Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Need Less


When I was courting my wife, I noticed that she had a bumper sticker on her old car that said, “Need Less”.  I knew that this was the girl for me.  I’m kind of a make do person.  I take what I can get and make the best of it.  So is she.  That’s what makes it work.  In an age of material entitlement, deficit spending and instant gratification, we are the outliers, the under achievers, the slackers.  We make do.

We have a friend who lives on 300 dollars a month, in a small house with the mortgage paid that is decorated with old skis and bikes, floor to ceiling.  He lives alone because ‘women cost money’.  When I tell him that ‘It takes money to make money’, he shoots back that it ‘takes money to lose money’.  He eats carrots and sweet potatoes on the chair lift and when I asked him how many days did he ski last year he said ‘all of them’ and rides his bike on all the other days.  He has an old car that he never drives but takes the bus or rides his bike everywhere he goes.  He won a national road biking championship for his age group a few years ago and he lapped the field.  His time is his own and he seems to have enough of it.  He is my role model .

We thought about redoing our kitchen last year and the price started really adding up.  Then we thought twice.  A new  kitchen would be nice but did we really need it.  What would we really like, a new kitchen or to retire another year early.  If we replaced our kitchen, the old one would go in the dump.  Then in five or ten years when we sell this house the new owners will want their own kitchen and throw the old new one in the dump.  So there would be two kitchens in the dump.  What a waste. 
We drive around in old cars and trucks with a couple of hundred thousand miles on them.  A new car would be nice but do we really need it.  It is only transportation after all.  Who needs GIS maps and computers, climate control and phones in a car when it’s just driving.  What do we want, a new car or a few months in Europe.  Money is time. Squared.
We recently visited some friends down south at their new desert, second or third home that was replete with swimming pools and spas, rainbow laminar fountains and flaming lava beds.  The home was very smart with angulated modern design, switches, lights, videos and sound systems in every room with windows, floor to ceiling that hinged seamlessly at the corners and extended to the infinite horizon of the pool and the red rock landscape.  It was all breathtaking and opulent, over the top in every way, but I could not forget an admonishment I read last month that said that we should all have our first homes before people had second homes.  I felt a little less comfortable in the plush accommodations.  Too much.

Back home a corporate giant executed a hostile takeover of the local ski resort and adopted the name of our town for their resort.  They have great plans to grow and improve our town into one of the major destination resorts in the world.  But what about the sprawl and density, water and energy, traffic and parking, affordability and accessibility, locals and lifestyle.  People moved here to embrace a simpler, alternative lifestyle, away from corporate controls and bottom lines.  Our town is, by definition, about more than money and profits, it is about the unquantifiable things corporations can’t legally consider or justify to their shareholders.  Sometimes more ain’t better.  Less is more.

Then on the first snowy day of the winter this year I went out to snow-blow the driveway.  My 30 year old snow-blower refused to work so I tinkered a bit with it, I kicked it and thought about getting a new one.  But then I thought that would be such a waste and I spent three hours tuning and fixing it in a blizzard until it roared to life like it has 30 more years to go.  I went out and did my driveway and all my neighbors.  Then I fixed the old truck and cleaned the dated kitchen and went skiing.  Need Less.

Saturday, December 5, 2015


Standing around another ND tailgater, with some good old friends, on a postcard autumn day full of pomp and pageantry, trumpets under the Dome and the parade of our gladiators to the stadium, we are nostalgically comfortable with each other and with ourselves.  We kill the competition with stylish sportsmanship on the field and show them how it is done outside of the stadium.   After all, we invented most of this game day stuff.  We have been to dozens of games here together over the years and they have all merged in our minds as one big impression of close friends and a related place.   We were very close, for a short while, a long time ago, as the saying goes.  We had a contented, simple sense of place, of belonging, of being home. 

We remember the sights, sounds and smells, the thick humidity of summer, the clear cold of winter, the squeak of steps on snow when below zero, the scent of fresh baked bread from the dining halls or the dryer smells from the laundry, the buzz of the blimp on big game mornings or the pre-dawn trample of the steps of the crew or soccer teams running themselves into shape.  Some of our old haunts remain; the peaceful bench by the lake, the cusp of the huge Sycamore tree by the Grotto bi enough for four, the skateboard hill behind the Dome stretching from the Cathedral crypt to the laundry, the seedy side door of the Rock, the arches of Lyons and Morrissey, the old melting yellow building bricks baked from the mud of the lakes, the impeccable gardens, the timeless statues, the diverse trees and the plush quads – the endless quads, serving as pathways and playgrounds.

