. Regardless, it has been great to be back and I am so excited to be preparing to finish up.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays I have two consecutive classes to go to and that seems like an eternity. It strikes me that I feel this way and I haven’t even really done anything and the classes should be fun. I’m such a lazy ass. My first class of the week is one with Professor Kate Graney. She is the head of the government department and extremely enthusiastic about what she teaches. Her high voice gets higher and higher as she becomes more excited and always releases that energy with a quick laugh. She has black curly hair that seems to suit the mildly crazy professor set really well. She never stops smiling; even when she is trying to be serious. On Monday, our first class, she paced back and forth wildly in front of the class, trying to get us enthusiastic about Human Rights. I think I’ll keep a quote log for her.

On Tuesday I opened my mail and found a Scope Magazine. In it was Professor David Karp talking about his experiences with ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution). In between columns of text, was his tall lanky form holding scales and looking like he always does. Looking like he always does has a lot to do with his gaunt features contrasted with his fairly affable countenance—a smile, big ears, and earnest eyes that are always listening. His voice is soft and cracks a little when he laughs. He is someone who has spent enormous amounts of time trying to help people talk to each other, and sometimes he seems a bit uncomfortable talking about himself.

I then proceeded to my econ class with Jeorg Bibow. He is not what I was expecting. My experience with econ professors has been short kind of pudgy foreign men who have a bit of the wild professor’s air to them. Jeorg is a well composed German, thin and tall, with a full head of gray hair that has been cut into a stylishly short do. He speaks at a rate unconventional for someone so excited about his work—slowly. His soft tenor accent combined with his rigid powerpoints could be this semester’s lullaby. If he weren’t a professor, I would assume he played a critical supporting role in an action film as the slightly older/retired superspy.

Then I went to the Middle East. Sumita Pahwa kept me engaged even though I sat by the window and froze my ass off. It is cold in Ladd 106. Do not sit by the window. Pahwa is like the Middle East or South Asian expert that they bring onto our 24 hour news shows. She expertly explains precisely what she is thinking; gives a sharp commentary and moves on. I was afraid to ask questions because her train of thought was so clear that I could almost see it coming at me. I didn’t want to stop it on account of my ignorance.

Monday, January 24, 2011

South End Winter

I started the Oasis series on the plane ride to Boston. I had no idea that it would be consuming so much of my time. I feel like I haven’t had time to reflect on my surroundings and record the day to day happenings that are so important to me. I suppose a stream of consciousness memory of my last week is probably in order.

I remember looking out of the window and watching the lights on the towns turn on. The snowy landscape below turned a deep blue purple and bright orange dots popped on. We landed in a gray and cold Boston. Reno’s mild and warm weather was behind me replaced with muddy snow and steam rising from grates.

One week with Ciera. Her tiny apartment somehow houses three people and a mouse. This week is time for me to prepare for the coming semester. A mental toughness, rearranging of priorities. Get ready for the cold. So I do what makes me happy and energized. I draw, I read, I cook for the apartment.

A quiet evening, cooking a meal, talking to Ciera’s room mate, learning about a life I know nothing of. It is hard to wait, but Beth is good company, a gentle individual that exudes a maternal aura; something that prompts Ana, the apartment’s final dweller, to ask if everything she does is ok. Of course it is, but it seems she holds the rules to the apartment in her head. By Friday I realize that the rules are for Beth, not for the rest of the apartment. When Beth, Nick Lee, and I lock ourselves out of the apartment, it is a failure of her main rules. For someone that seems to have so many systems in place it is funny to watch Beth clumsily forget things, get frustrated at her lack of mindfulness, and scold herself for not following her own wisdom.

On Tuesday I watched the Big Lebowski with Ana and Ciera. The movie is funny, great, and long. Ana lost interest halfway through. But she was definitely moved by it because on Thursday we had a white Russian night. Some friends came by and hung out in the kitchen. Ana has radiating warmth, an eagerness to get to know you that startled me at first. She is an open individual, a bridge builder looking for people to like her as much as she likes people. She has a tendency to get easily distracted though. She disappears without warning and never comes back.

Ciera and I found plenty of time to ourselves despite the exciting characters that occupy her life. I get to glimpse it; a pinhole to her life. The odd moments are the ones I cherish: sketching on her bed and suddenly laughing hysterically with her about something inane; walking down Newbury Street enjoying the crowded street, moving through the people as if we were alone; coffee in the morning enjoying a ray of light through the window.

Leaving is the hardest part; a journey cut short by inclement weather. Greg comes to pick me up around ten and the waiting is agonizing. We make the most of the last few hours; talking and laughing. The drive back is spent anticipating Saratoga Springs. The drive is black; Greg is good company, the freshman asleep in the back seat seems nice enough. It is a long cold tunnel to Saratoga. I stumble into the house. It is warm. My bed is too big. Break is over.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Climbing The Olympics

This is a drawing based on one of my favorite pictures I took during the summer of 2010.

Oasis Part 6: Spring in the Desert

Oasis Part 6: Spring in the Desert

The 2007 Amendment to the regional plan in Washoe County Nevada added Spring Mountain (previously Winnemucca Ranch) to Reno's City Limits. The process of adding Spring Mountain had been a long and controversial one, its formalization in the 2007 Amendment was a victory for its proponents and seen as a huge loss for its detractors. The elements leading up to its inclusion show how the intersection of politics and institutions can create an adversarial environment with drastic consequences on the future of the region.

