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.