There are new quads now and bigger buildings, arenas and stadiums, fancy gardens and golf courses, upscale fountains and monuments that seem out of synch with the simple, sustainable place we look back on, often in black and white, or at best, sepia brown colors.  This small, ivy covered, academic village of 10,000 explodes into a manic city of 100,000 sports fanatics for the weekend with too many beers, and not enough cell coverage or port-o-potys.  How much is enough, how much is too much, when will it end or even slow down?  How many more new buildings, dormitories or domes on the stadium do we really need?   Would the money be better spent improving the education provided or on trying to stabilize the cost and trim the graduation debt that most students incur?    

And there is much more planned.  Always more.  If some is good, is more always better?  Is this progress?  Is it human nature?  Is it tied to physics, economics, evolution or biology?  Is it similar to the relentless growth ambition of a cancer cell?  Is it survival of the fittest in the educational world?  Is it our fatalistic fascination with geometric population growth or is it necessitated by the relentless demands of the time value of money?  Is this growth model akin to a swimming shark - if it stops swimming it dies?  If we stop growing do we die?  Is nothing sustainable?

Will this endless growth diminish our personal university experience or make it that much more rare and valuable?  Will it dilute our sense of the people and the place?  Native Americans say you can never step in the same river twice.  The river changes, you change.  It’s kind of like the maxim ‘You can never go home.’  But sometimes you can.  We return to our old friends and our old sense of belonging, again and again.   In a world that is growing increasingly complicated and confusing we turn back to each other and to this place of peace, searching for the security and simplicity that we remember.  So as we grab another beer and tell one more story at a tailgater, ‘where we were’ does not seem to be so out of reach, for the moment.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Water, Water, Everywhere, but not a Drop to Drink.

We are not running out of water, there is plenty of water out there.  The state of Utah, for example, receives 50 to 100 million acre-feet of precipitation each year (An acre-foot is a football field flooded one foot deep or enough water to supply an average Utah family of 6-12 for an entire year).  Even if you subtract the 90 percent of precipitation used by the natural environment, there is still enough water for 40-80 million people in this state, if we don’t just piss it all away.

The water we have is just going to the wrong users in the wrong places.  It is a matter of priorities or payments rather than plenty or plethora.  Instead of using valuable Colorado River water in California for millions of people, valuable cash crops or semiconductors, we flood irrigate pasture land at 8000 feet for cows.  Most of the rest of our water largess we dump on parks and golf courses and our lawns or flush down our sewer pipes without using it at all.   What a waste.

It all started with the inception of our archaic water right system.  You know – ‘first in time first in right and use it loose it’ - beneficial use.  Invented in the 1840’s by the competitive California gold miners to prevent infighting and perfected by the cooperative Mormon pioneers to promote development, successful applicants get more water than they could possibly use, in the priority of their application, forever, for free, if they put it to beneficial use. 

The State owns all the water and lets us use it according to our needs.  There is no value or price put on the water or even consideration for what it was used for, only the water user’s application’s place in line matters.  Irrigation trumps in-stream flows, sprinklers trump endangered species, power production trumps people.  Ludicrous.

This worked, according to plan, at encouraging full development of the west’s natural water resources and all the available flowing water was given away.  Then the flood waters were given away, then the ground water.  Then even the imaginary water was given away, just in case the climate changes and more of it magically appears.  So we gave away twice as much paper water as actual wet water.  Over-allocated and over-subscribed, water conservation used to mean ‘using it all up’.   You just had to show occasional use of all your water or you could lose it forever to the next guy on the list.  It’s dog eat dog.

Then at the turn of the century came the Bureau of Reclamation, a branch of the Department of Interior that was instigated to promote water and population development of the western states and entice the criminals and shysters back east to move out here.  It worked.  The Bureau built so many plumbing projects and gave away so much water that the west has become so overrun with welfare farmers and speculative yuppies that you can’t swing a cat without hitting someone with their big fat water entitlement. 

The big Bureau projects, funded by revenues from suspect ‘Cash Register’ power dams like Glen Canyon, gave water to the farmers for pennies on the dollar and  to the Municipalities for just a little more than that.  Municipalities in turn hid the cost of water in property taxes, assessments and impact fees so everyone could go on blindly irrigating their lawns and  sidewalks with impunity.  Actual conservation was given some lip service but trusting the water suppliers to encourage less use of their product was like putting the fox in charge of the hen house.  Call me crazy.
Now all the available water has been allocated and the Bureau and Municipalities have perfected giving it away.  So if you want to obtain some water, you have to go buy it, usually from someone who got it for free.  Talk about entitlement.  So now there is finally a price and a cost and a worth for water that may help us naturally prioritize its use.  So now people are starting to pay attention to water again. 