When it became obvious to state legislators that Washoe County was growing rapidly and in an uncoordinated manner, they mandated that a regional plan be put into place to organize the three major governments of the region as well as other entities in the area. It centered around Sparks, Reno, Washoe County, the Regional Transportation Commission, and TMWA (Truckee Meadows Water Authority). As a little background, the bickering between the three governing entities had become so bad that many projects were approved or disapproved based on whether it would infuriate representatives from another government.

This regional plan was modeled after the one in Clark County (the one with Las Vegas). It would be county wide, have a Regional Planning Commission (RPC) composed of citizen planners, have a Regional Planning Governing Board (RPGB) composed of elected officials from the three local governments, and have a full staff of planners.

There were several drawbacks to the plan though. The first major obstacle was the definition of region. The 'region' according to the plan and state law encompasses only Washoe county. In reality, the geography of the watershed alone crosses two states, and five counties. In terms of population and census defined areas the Region should encompass the Tahoe Region, Carson, Douglas County, Fallon, and Fernley. Defining the region as the county's boundaries and excluding places like Incline Village meant that the regional plan would never be regional.

The second hurdle for the regional plan was its power. The regional plan holds very little in terms of enforcement capabilities. If a local government were to violate the regional plan, there are few options with a minimal chance of punishment or being overturned. The appeals process for citizens or for other governments is long and expensive with an uncertain outcome. Adherence to the regional plan is basically voluntary.

Third, the prevailing attitudes in Nevada prevent the regional plan from holding significant weight. Because developers fuel the region's growth and fund the area's representatives, breaking out of the 'good ole boy' mentality is next to impossible. Even developers that oppose actions from other developers have a fear of speaking up. There is an attitude that by sticking with other developers, there is a far greater likelihood of one's own project getting passed. It's not necessarily wrong. By presenting a unified front on projects, the developers collectively represent huge sums of money and the majority of houses built in the region in the last 30 years. Without the complexity of each individual issue or each individual developer's perspective, there is a strong force moving the region to make many of its decisions without significant discussion.

Much of this unified front is based off the individualist attitude of the state. The cowboy west mentality has bred generations of Nevadans obsessed with low government interference and private property rights. “Do what you want with your land and don't let the government interfere.” This attitude works great in a state with wide open lands, few people, and ample resources for everyone. In Nevada, especially the increasingly dense metropolitan areas, this is a recipe for disaster. Regardless of position on specific projects, there need to be open and honest channels of communication to manage the collective resources of the region. This has not been the case.

In fact, it is extremely formal and adversarial. Communication in the region exists almost solely in the form of council meetings with a short comment period where a commenter must designate whether he or she is for or against the proposal. But projects are subject to large changes and what one may vote for very well may not be the project that results. This is further exacerbated by the low requirement for finality of a project during the entire process of approval. A project can change drastically during every stage and thus concerned parties are often left to guess at the supposed impacts of theoretical—always subject to change—projects.

Overall, there is not much room for opposition or even discussion on a project. The moving target of proposals, the ingrained politics, the lack of collaboration, geographic limitations and individualist attitudes are huge hurdles for a more cohesive regional plan. Which is where Spring Mountain fits in.

Spring Mountain is a proposed development about 30 miles outside of Reno's current city limits. It is in a region that contains few if any homes around it. It is mostly a large open space; a wild desert landscape west of Pyramid Lake. There is one road running from Reno to Spring Mountain currently. It is a two lane highway that sees very little traffic. The Spring Mountain development will eventually house 26,000 residents. Skidmore College is located in a city—Saratoga Springs—the size of this development. It is literally building a town from the ground up in an area without any services currently there. Everything will have to be built there; new roads, water, police, fire, schools, power. Everything; 30 miles outside Reno.

Looking at the costs of residential developments currently in the city's limits and how they never pay for themselves, it goes without saying that a development like this could easily bankrupt the city. Even more worrisome is the precedent this development sets; Reno's city council is willing to bend over backwards to scratch the back of a developer whose project does not fit into the regional plan. How can the local governments ever turn down a development that they don't see as advantageous to the region or even in line with the regional plan? The short answer is that they can't. The regional plan holds no weight.

Next: Everything everyone already knows and what makes it nice.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Oasis Part 5: Drowning in the Desert

Honey Lake near Susanville, California is a large basin where water has steadily pooled over the centuries. It is a valley very similar to Winnemucca Lake, and was formed by almost identical forces. Honey Lake is approximately 40 miles from Reno's city limits. A distance that has to traverse mountain ranges and large spans of desert. If the gods that formed the area had it their way, Honey Lake would never be part of Washoe County's water supply. Instead, poor foresight and restricting water policies have put the county in a position to import large amounts of water from Honey Lake.

Depending on where one lives in the county, water tables for the Truckee Meadows are steadily decreasing at a rate of 1 to 2 feet per year on average. This is largely due to wells in the area. For many in the region, a hookup to city water is impractical and they opt instead to use well water. This isn't normally a problem except that the recharge rate in the region is unable to keep up with growth. In the years 2000 to 2009, there was only 1 year that had average or above average flows. Every other year was a drought year. And not just any type of drought, these years were some of the worst on record for drought; it was a series of abnormally low flow drought years. Granted they were not the worst ever, but they still fell below most other drought years.

The past two years have been fairly wet due to el nino, but reliance on decennial weather patterns in a region as dry as the Truckee Meadows is not the best method of planning. In the Mt. Rose corridor, people's wells are starting to pull up hot air. The Truckee Meadows Water Authority (TMWA) has offered to extend services to them at about the same cost as drilling deeper wells. Most have taken the city up on this offer. That is probably the way of things to come, the water tables in Washoe county cannot sustain continued usage in this manner.