We can now rely on the free market, if not the fair market, to regulate our second most valuable natural resource.  Can we trust the market to equitably distribute this valuable public resource like it was oil or pig belly’s.  You can live for 5 minutes without air and maybe 5 days without water.  How much would you pay for a glass of water if you were dying of thirst?  Everything.  Seems reasonable.
Well what about the common good, the public welfare.  We went from a fairly communistic and socialist system of ‘water for everyone according to need’, to a strictly capitalist system of ‘water to the highest bidder’.  Who do we trust to keep the practical balance between these ideologies? 

We have the State Engineer who is a technical layman appointed by the Governor and approved by the Legislature.  He is backed by good science and engineering but is under a tremendous amount of political and economic pressure to enforce the rules.  Rules that are constantly changed by the incumbent politicians to satisfy the current private interest of the day.  We continually shoot the Albatross that leads us out of drought and hang it around the State Engineer’s neck to punish him, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.

 There are backup judicial alternatives for appeals but lord knows they are political too and wear their own dead Albatross around their neck.  So we trust our politicians with our hydro future but who elects and appoints these politicians?   Corporations, private interests, good old boys and the water buffaloes that enjoy all the continued water entitlements and subsidies, that’s who.  Do we think they want to change this system?  It is another self-perpetuating, self-aggrandizement hysteresis loop of self-interest. We are all screwed. 

We are, unless we can change our water culture and ethic of waste, denial and greed.  Unless we can start appreciating water for what it really costs and value it for what it is worth, economically, socially, culturally and metaphysically.  Unless we can start prioritizing and paying for it.  It will require a paradigm shift in values and a lifestyle adjustment for all of us.  It will take the development of a sustainable and resilient system, based on the value of this shrinking resource and its expanding various uses, to focus more clearly on the priorities of the public and the needs of the multitudes. If not then, like the Ancient Mariner, we will be cursed to wander the earth forever, retelling our sad, sorry story to those who are destined to repeat it. 

Forget it Jake, It’s Chinatown.
Roman Polansky

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


We keep coming up with new words for the same thing, to cover them, to cloud them, to avoid connotations that have developed over time.  Over time.  That is the key. 

In the 60s we came up with a new concept of trying to save the planet from ourselves.  The Environment.  People who embraced this ideal were called Environmentalists.  People who eschewed this inconvenient ideal called them Radical Environmentalist.  Soon they were both lumped together and people assumed that if you were and Environmentalist you were Radical.  We tend to polarize these days and there is no middle of the road anymore.  You were either Anti-Environment or radical environment.  It’s like when you were either a fascist-capitalist-pig-dog or commie-pinko-fag-socialist.  I blame Bush, and FOX.

That E word would not do.  So we needed a name change, a re-branding.  Along came Sustainability as an ideal based on trying to keep what we have and make it last, over time.  Maintainable, supportable viable, stability.  Our earth and our resources are limited so we have to get our use and destruction rate in balance with our existing inventory and creation of new resources.  Sustainability is basically the first derivative of environmentalist.  Minimizing long term changes in our environment.  It is Environmentalism over time.  De/Dt.

Well it worked for a while and everything became Sustainable and the Anti-Environmentalist didn’t even notice.  Cities and companies had sustainability divisions and universities had sustainability departments, majors and degrees.  It was a universally accepted buzzword like ‘Transparency’ or ‘Teams’ or ‘Creative Thinking’ or ‘thinking outside the box’ and everyone jumped on the band wagon.  Who could not like Sustainability?  It’s like mother, apple pie, babies or puppy dogs and it sounds good, makes sense and is hard to throw rocks at it.  How can you be Anti-Sustainable?  The opposite is not an option for if we don’t sustain, we die. 

But Sustainability got old and hackneyed and people started to make fun of it and hate it.  It got too hard to do.  So we got a new word.  Resilience.  This came about when we gave up on Sustainability and started talking about adapting to a changing world and climate we could not or would not sustain.  We will just have to get used to it because we are tough and hard yet pliable and supple.  We can change over time and adapt.  It’s another great word everyone likes and the opposite – defeatism – is not an option here in the greatest country on earth.  It’s a manly characteristic and another one that is hard to shoot down.  Resilience is therefore the second derivative of Environmentalism and the first of Sustainability.  It is the change in our Sustainability over time.  Ds/Dt.

The second derivative is where all the action and the fun is.  Like acceleration or compound interest or tipping point climate change.  The change in the change.  Change is accelerating and is no longer linear, or geometric or even exponential, its factorial.  I can’t wait to see what word they come up with next.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Dude, you stole our name.

I swore that I would withhold judgement on Vail Corporation’s operation in Park City for at least a year after their less than friendly takeover of the Park City Mountain Resort, in all fairness to them, and to give Vail time to get their feet wet and figure out the town and its people.  Now that Vail has shamelessly taken our town name and labeled their resort with it, it is time to speak up.

Vail came to town at a disadvantage with all the messy business of the takeover leaving a nasty taste in everyone’s mouth.  They said all the right things, made all the right promises and spread money around town to gain the support and influence of all the prominent people.  They worked on their image in the community and tried to fit in as best as they could.  Property have values soared. So have Vail’s profits and stock price.

Things this winter were relatively good, as everyone struggled with a less than stellar snow year.  The feeling on the hill was slightly corporate as exemplified by almost run openings and snow making priorities.  The mountains were ready for the lucrative holiday season but Jupiter didn’t even open until after Christmas.  The first crinkle came when the small time coffee vendors on the hill had to capitulate to the bigger Vail coffee contract.  Free coffee for Season Pass holders vanished when Vail took over Canyons years ago anyhow.  These things happen.

Vail’s self-proclaimed stakeholders are Guests, Employees, Communities, Environment and Shareholders, not necessarily in that order.  Notice they don’t say anything about skiers, boarders, athletes, winter sports enthusiasts or locals.  We could tell that there was someone new sitting on the chair lift with us this year.  The Shareholders.  Vail is a corporation and has a primary fiduciary responsibility to their Shareholders.  They have to do all they can to make money for them or they can be sued or fired.  I am told that Corporations are people too, and they were up there on the mountain this year, but it did not feel so personable.

The Vail corporate model is to sell cheap season passes, for an impressive quiver of resorts, early in the pre-season to capture an audience and sell them hamburgers, condos, skis and parking spaces all season long.  The pass is cheap, everything else will cost you.  This model guarantees return customers and incentivizes people to ski more at the different Vail resorts.  They sell 300,000 to 400,000 of these passes and consequently have over two hundred million dollars in their pockets by October.  Big, early money like this is an unheard of luxury in the ski business when resorts typically struggle to make ends meet until the Christmas holidays.  Fair enough, we all bought into this scheme with the prospect of skiing two resorts in town and a dozen others elsewhere for a reasonable price.  Was this our Faustian deal? 

How can you tell Vail has moved to town?  The license plates all turned green.  True to form, this year was a busy one around the resorts and around town.  Valiens from Colorado came to visit our small town to see what all the fuss was about.  Pass holders from around the country came as well to sample some of the new product.  We had constant traffic, grid lock and Carmageddon.  The other part of the Vail model is unsupervised 20 minute lift lines, slopes at their crowded Colorado Comfortable Carrying Capacity and packed lodges and super markets.  New Gondolas are nice but how much is enough.  Vail has the shareholders to consider after all.

This spring we were enticed to renew our Epic Local passes early with the caveat that it would allow us to use the lift served mountain biking this summer at the Vail Resorts since our season passes from last year would not qualify us.  We all ponied up our 50 dollar deposit.  When the lifts opened this summer we rode up to load the lift but were told that we had to come up with another 80 dollars for lift served biking summer passes, discounted from 100 since we were pass holders, plus another fee to ride the bike park.  When reminded of the original promise we were told that Vail changed their mind and was now going to charge extra.  When we protested this bait-and-switch injustice, the ticket teller said that an e-mail may have been sent to inform us but no one recalled receiving it.  In Cool Hand Luke fashion someone in the back yelled, “What we have here is a Vailure to Communicate”.

Is this part of the Vail corporate model for treating its customers: incremental life style entropy and price point sensitivities? It feels kind of like boiling frogs where we don’t notice the heat increase until we are toast?  Will we now have to pay extra for biking, hiking, parking, concerts or coffee?  I am not a widget to be squeezed or optimized, I am a person.  We are the people.  The same people who built this town and set it up so nicely for Vail to take over.  Now they have taken the name of our town and used it to brand their resort.  Vail is not a town.  It is a ski resort, a freeway exit, a corporation.  (Vail was named after the engineer who pioneered the first road over the pass, before the tunnel and the freeway.)  Park City is not a resort, it’s a town, a community.  We have the locals to consider after all.  

I am increasingly frustrated with the short term models of the Military, Business, Petroleum, Agriculture, Health Care, Hydro-Climate and Recreational Industrial-Economic Corporate-Complexes.  Their singular, profit driven politics tends to be destructive to the environment and economy, cultures and societies in the long run.  Not to mention the unintended consequences we have yet to realize.  We moved to Park City to escape this mainstream lifestyle and value system.  Now it seems to have caught up with us.  What are we to do?