The extension of services also serves another purpose in the county—water quality. Water from underground sources, and to some extent from the Truckee River, has elevated levels of arsenic in it. Treating that water has become an enormous concern for the county. While WC-3 (the voter sponsored water ballot initiative) may have capped growth at 600,000 water quality will probably limit the population far before that. As is, the capacity for producing clean water is complicated by aging treatment facilities and a lack of money for new services. As previously mentioned, tax rates on homes decrease over time, and homes in the valley aren't metered for usage. This means that our water utilities have a limited budget on which to make needed improvements—that scope is only decreasing with age.

So the region needs to search for new development to continue to operate in the black. That means a continued strain on water resources and a perpetuation of the cycle of water. There is a 'growth imperative' in the county, one that has made all development good development. Accordingly, the state mandated regional plan has gone basically unenforced. That is not to say that people aren't concerned with the regional plan, more that it has few if any penalties for its violation, has vague and easily circumvented guidelines, and there is little political will to maintain many aspects of it. This lack of impetus makes sense when one follows the money and connections in the area. This is not a case of corruption, but more one of political back scratching.

In Washoe County, developers hold huge sway. They have been the economic driving force in the region for the last 30 years. They are also the people that will ultimately fund many of the projects that will help recover the region and bring it back to economic prosperity. It is no surprise then that many of the people that sit on the governing boards have taken significant contributions from developers. By significant I mean well over half of campaign donations can often be attributed to developers.

Developers are not regional planners. They have an economic drive to maximize profits. They run a business; it is not generally expected that they have other concerns. And for the most part this has been true. It is expected that the political system is in place to temper those motives and create a community conscious of all impacts of a development. This has largely been ignored.

An excellent example is that of buying up water rights in the region. Back when there was only one buyer for rights (Sierra Pacific, later TMWA), rights sold for about $100 per acre/foot. When the cities, county, and later developers entered the market, water rights jumped to over $2000 dollars per acre/foot. The cities, TMWA, and the county were priced out of the market and only developers remained to purchase water rights. The public utility still has to provide water to the region, but because obtaining new rights is inordinately expensive, and because the regional plan dictates that water will stay in the Truckee Meadows, new water must be found to fuel the development in the North Valleys (a basin outside the Truckee Meadows).

To do this, developers are building a pipeline over 40 miles in length from Honey Lake to the North Valleys. This is not a cheap prospect. It is also unsustainable. There are approximately 10,000 to 15,000 acre/feet available for usage in the Honey Lake basin. This water is actually groundwater. That means that it will not recharge at the rate that we remove it. There is generally an acceptable recharge rate, but the unreliability of the basin and excess of drought years has thrown the exact number into question. No matter, the developers have the paper rights to up to 15,000 acre/feet and they will use it, regardless of the reality. Honey Lake will most likely disappear slowly, and when the water does run out, it will be left to the public utility and the taxpayers. Honey Lake is a stop-gap measure until TMWA integrates the new developments in the North Valleys into the service area.

The importation of Honey Lake water could have easily been avoided if some careful foresight and planning had been put into the region. For years, experts and citizens have been recommending several things that would have put the area in a position to prevent expensive importation projects. As it stands, there is enough water in the Truckee River to service everyone living in Washoe County; recharge rates have some difficulty but the flow of the river is consistent and high enough that there is zero need to import water—even in drought years.

The policy of unfettered growth which has led to the creation of the North Valleys and its demand for water was a severe blow to regional planning. The expansion of services to an area outside the Truckee River basin made for an interesting pickle. The regional plan prohibited the expulsion of water from the Truckee River's basin, but the rapid expansion of the North Valleys made a source of water necessary. If development had been limited in the North Valleys or the regional plan was amended to allow Truckee Water to be ported to the North Valleys, then Honey Lake would be a moot point.

Furthermore, because there has been this explosion of growth, gone relatively unchecked by other forces, the county has experienced a huge loss of its floodplains. This is bad in wet years for obvious reasons; what is normally a floodplains is now homes and parking lots, nothing absorbs and we lose significant amounts of water to recharge our water tables. In dry years it is even worse, because the water from the wet years is not in the tables, water has to be managed much more carefully and it taxes the system horribly. It is also a nightmare for infrastructure. Many houses in the South Valleys are sinking into the soft soil, roads are more prone to severe damage, and any buildings in the plain during a flood are severely damaged—possibly destroyed. As we continue into the 21st century, that may become an even worse problem. The Truckee River's flows have become more extreme in the last 30 years—highs are higher and lows are lower. Droughts last longer and yield less water. Without a careful re-evaluation of priorities, Reno could whither and die.

Next: Spring Mountain, the Regional Plan, Politics, and Institutions.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Wintry Mix in City (outline)


This is the first draft of what will be hopefully a beautiful city shot.  I have to outline and color but it is mostly done.

Last Sunrise In Reno


This is the sunrise from my window on the last day I was in Reno, so long winter break.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Oasis Part 4: The Legend of Retail Development

Oasis Part 4: The Legend of Retail Development

Large retail developments like Legends or Cabella's present a problem for the region. These huge developments can cost the city more in these instances. Because Nevada campaigns so heavily for retail development like these, the state (or disconcertingly in other states, the local government) will offer tax breaks and incentives to plant the business in the region. Legends received 20 year STAR bonds, effectively exempting the development from paying a penny in taxes for 20 years. The dirty secret on retail developments like that is that by the 20 year mark the development will pick up and leave. It is actually cheaper and generates more business to pack up and rebuild than to pay the taxes it owes.

Think of it, go to the shimmering new mall or the old mall? To the developer it doesn't matter, the taxpayer will pay for most of it either way and a business is unlikely to get as many incentives for a redevelopment as a new development. The Target in Legends is actually an old Target that was relocated from Reno to Legends Mall in Sparks. The old Target was paying taxes, the new one pays none. The only revenue the local government receives is off sales tax, and any business generated around the area. The trickle down effect. And that is minimal. The estimated cost to the taxpayer in the region is $500 million. That will never be recovered.

An often used argument to support developments like these is that it generates jobs. That is true and false, and Eisinger does an excellent job of breaking down the myths of economic growth in his brilliant book The Rise of the Entrepreneurial State. For the moment let's ignore the argument that chain retail kills mom 'n pop stores (we'll assume that there is a net gain of jobs). The jobs that are generated are very low quality. The average retail job doesn't generate enough income to live comfortably. In fact, most retail jobs aside from the highest positions don't pay highly enough to raise the worker above the poverty line, don't have health benefits, are part-time, and don't always employ existing populations. It does generate a marginal tax base for the city though and fuels more development in the region. As we have seen, the new residential development does not pay for itself though. The new population required for a development such as Legends more than absorb any additional tax revenues in their maintenance costs.

Jobs, while reducing unemployment generally, are not always good. Low quality jobs actually reduce the quality of life in the region. And that excludes the costs to the scenic landscape, traffic, destroyed local businesses, and much more. In states that rely more on manufacturing, high tech, tourist, or the service sector jobs and quality of life are much easier to maintain and improve. For every retail development that is built there needs to be an equivalent increase in overall quality of life for the area. Henry Ford made sure that everyone that worked for him could buy the products that they produced. Now it is not only an impossible but completely ridiculous notion that one can live a middle class existence by working in a mall (with the exception of the few managerial positions of course).

Demographically, the people that work there are only supplemental incomes to their respective households. They do not 'bring home the bacon'. Instead the workers tend to be housewives, teenagers, and others who do not pay the majority of the bills in a household. These jobs do not represent a qualitative gain in the area.

Similarly, for people who do have these low-skill, low wage jobs to pay the bills must often take on a second or even a third job to keep themselves above the poverty line. Often, even that is insufficient. Worse, these workers tend to live in areas of concentrated poverty, exacerbating class disparities in the region.

Washoe county suffers from a lack of competitiveness against other regions because of the low education of its population. This means that low-skill jobs tend to be the only industries attracted to the region. The job training programs are minimal in Washoe county, and there are very few high quality jobs attracted to the region. The incentive system instead favors the perpetuation of these low education industries and thus quality of life is steadily spiraling downward as other regions become more competitive by providing a better workforce instead of weakening standards for industries that don't give back to the community.

Obviously there is always a certain demand for retail; the massive consumption of land that outdoor malls like Summit Sierra use are not the only way to have a mall though. Good regional planning dictates a few things about developments like these. Let me briefly emphasize that what I am about to say is uncontroversial; every Regional Planner, politician, developer, and activist I have talked to has reiterated these details to me. Good regional planning states that by placing a new development in an identified growth node (an area that is ripe for growth with much, if not all, of the infrastructure in place) projects like Legends can greatly enhance the region. Secondly, it is important to look to making efficient use of the land. The more pedestrian friendly, the better the business. Third, integrating a mall into a mixed use type of zoning really integrates it into the community. If a new development creates jobs, residences, and recreation it can greatly reduce the cost on existing taxpayers and be seen as more a part of the community.

Politics tends to get in the way of these goals and Legends was no exception. Good regional planning is not just rhetoric, it must be practiced. The future of Washoe county is uncertain because development like Legends persists, and along with it our unsustainable land and water grabs.

Tomorrow: The regional plan, water wars, and the parking lot that will drown us all.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Oasis Part 3: Liquidity

Oasis Part 3: Liquidity

The Newlands Act of 1905 largely dictated public works projects for the 20 western states and later Texas all the way into the 1980s. Named after Francis G. Newlands from Nevada, the act laid out projects ranging in scope from the tiny dam that is holding up Hunter Creek to the monster marvel of human ingenuity and force—Hoover Dam. The act also laid down the ground rules for how water rights were to be distributed, in 1944 the Orr Ditch Decree finalized these rights in the Truckee Meadows. These water rights are set in stone, evaluated and sold off to different entities for public and private usage. In the Truckee River system those water rights total approximately 500,000 acre feet of water. An acre foot is how much water there would be if an acre of land were covered by a foot of water. A typical household uses between one quarter and one half acre foot of water annually. In Reno, because there have been few laws restricting water usage, the typical household uses a half acre foot annually. In places where conservation is enforced like Phoenix a typical household uses about one quarter acre foot per year.

The majority of that usage, the water that disappears and is never seen from again, goes to watering lawns and wasting water on non-native gardens that have little resemblance to the native flora. The biggest culprit is lawns. Lawns use enormous amounts of water and whatever run off there is will not flow back to the Truckee. Either it will soak into the water table—a minimal recharge to the system—or more likely it will evaporate rapidly—only to precipitate somewhere in Utah or Colorado. In fact, a household can use drastically less water if it reduces its non-system water usage. The majority of water that a house uses is indoor, and as long as there is city water and sewer, what goes in comes right back out. Conserving water through shorter showers or flushing once a week doesn't really address water.