Individually we don’t matter to the corporate model.  Alone we are one person, one customer. Together we are a town.  Let us not go gently into their corporate good night. Let us speak up for what we want, for what we need, to maintain the town and the recreational lifestyle we have forged.  If we can communally affect their bottom line or communicate effectively to their Shareholders, we can continue to defend our alternative values.  It’s not too late, if we really care.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Woods.

Growing up on suburban New York had its advantages; good schools, tons of friends, trips to the beach or The City and strip malls galore. Still, with all this modern urbanism, I focused at an early age on the woods, any woods. There was a cluster of nine trees in the school yard behind my backyard we called The Woods, where I swear I remember them tying up elephants when the circus came to town when I was very young. Down the block was a preserve called Tacapausha named after a local Indian full of mosquitos and poison ivy, birds and bunnies. There was another woods across town we called Three Streams where we could go fish and hunt and gather.  Every major Freeway or Parkway was lined with a thick buffer of trees and provided an extended linear wooded playground for a young boy on a bike. We would build bike trails and forts, dig holes to do wheelies in, play hide and seek, start fires, have fights and rumbles and anything primeval. This was our focus and our escape from New York.

But every year my family would make a pilgrimage to my aunt’s farm in northern Massachusetts where they had real woods. They had acres of it, miles of it, with either a lemon lime green glow in the spring and summer, or winter white, or a patchwork quilt of hardwood colors in the fall. This was wilderness to us, the wilderness of Thoreau, Lincoln, Stegner, Lewis and Clark. We would discover it, revel in it, freeze in it, and get lost in it.  Every day we would expectantly watch the woods emerge in the first morning light as the reflections of the breakfast kitchen faded to the reality of the outdoor world.   We were content sometimes to just watch it, if not, go out and play in it. 

Now we hike and ride and ski in the western woods around our home.  Not Birch and hardwoods but Aspens and conifers.  We are full grown adults but we are still amazed by the individual, yet repeating, random fractal Zen gardens around every turn as well as the boundless scope of the totality of woods.  The safe and slow scale of the up-track detail contrasts favorably with the perilously rapid ride down past an endless picket fence of trees, marveling at how many we don’t hit.  There are no elephants but it is our back yard. 

We have traveled far and wide from the infinite woods of Alaska and the Boreal forests of Canada to the 5000 year old Bristlecone woods of Nevada, and the petrified forests in the desert southwest.  From the protected Black Forest of Europe to the stunted, high altitude equatorial forests of Peru we gravitate again and again to the trees, to the woods.  They are all well and good, actually they are all suffering and adapting, but give me the forests and woods of my home and my youth, anytime. 

So take me back then to a small cabin in the woods with a bed and a bano, a fire and a fridge where we can minimize our needs, forget the crazy world and live quietly alone with the land.  Five or fifty acres of our own, away from the neighbors, their bright lights and their barking dog, but close enough to town to drop in unannounced.  Take me back to the sights, the sounds, the smells and the protective peace and the cool quiet of the woods.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Our Light Blue Tent

We received a wonderful blue, two person North Face tent for a wedding gift, a moveable honeymoon suite that we take everywhere we go. It is a good, sturdy, cozy, breathable water proof, three season tent and we love nothing better than to cozy up in there, for afternoon naps, for fooling around, or for deep vacation sleeping. The worse the weather rages outside the more comfortable it is inside.

In a blinding rainstorm on the Boundary waters of northern Minnesota, we holed up for days, sleeping, eating, reading everything in sight. Safe and warm and dry while others in our group floated away in their tents that had turned into bath tubs with sleeping bags and pads floating around on their own.

In a three day blow in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming we hunkered down out of the snow, hypothermic to the bone and delirious, asking whether we would die if we fell asleep, but eventually willing to risk it, rejoicing when the sun slipped between the clouds and the horizon for five glorious gold minutes.

In a wind storm on the Green River in Desolation Canyon one night when the wild horses across the river were screeching like Banshees, the dome tent flattened and rolled us onto each other before snapping back into form countless times, filling up and covering us with sand by morning. We rose like a Phoenix from our structural but sandy entombment, safe but not sorry for the experience.

But normally the tent is our castle, our home, our instant pleasure dome, a room with a view for two, plus a dog and our stuff.  There is nothing cozier on a cold night, nothing shadier and sleepier on a hot desert afternoon, no refuge in the wild better than our light blue tent.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Park City Water Sidebars


Water use in the Park City area was historically focused on surface water which was used for agriculture and mining processing.  Ground water was a nuisance to mining and was pumped and drained to the surface for disposal.  Water from the mines was used in town for many years until we discovered that its quality was questionable for human consumption.   Water supply now includes importation of treated surface water from the Weber River to augment the harvest of clean groundwater from deep wells and springs. 