The water that can't be reclaimed is the only water that is lost. Lawns, septic systems, car washes, and pools are big examples. It's important to remember this when debating water. Outdoor water usages account for the majority of water lost in the Truckee Meadows.

Starting in the mid 1970s, Reno embarked upon a glorious boom period. For years, Washoe County was one of the fastest growing in the nation. As Reno, Sparks, and the unincorporated Washoe County expanded, it became apparent that many things would have to change to sustain the community. The first change was a state mandated regional plan to coordinate growth. The second change was the creation of the Truckee Meadows Water Authority (TMWA) a public utility to manage water rights in the region. The region, as defined by the state, was Washoe County. That meant that the surrounding counties in two states were exempt from the provisions of the Regional Plan—there was nothing regional about it.

Washoe County continued to grow, mostly large scale developments. The growth started to feed off the growth. During construction, a huge amount of water is used for dust suppression. On large scale developments such as the many that cover Reno, construction crews will clear a whole site meant for 100 to 6000 homes and use large water trucks to suppress the dust. This requires huge amounts of water; especially in the summer. By the time a water truck has made a pass over an area to suppress dust, the site will have already dried up. The summer months, when construction peaks, are the worst. The construction companies are forced to perpetually have a water truck going just to comply with air quality ordinances.

The perpetual usage of water in a meaningless attempt to keep dust from occurring in a desert paralleled another product of the Reno boom. The growth in Reno was largely construction; people moved to Reno for construction and constructed homes so more people could move in. It was building off of building; growth from growth. That wasn't much of a problem for most people until the bottom fell out of the housing market in 2007.

In a city running on growth sustainable industry tends to take a backseat to the action. Who cares about water when there are 50,000 acre feet left for allocation? Besides, if there is ever a problem with TMWA's supply the county can import water from Honey Lake or buy rights from the Green Wave farmers in Churchill county. It's important to note that the Green Wave is Churchill County High School's mascot, named after the veritable sea of alfalfa blowing in the wind, watered by the distant Truckee. Regardless, water was not a concern during the boom, and similarly the sustainability of the endeavors was not really evaluated either. According to former Citizen Planner Fred Lokken, residential developments never pay for themselves. Retail doesn't either. It's not the buildings, the lost land, or even conforming to expensive building codes. It's the public utilities.

Roads cost a lot to build, over their lifetime the maintenance makes them cost several times their initial building costs. The tax revenue generated from a large sprawling development will never pay for the cost of the roads. Think of it: the average large scale development has about 6000 square feet per lot; the roads, with enough space for dual side street parking and one and a half lanes of driving have to be at least 25 feet across. Then add in the arterial roadways that lead to the neighborhoods, several four or five lane boulevards, two or three freeway entrances, and subtract the tax revenue of the houses that won't sell immediately or possibly ever to get the final tally on the roads. It ain't cheap to build; then maintain it. It doesn't pay, and that doesn't include the costs of new schools, businesses, increased traffic on existing roadways, fire, police, hospitals, parks, gas, electric, water, and sewer.

Even worse, in the state of Nevada the housing tax decreases every year for 30 years until the only tax is on the value of the property. The tax revenue of a new development is worth significantly more than any taxes on an old one; every year a development ages, the lower the tax revenue until the taxes come back to their initial cost without the houses that were put in the first place. Only now the cost of maintaining all those new services is added into the city's expenditures. What once was large ranch land with minimal city services and a fixed property tax suddenly transforms into a ticking time bomb for the city.

America's addiction to homeownership has a long and storied history. Suffice it to say that by 2006, it was part of the American Dream. Homeownership is a symbol of status and responsibility. It says, “I have a job and I can afford to live away from concentrated poverty and high unemployment.” In the years leading up to the collapse of the banks and the mortgage crisis, financial institutions took advantage of that attitude and gave out tons of loans. Michael Lewis's novel The Big Short explains the complex factors that led to the housing bubble and its after effects. On the consumer side, banks were approving loans that borrowers couldn't ever repay on property that was overvalued. In Reno, the largely construction based economy was allowing a whole host of blue collar workers to take out loans to purchase houses. Their stable workload of construction and development gave them job security and the high value of their houses coupled with government policy to keep loan rates low allowed many workers to take out multiple mortgages on their homes.

Then the bottom fell out. Interest rates went through the roof on those overvalued houses. People couldn't pay back their loans, and construction ground to a halt. Unemployment shot through the roof in Washoe county, jumping as high as 13%. Homes foreclosed at an enormous rate, at one point Washoe county led the nation in foreclosures. Under this enormous burden of being without a job and close to without a home, many people walked. A good portion of Reno's economy collapsed. Suddenly all the new infrastructure built during the boom had no tax base to support it.

That leaves us at today. The alternative is not anything new or groundbreaking in terms of ideas. In fill and urban development are the secret everyone knows. In fill is taking the current city limits and growing the city vertically. As a city becomes more vertical it also becomes more efficient. Less services and more individuals splitting the costs for the services is a logical way of solving most of our problems with cost. Granted, urbanization is not without its drawbacks, but those costs don't jeopardize the city's ability to pay off its debts like suburban sprawl does. Many authors also point out that cities don't have to grow solely vertically, they can spread out horizontally, but our current policies of eating land at an unprecedented pace is completely unsustainable. I use sustainable loosely, a city does not need to grow its own food and be a Communist city-state. Sustainable, for now, is simply the ability for any new development to pay for itself. It doesn't even have to be for today, it can be over time.

The fact that current build policies for the region—and for most of the nation as well—require the taxpayer to support most and eventually all of the costs is not capitalism or democracy.

Next: Retail, water, wildlife, and floods.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Oasis Part 2

Oasis: Squeezing Water Out Of A Rock

Part 2: Cui-Uis and Indians

Pyramid Lake is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Named after the large pyramid like rock formation on one of its islands, the lake is a testament to another time. The road to it is a straight shot through dense sagebrush and rocky hills. If one looks closely on the way there, it is possible to see deer, antelope, coyotes, or wild horses in the mountains. A subtle motion in the brush. Minutes before arriving at the lake, it seems like the high desert and rocky formations will go on forever; a futile journey into a forbidding land. Then the mountains open up and a crisp blue appears; refreshing to the eyes, quenching a visual thirst for water. When an exploration group first came through, they were greeted by the friendly Paiute Indian Tribe. The explorers sat and ate with the tribe—a dinner of fish and local plants—and noticed that the Lake spilled forth an astounding abundance. When food ran out, the Indians would walk down to the shore, spear an enormous Cui-ui or Lahontan Trout and bring it to the fire to cook. There was no scarcity in those days. Pyramid Lake, Washoe Lake, the forests on top of Peavine all were still there.

It was also a fairly moist time historically. In the 19th and 20th centuries, rainfall and run-off for the Western United States was the highest it had been for several centuries. The Truckee Meadows were fairly lush in terms of desert for this time and it was no wonder that a few people would like to settle here. Reno gets over 300 days of sun on average, the Truckee River runs year-round, it has mild winters, and the low humidity makes even the hottest days bearable. The area has sweeping vistas that accentuate the breathtaking nature of a land with spectacular sunsets. Reno is not a hard place to live in. And so the region grew, and has grown—a lot.

In 1955 when Winnemucca Lake dried up, the Indians made the decision to divert their allotment of water to Pyramid Lake instead of Winnemucca Lake. Pyramid, a slightly saline lake, is home to the state fish the Lahontan Trout and the sacred Cui-ui (pronounced kwee-wee). The decision to keep all the water from the Truckee dedicated to Pyramid Lake was extremely last ditch, Pyramid was drying up rapidly, losing huge amounts of water to the desert air. The island that Pyramid Rock was on was now a peninsula; the tribe was desperate. Even with all the water going to Pyramid, the lake was still drying up and the TCID would not budge on their apportionment of water. Alvin Josephy Jr. chronicled the events leading up to this mess in his excellent article “Here In Nevada, A Terrible Crime”. Suffice it to say that the Indians could not requisition enough water for the lake and the Cui-ui became endangered. The Lahontan had already suffered a far worse fate.

The original variety of the Lahontan Trout is one of the largest trout known to man. There are historical photos showing fish four feet in length being pulled from the Truckee River. Derby Dam, the dam at the mouth of Lake Tahoe, and Hunter Creek Dam, along with overfishing and poor water allocation, killed off the entire population of Lahontan Trout. Traditional spawning routes, competition from introduced species, and poorly timed water diversions turned the population into a joke. By 1943, the large lake variety, the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, was extinct. Another variety of the species, one that didn't grow as big and wasn't nearly as awe-inspiring, was transplanted from Lake Heenan and introduced to the Truckee River water system. They are currently maintained by fish hatcheries and do not do their traditional spawning runs. The Lahontan Cutthroat Trout is effectively extinct.

In 1970, Pyramid Lake was evaporating at a rate of over 1 ft per year. The shore had retreated over 80 ft and the Paiute tribe was desperate for a solution. They sued the Department of the Interior in the 1970s, and entered into a long battle over water rights, that—while not fully settled—did give the tribe enough water to maintain the lake's levels. Their battle was over for the time being; a new battle was brewing.

Next: the Boom, Water, and climate change.

Oasis

Part 1: My Farm for a Lake

In the early 1900s, Reno was little more than a river crossing; a stopover for people before they passed into California. Reno was a largely pastoral trading post for Basque ranchers and the few farmers who dared to grow in the desert. Despite Reno's smallness, weary travelers crossing to California, wayward miners on the tail end of the Comstock lode, Mormons, and any other misfits stupid enough to try to live in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada made Reno the state's only major population center. The boom provided by casinos and Nevada's loose divorce laws also gave a boost to the area's population. This juxtaposition of sizes, big and small, made Reno the biggest little city in the world. A seemingly nonsensical catchphrase that belied some striking truths about the city.

Reno is a nucleus for a huge, naturally beautiful region. It's watershed starts in Lake Tahoe, a pristine blue mountain lake with some of the best clarity in the world. From there, water flows out of Tahoe through the Truckee River tracing several California counties before carving out huge ravines in the mountains and opening up to the large golden valley where Reno sits. The valley sits between the east slope of the Sierra Nevada and Peavine mountain ranges. The base elevation is 4500 ft above sea level; a high desert environment full of the state's flower sagebrush and ancient juniper trees. The Peavine mountain range—when settlers first appeared—was covered in a forest of coniferous trees. Today it is a barren brown and gold hill, populated only with houses at it's base and cheat grass—an inexorable weed—everywhere else. The forest was cut down during the heyday of the Comstock lode and now a mass graveyard of trunks fill up miles of mines below Virginia City. The Truckee river continues through the valley, wending its way to the low point where downtown Reno sits today, it then shoots straight through the narrow corridor of two mountain ranges before turning north and resting in the desert waters of Pyramid Lake. Pyramid Lake is the huge remainder of a large inland sea that once extended through most of Nevada. Today remnants of the sea can be seen in striations in the hills, an indicator of former water levels. The Truckee River doesn't just end at Pyramid Lake. The river's flow is so large that, uninhibited by human affairs, it would fill another lake—Winnemucca--and a large marshland area around Fallon. Currently neither exist: Winnemucca Lake dried up and the marshlands have returned to desert.