Our population in the Snyderville Basin is expected to double again in the next 20 years bringing with it challenges and choices between conservation and consumption, balance and blind ignorance, sustainability and selfishness.  Water demands are expected to out strip supply by 50 to 100 percent over those periods.  Importing new water into the basin is necessary and critical as we outgrow the supply that we have.  Fortunately water flows towards money but eventually we will have to balance our supply with our demand. 

Climate and Water

Park City is an alpine - high desert climate, situated at the northern tip of the Colorado Plateau at just the right latitude and elevation to enjoy alpine winters and sunny dry summers.  Drift 100 miles north and you are in the cold, cloudy continental climate of the Tetons and Snake River.  Drift 100 miles south and you are in the sweltering Great American Desert and the Canyon country.   Here in the rain shadow of the Wasatch Mountain we enjoy the Great Salt Lake effect and the Greatest Snow on Earth and the climate is just right. 

John Wesley Powell, Grand Canyon Explorer and founder of the U.S. Geological Survey, recommended to Congress in 1878 that western drainage basins should live on solely the precipitation that falls in their individual geographic basin, encouraging wise use and conservation.  Of course Congress categorically dismissed Powell’s sustainability sentiments and set about re-plumbing the rivers and waters of the west.    Park City continues that tradition by importing new water to the basin from the Weber and Provo Rivers.

Water Geology

The Snyderville Basin geology is bounded by folded and faulted sedimentary rocks, mostly sandstone, quartzite, shale and limestone to the west and south, and by the Keetley volcanics, tuff and breccia to the east.  The basin is filled with unconsolidated alluvial (stream) and colluvial (glacial) deposits, as thick as 275 feet deep.  These deposits are typically course grained at the mountain interface, which is great for recharge, but are unfortunately fine grained in the basin and therefore do not yield water as easily as many of the unconsolidated fill basins in Utah. 

Municipal wells in the Park City area therefore withdraw water from the underlying consolidated rocks, such as the fractured and faulted limestone and sandstone.  These rock formations are locally broken into separate block formations that can inhibit or isolate water flow and withdrawal, which can make finding reliable ground water difficult.  This water, which recharges in the bedrock outcrops high in the mountains, typically takes 15 to 40 years to move through the system, although much older water is still being mined from our underlying bedrock and aquifers. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Park City Water Personalities

Whiskey is for drinking, Water is for fighting. That pithy maxim is still true throughout the west where our shrinking water supply easily outstrips our insatiable demand.  It is especially true in Park City where our individual perspectives and priorities are as different and diverse as our personalities.  The recent regionalization of the Snyderville Basin’s water by the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District has brought cooperation and collaboration to the area but the future still remains challenging with our explosive growth, changing climate and increasing demands.
Luckily there are two dynamic and innovative Water Czars in Park City, Clint McAfee and Andy Armstrong, managing the local water for the City and the County respectively.  They deal with the day to day operation of our water systems but also with the planning for the forecasted future supply and demand.  We caught up with them the other day over a glass of cold, clear, clean water and here is some of what they had to say;

“We live in a desert, for hell’s sake” shouts Andy Armstrong, Manager of the Mountain Regional and colorful, self-proclaimed water curmudgeon. “Don’t let the snow packed ski resorts and Kentucky Blue Grass fool you, we get 22 inches of precipitation a year here in the Park – that’s less than half of what they get in Chicago, Seattle or New York.  We have a very limited natural resource and an almost unlimited market growth potential here.  Water is like petrol, water is gold.” 

Andy is a native Utahan from hardy Pioneer stock, and has lived and worked as an engineer in the Park City area for over 30 years.   As a modern day renaissance man, Andy is a skier, a hunter/gatherer, an artisan, a voracious reader and a river rat but his passion is with negotiation and the Art of the Deal.   Three weeks out of open heart surgery, Andy leans back, undaunted, in his comfortable windowless office, festooned with his impressionistic photographs of rivers and clouds, water and rock.  “Utah has some of the highest per capita water usage in the country, because of its climate and because it’s subsidized water is so darn cheap.  It is tough to build a modern day water company in this climate and culture.”
Starting in 2000, Andy helped Mountain Regional stitch together dozens of struggling private water companies over the past ten years, in a local regionalization and sometimes controversial effort to serve western Summit County.  Largely unsubsidized, they incurred a mountain of debt to do this and immediately instituted a punitive, conservation rate that puts Salt Lake, LA and Las Vegas to shame.  The tiered rate encourages wise use, where water wasters pay as much as 20 dollars per 1000 gallons.  Mountain Regional now has one of the lowest per capita usage rates in the state, using almost half of the average.  “The mostly affluent customers here were not immune to the costs and were immediately responsive.”  “People will still spend more on wine than on water in Park City”, Andy proudly laments.