In 1955, diversions at Derby Dam—located around the county dump—were so high that the Paiute Tribe—Pyramid Lake's protectors and the rightful owners to all of the Truckee River's water—made a desperate decision to keep the water in Pyramid Lake and let Winnemucca Lake dry up. Winnemucca lake, being shallow and having the unfortunate fate of being in a desert, disappeared almost immediately. What followed was a portent of things to come. In the fall, when migrating birds came to the area, they were greeted with a silty playa; salt and dust, dead plants, and desert. Without water, there was no life. The historical migration of these birds was permanently disrupted. People have commented that the birds were so numerous that they would blacken the sky. In a desert. Life was so plentiful in the desert of Washoe County, that people would be unable to see the sky. The death of Winnemucca Lake was the death of those birds. The largest die off in the region's history occurred and subsequent generations have seen only the slightest hint of what was.

The Truckee Carson Irrigation District (TCID) maintains Derby Dam and diverts a huge portion of the Truckee River's waters south and east to Fernley, Fallon, and finally to Lahontan Reservoir. The water is used to water farmland. This farmland grows two things predominantly: alfalfa and mellons. The mellons are heart of gold cantaloupes; a distinct variety identified with Northern Nevada. The alfalfa grown as feed for cattle. The majority of the cattle that the alfalfa is produced for live in California. The two crops are extremely water intensive. To water alfalfa, the favored way is to simply flood the field and let it soak in. this means that the water, especially in the summer months, is left to evaporate. We lose approximately 4 units of water out of every 10 to evaporation through the natural course of the Truckee. In low desert areas like Las Vegas or Phoenix, they can lose five units. In the hot summer months, these alfalfa farms can easily lose those five units of water and even more on the hottest days. That alfalfa is then transported over the Sierra Nevada mountain range—one of the steepest in the country—to California where it is fed to beef cattle. Cattle are notoriously inefficient creatures, taking huge amounts of alfalfa to gain the slightest bit of weight. Once the cattle are to weight, they are sent to feed lots where they are given corn feed to make the meat taste 'beefier'. The Sierra Nevada provides 65% of California's water and 100% of the Washoe Region's water. With the added export of so many water resources in the form of alfalfa to California, California's share is even higher.

Alfalfa, as a crop, is one of the least profitable and has only the most meager of redeeming qualities. In the early days of the TCID, water was diverted to the valleys of Fernley and Fallon to flood the enormous playas and rid the soil of salt. Initially, diverting water from Winnemucca Lake and turning it into a playa resulting in Northern Nevada's largest bird kill was to flood land that could not grow anything. That land can now support only the most hearty crops after years of human meddling. The profit on alfalfa is so low that none of the farmers in the TCID actually pay for the water, their only water related expenditure is the maintenance costs of Derby Dam. The American capacity for great feats of engineering has been unable to tame the high desert landscape of Nevada.

Reno, Pyramid, the Washoe Tribe, fish, and global warming next!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Tangled Easter Eggs

Last night I went and saw Tangled. Tangled—it's the Rapunzel movie made by Disney. I have to say it is freakin' sweet. I fully attribute that to John Lassetter being an executive producer for the project. For all of you non-geeks, John Lassetter is one of the heads and founders of Pixar and he takes enormous pride in delivering a quality product.

Tangled isn't Pixar awesome, unless you count Cars as one of Pixar's good ones, but it is full of heart and extra chunky bits of wit. Tangled is Disney's 50th animated movie and accordingly you can see some of the loving attention that they lavished on it. There is certainly an extra helping of Disney magic in the movie. Ok, so why am I gushing over a children's movie like the Disney corporation is paying me by the word? Two words: Easter Eggs!

While watching the movie it felt extra magical but I couldn't exactly pin down what was making it so...then I realized that many of the scenes, shots, actions, lines, and full on things in the backgrounds are straight up lifted from other Disney movies. It is a visual delight for the careful viewer to spot references to other Disney movies.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

The opening scene with the golden flower is very similar to the opening of beauty and the beast. The woman in the cloak looks like the witch that curses beast. The castle looks very similar to the one in sleeping beauty. There is a special guest appearance of one of the cute little rabbits from Snow White. Pinocchio can be seen in the background of the bar scene. The ruffians in the bar resemble Captain Hook and his pirates very strongly. The guy with the hook even plays piano. When Rapunzel reveals herself for the first time to Flynn, it looks like the first time Beast reveals himself to Belle. The setting off of the lamps in the beginning of the movie looks like the Lion King's opening scene when Rafiki holds up Simba on Pride Rock. Rapunzel's opening song with her chores looks like Cinderella's. The books she picks up are like Belle at the library. Rapunzel's rolling through the grass is like Pocahontas. Rapunzel and Flynn on the boat is very close to The Little Mermaid boat scene, even when they almost tip over. Huge apple motif from Snow White. There is so much more too!

Here's the challenge to the few of you who read this: find more and tell everyone! Also, tell me what you find. I'd like to know.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Slip

This is a short scene I wrote. It also revolves around reincarnation and death. I think I have a fixation on it... Any questions leave a comment, because it is dense stuff.

Slip

Open on a moving school bus


M: Where am I?


DRIVER: Purgatory.