In 2014 Mountain Regional signed an agreement with the Weber Basin WCD, Park City Municipal Company and privately owned Summit Water Distribution Company to globally regionalize water distribution in this area and increase the reliability, redundancy and efficiency of their systems.  Mountain Regional embraced this global regionalization and now markets its sizable surplus water stores and pumping capacity to the other companies when needed. Mountain Regional can now bring 8800 acre feet from the Weber River near Rockport Reservoir to this basin, enough to service 12,000 homes.  “By maximizing our existing water contracts” Andy says, “we can delay expensive new water projects and together we can qualify for cheap Federal funding for those future projects”. 

Realizing that water flows uphill with power, towards money, Andy and engineer Doug Evans oversaw an energy savings program designed to avoid peak power spiking and focus on off peak power usage.  Mountain Regional pumps much of its water from deep wells and from the Weber River, 1000 feet over the mountain at Promontory, to service its 3500 clients and to ‘wheel’ water to Park City and Summit Water Company.  Andy says, “We paid $300,000 less last year for power than we did 6 years ago, pumping twice as much water, as energy prices steadily climbed”.  Andy attributes this to the “advanced automatic SCADA operating system set up by Chris Braun that ties together communication and operation of all their sources, wells, tanks and pumps, which are coordinated with a real time computerized system model set up by engineer Scott Morrison.   Overall we have a small but efficient staff that is all on the same page, gets the company concept and can think on their feet.”

Andy admits that balancing water sales and conservation is like “wielding a schizophrenic, double edge sword”.  He welcomes conservation and the local and basin wide regionalization that makes us more resilient to growth, climate change and drought with a wider portfolio of sources and supply.   He looks forward to a future where there are even more incentives to use power and water wisely, on retail and wholesale basis, He looks for a “consistency of green, where people conserve on their energy and water usage and minimize their waste, to save money and the limited resources of this high desert”. 

Cool as a cucumber, Clint Mc Affee has a very full plate but is unflappable as the Director of Water and Streets for the Park City Municipal Corporation.  “ I have a lot of great people working with me that allow me to focus on the big picture and the future and make good decisions that allow me to sleep at night”  Clint is a next generation manager who relies on effective delegation, technology and communication to get him through his hectic days and nights.  A competitive biker and avid skier, Clint values his free time and peace of mind as much as the rest of us.

Clint was raised in the Cache Valley of Northern Utah but moved to Park City in 1997 with two friends and a dog.  They lived the ski bum dream in a frozen RV at the trailer park on Rasmussen road.  He landed his first job on the snowmaking crew at PCMR, which he maintained while studying civil engineering at the University of Utah.  “I loved the outdoor action and adventure of the job and relished studying for my hydraulics class next to a snowmaking pipe flowing 3000 gallons per minute at 600 psi.” 

He got his professional start when he was hired, fresh out of school, by Fred Duberow, the Godfather of Park City water.  Fred had authored the original Water Resource study for Park City in 1983 that madly suggested that the City look to the Weber River for new water.  Clint eventually became involved with water treatment design and became a project manager for the City when the Quinn’s Junction treatment plant was being built.  As cream rises to the top, Clint rapidly rose up through the ranks to become the New-Age Park City Director of Water.

“Regionalization occurred in a nick of time in 2013-2014” says Clint “when Park City was at their end of their water supply rope”.  Imported water from the Weber and Provo Rivers now accounts for 30% of the City’s water supply portfolio that also includes 2 mine sources, 3 wells and one spring”.  “Park City now has a 15 mile straw to Rockport reservoir and can import a reliable 2900 acre feet or almost a billion gallons per year to the City.” 

“The moral of the story is that Weber Basin WCD is now the Mother Ship that delivers more than 200,000 acre feet of water throughout Northern Utah so it is imperative that we guide the process here to fit the unique Park City community needs.”  Conventional water wisdom says that ‘being at the top of the drainage with a shovel is better than being at the bottom end with all the Water Rights in the world.’  Clint says that his “next challenge is to secure upstream water storage to assure a reliable, redundant and flexible yield to meet the highest predicted demands of the future and help control our own destiny.”

With a comfortable water quantity supply in place Clint has been able to tackle his highest priority – water quality.  “Although the water flowing from the Judge and Spiro mine tunnels meets EPA standards it does not meet Park City Standards.”  Concerns about tunnel levels of Antimony, Arsenic and heavy metals became a growing issue.   So in 2013 the untreated Judge Tunnel source, which flows from 600 - 2500 gpm, was turned back to the creek in Daly Canyon and water quality throughout Old Town was improved in less than one month.”  Plans for future treatment of the Judge and Spiro water, even if it is left in the creek, are planned for the future.  “This will not be cheap but when an Old Town waiter asks us if we want local tap or bottled water, I want to be sure we are all comfortable with the local tap water.”