M: Wha-

Slip into other world, red gate

M: (Shakes it off) What was that?


Driver: You just slipped into another world.


M: (looks out the window) Why can’t I see any thing clearly out the window?


Driver: Side-effect


M slips again, thousands of images in a fraction of time. It affects him heavily and he collapses on the floor of the bus

M: What? What’s happening?


Driver: Your soul is dissociating from its bodies.


M: What?


Driver: You are a soul and you are dying of old age.


M: Age? (looks at hands) but I’m young.


Driver: What’s your name?

Slips through again into many different places. Hold longer on the red gate. Image of a boy walking through the red gate.


M: I don’t have a name do I? Or I have many names…


Driver: What’s your age?


M: Age? It doesn’t matter does it? None of it, not even time.


Driver: No. It doesn’t.


M: How can I be dying if time has no bearing on me?


Driver: No. Not how, why. Why are you dying?


M: I don’t know. I’m so sad…and happy. Each experience is an amplified dream; so in the moment it hurts.


Driver: you are dissipating into the ether; look around you so is everyone else.


M: Purgatory?


Driver: We aren’t anywhere actually. We are already in the ether. Nothing.


M: So my fate is final. I will disintegrate into the ether.


Driver: were you ever separate from the ether or even an individual?


M: (confused) I was many people? I feel it… I slip into love, parenthood, loneliness, sadness, success, failure, beauty, hatred, ugly. I am me at my most pure, and simultaneously most diluted. I am a higher consciousness? Am I God?


Driver: are you anything? Do your molecules exist from one universe to the next? What are you? Your values? Your actions? Opinions?


M: I can’t be because none of them are consistent. No world I experience is me or in agreement with me.

M slips back to the red gate and the yard and is holding his wife’s hand. He slips back out into the bus. He still has her wedding ring.

Driver: what did you see that time?


M: One of my lives. The best one. And the saddest one.


Driver: Souls used to know their past lives, see the error in their ways and have the opportunity to improve the next time.

M looks at ring, keeps it to himself, puts it in his jacket pocket.

Driver: death does not require time you know. You are already dead, have been many times.


M: but as a soul I regenerate?


Driver: No. You occupy many lives simultaneously separated by time and the thin membrane of every universe.


M: but then why am I dying?


Driver: because you’ve lost control.


M: I’m out of control? (slips)

Red gate, flash boy, phone call (distant, single ring)

M: (he is crying, sobbing uncontrollably) I don’t know why I’m crying. I slipped again but it was so calm, happy, and tranquil. Why did I cry? I feel empty. I also feel so much love.


Driver: Is that not what a lifetime is? Full and empty? Sad and happy? A jumble of abstract memories colored by emotion.


M: why can’t I hold onto my past lives, why is everyone on this bus? Are we all dead souls?


Driver: you are all refugees from paradise, dying because you lost control of your lives.


M: and where are we going? Hell?


Driver: No. I told you already, the ether. You will return to the energy from whence you came.


M slips back to yard. Wife is in white dress, he holds her hand and starts to dance with her, it is a happy moment, they have just found out she is pregnant.

M: will you follow me?


W: wherever you go.


M: and if I needed help?


W: I would save you.


M: and our child?


W: will love you.


M: and I will love him with you.


M slips back

M: why can’t I see my soul when I live?


Driver: you can, but it is equivalent to how an ant sees a field of grass.


M: I want to go back; I don’t want to stop my existence.


Driver: I can’t make that decision.


M slips. Gate opens, man in suit walks through with solemn look. It is clear he is some sort of security personnel.


M slips back.


M: I am, was someone powerful, in control. What do you mean I don’t control my life? (reaches in pocket and feels ring. Rolls it in his fingers)


M slips back to the garden the garden is empty and the light is slightly foreboding as if clouds are passing overhead.


M slips to airport. All of them. Hundreds of flights and airplanes. Delays, cancellations.


M slips to all loves over time. Thousands of women all ages on first dates and last breaths. “I love you” a lot


M slips back to the bus.


M: I am so much and so many simultaneously. And you are going to dissipate me? Erase me from every universe?


Driver: you are in all of those places and not. The ether doesn’t care about whether you are or you aren’t, but it does care if you control it.


M: and I can’t control it.


Driver: life is fragile. Control is precise and tenuous. The slightest slip and time’s landscape collapses.


M: (thinks about it for a while) No. Life is resilient. I choose to exist.


Driver: are you sure you can make that choice? Can you even make choices? You are already dead.


M: I have died and will die again, and am dying. I came from the ether, am part of the ether, and separate from the ether. I am what I am. And I choose to control it.


Driver: how?


M: (Pulls out wedding ring and shows it to Driver) Not how. Why. I’m going to propose to the woman of my dreams.


M slips into garden with W

M: I missed you so much. I want you to know that you are, will be, wonderful.


W: I love you too, what’s come over you?


M: marry me, but not the way that everyone does, till death do us part. Let’s stick it out for the life beyond the life.


W: beyond? Will you follow me?


M: wherever you go. (puts ring on her finger)


W: and if I needed you?


M: I would save you.


W: and a child?


M: will love us and we will love him.


M slips back to bus


M: I’m taking control


Driver: but you are already in the ether.


M: and I’m already not.

M slips back, wife in white dress and son are in the garden. M takes them by the hand and slips back onto the bus with both of them. He stands up and goes to the driver.

M: thank you God.


Driver: this is your stop.


M: I understand. (looks at W and son) Let’s go.

They exit the bus and open the red gate to the yard