Clint’s other passion and priority is “water conservation that can put off or even eliminate the need for expensive future expansion projects.”  Park City instituted a punitive, tiered conservation rate in 2004, similar to Mountain Regional, which increased the price of water and decreased consumption.  Clint also introduced a high tech Water Smart Customer Portal program that “allows for real time monitoring and reporting of individual water to promote awareness and water use knowledge that allows customers to make informed decisions.”  The system can actually send customers a warning email when the usage patterns reveal a small leak or excessive seasonal usage.  “Customers can now see their usage compared to their neighbors that in a competitive conservation minded town such as Park City can be highly motivating.”   Clint hopes to “balance wise use with the sustainability of the Park City look and lifestyle we all love.  We don’t want to look like Vegas”

Clint sees the changing climate as a big future challenge with “an increasing need for snowmaking water during more the frequent drought years (like 2012, 2013,2014, 2015…) and to combat the foretasted rising snow level.”  Snowmaking is where he started and he knows that “our snowmaking peak demands will rival out summertime irrigation demands.”  He has also “initiated a Long Range Finance Model to help plan for the infrastructure and technological innovation needed to keep water prices reasonable and reliable supplies flowing.” 

Clint also sees his continued role with the City as “helping them adjust to; the regionalization and the growing regulations, the exploding population and popularity of the City and the increase in sophistication and awareness of his constituents”.  Clint “welcomes the ambitious plans of Vail Associates, Mountain Accord and One Wasatch that will steer us into future.”  He is cool with these future challenges.  Cool as a cucumber. 

We are fortunate to have such professionals guiding the evolution and development of our water resources.  If there is power in personality, we are dealing with a powder keg with Andy and Clint.  They have brought us from the uncertain past to a reliable present, from a washed up mining town to a world class destination resort.  We will need them to help navigate the contentious and combative water landscape of the future, with foresight and wisdom, humor and tenacity, for sustainable solutions.

Monday, March 9, 2015

"Relicts of a Beautiful Sea"

Relicts of a Beautiful Sea, Survival, Extinction and Conservation in a Desert World

By; Christopher J. Norment, SUNY Brockport
From; The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill NC.
Reviewed by Matt Lindon of the Friends of the Park City Library

 “Relicts of a Beautiful Sea” is an elegant story of several sublime but significant endangered species including salamanders, toads and three types of Pup-fish, eking out an existence in Death Valley, Owens Valley, Amorgosa Valley and the White Mountains of Western Nevada.  Their prehistoric battle with earths changing geology and climates pales in comparison with their recent battles with enterprising humans, their good ideas and bad intentions, hell bent on re-plumbing the west and making the desert bloom.  Only the intervention of the government and private conservation groups has saved these species by reclaiming the land, their historical hydrology and their unique habitat. 

Noment, a professor of environmental science and biology at the State University of New York at Brockport, masterfully tells the age old story of western Nevada, where sparse springs were quickly identified and developed for human benefit and eventually abandoned when they played out.  It is story that is still alive today as we continue to exploit these delicate water sources for short term gain without much consideration of the long term consequences.  ‘The desert’, Norment writes, ‘is defined by the absence of water, and yet in the desert there is water enough, if you live properly.’

Every section on an each individual species starts with a fairly prosaic treatment of the species trials and tribulations, which can gloss over even the most scientific readers, but quickly evolves into finely written ruminations about general solitude and seclusion, tenacity and persistence.   Norment even weaves a little Whitman, Lopez, Abbey, Santayanna and Springsteen in there as he waxes personally, philosophically and lyrically about habitat and humanity, science and sustainability.  It is also an enduring story of isolation and loneliness, for these species, the author and our humanity.   

I have personally worked for years with Ash Meadows National Wildlife Reserve, attempting to recreate the historical hydrology and habitat conducive to saving the Amorgosa Pupfish.  Saving Nemo we call it for marketing purposes.  It is great to read this outside perspective, from an erudite but objective east coast academic, on our choices, priorities and the restoration work currently being done.  Norment helps explain the cost and the worth of these species, and why we should care.

 As Utah and (Las Vegas) continue to fight over developing the water in the connected ancient aquifers on our shared border,  we conveniently forget that when we start pumping that water, the surface springs will dry up first and the Pupfish will go belly up.  Aquifer over pumping is a common problem out west and the unintended consequences are often ignored.  Saving Nemo puts a face on this practice and “Relicts of a Beautiful Sea” puts a voice to it.  Bravo.