Archive of category "Water"

by Jacob Corvidae

Most people have heard the idea that the Inuit (Eskimos) have a great more variety of words for snow than can be found in English. It turns out that this largely an urban legend. Nonetheless, there are certainly a wide variety of snow types. And as many of us in the Midwest are currently getting a big ol’ snowstorm, it seemed like a good time to look into some words to refine the conversation.

Here’s a list from of different words for snow.

And of course, wikipedia gives us some insights on different types of snow.

For a scientific look (and amazing photos like the one shown here) at the different varieties and structures of snow flakes, check out this great collection of info from Caltech. Though I remain curious about how these different flake structures affect what the overall snowfall effect is. For example, does one type of flake correspond with a soft clumpy snowfall while another corresponds with a light powder?

As for here in Detroit? I’d guess that last night we just had some flurries of needles, while today, we’ve got a snow storm of graupel. Ta da!

by Jacob Corvidae

photo by max greenberg

Do you know the difference between Hell and Harmless? Most people have a clear-cut sense of the difference in at least one place: Casinos. Hell is having poorly defined boundaries in a place designed to take your money. You can go in, play some games, maybe even win a few, boost your confidence, and try for more. You can come really close to winning big. Close enough that you’ll come back at it sure that you’re on the trail for success. For many people, this is an intoxicating recipe that can lead to bad choices. And for the addictive personality that is driven by an unchecked need, this setting can lead to disaster. Hell. Each step of the way may seem like an okay choice, a risk, but a calculated risk (that wasn’t really calculated) that never seems quite catastrophic.

Harmless isn’t actually that hard. I have friends who’ll go to a casino and consider it an evening’s entertainment. They’re clear that it’s entertainment and not really expect to make money off of it. Still, knowing the powerful pull of the win, they’ve got a very simple guideline. They’ve got what I call Casino Rules. You set a clear limit. After that limit you stop. You can stay and play all night if you want to, but you walk in the door with a set amount of cash, and that’s your limit. If you have wins, and are making money, you can play all night. Or you can play small and stretch it out. Or you can quit while ahead. But if you use up what you walked in with, then you’ve hit the limit. And you stop. No borrowing from friends, run to the bank, or visit to the ATM. It’s a simple rule, and it’s effective.

Casino Rules can apply to any potentially risky behavior that may have gradual steps of loss. Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, gradual steps make it difficult to see the big picture and how far you’ve come from your starting point, or when you’ve gone over the edge into danger. This is a common problem with addictions of all sorts. It’s also a problem with economic risk-taking of various kinds from investing to entrepreneurial get-rich-quick schemes. The power of graduated steps to keep us in the present and lose sight of the whole path can be very useful when pursuing a positive goal that’s hard to achieve. For example, dieters often do well to just focus on losing 5-10 pounds at a time, since the task of losing 40 would be too overwhelming.  But if the path is one of damage and hurt, then the same principle is dangerous. Limits to the losses you’ll suffer must be clearly set at the beginning of the road – before you’re too far along the path and only seeing each gradual step in front of you. Thus the Casino Rules.

Casino players and stock market investors all have clear guidelines that they use for setting these limits. So why don’t we, as a nation of petroleum consumers, have a similar rule? Michigan’s had enough trouble the past few years. But now we’ve been hit with the worst oil spill in our history with approximately 1 million gallons released into the Kalamazoo River, on a pipeline that had been cited for poor maintenance earlier this year. So far, the oil hasn’t hit Lake Michigan, and EPA predicts that it won’t, but the very thought is quite chilling. The Great Lakes are the largest liquid repository of freshwater on the planet.

We cannot just take each accident at a time. We must use Casino Rules. We must set a limit with a fresh perspective. When is it enough to be beyond reasonable risk? If we address each crisis by itself, we may never make a solid long-term decision. If we’d set such a limit in 2009, the gulf spill would likely have surpassed it already. Instead, we focus on the crisis and the clean-up. Then do the same in West Michigan. And do the same off the coast of California. And do the same off the coast of Massachusetts. And in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. And in Florida, Texas and more. The list is already longer than you think, just in 2010.

We need  (as a state or a region or a nation or a world) to set a limit. Where’s the threshold? How much oil will spill before we collectively agree to change our reliance on it? We must set the limit, and we must set it now before we end up in an addicts anonymous chair, introducing ourselves and telling the story of how we wrecked our lives and betrayed our children to a silent, empty room.

by Jacob Corvidae

image from

The nation’s been watching the “right-sizing” discussions around Detroit, and appropriately so. This is one of the areas where Detroit is living up to it’s potential as a laboratory for the 21st century. Which experiments work and which fail may help shape national dialogue. One big threat of failure is still looming in this area, but I have a solution to propose. First some more background.

Here in the city, the debates have been very contentious. There is a palpable fear on the ground. Concerns about eminent domain are widespread, with memories of Poletown still fresh. Some of these fears seem founded, while others fly wildly off into irrationality. These latter fears fuel a lot of speculation and spread like wildfire, and they are sometimes as understandable for a population that has felt out of control for so long as they are regrettable.

The Danger

One big concern has been that the Mayor’s office will simply take a map of Detroit, get a big red marker and start circling some areas for investment, while crossing off others for abandonment. It’s a realistic concern for a common political approach. Fortunately, the Community Development Advocates of Detroit’s Neighborhood Revitalization Strategic Framework seems to be catching on as a solid alternative proposal for how to approach this issue. This community based approach is crucial for two reasons:

1) even if it results in the same end decisions it will come with community buy-in and support. This is not mere glossy marketing. It’s important for people to have had a chance to think through the options themselves and get a say in the results. Even if the results end up the same. And they might! But they also might not, which is part of the importance of this step.

2) The community knows more about the city than the city government can. This is a big city. There’s lots going on it, and the Mayor’s office runs the risk of obliterating great developments, projects, community resources, etc. if it doesn’t use a system that allows the residents to weigh in on this decision. Those very same development, projects, community resources, etc. are a key piece of knowledge in prioritizing what happens where in the ongoing strategizing for the city’s future.

It looks like the plan from CDAD is gaining ground and being considered. If it is followed, it will help address many of the worst risks of the “right-sizing” strategy. Still, the fear that grabs hold of people’s heart and digs their heels in is the idea of losing their homes or being relocated. This fear strikes deep into issues of personal control and even to the heart of the myth of the American Dream.

It always struck me as highly unlikely that any one in the right mind would possibly propose moving anyone. Stopping services like garbage pickup and frequent police patrolling to certain areas of the city, yes. Perhaps stopping streetlighting or even paved road maintenance. These are urban amenities, and it seems perfectly reasonable to me to cut financial losses and not provide those assets for people who wish to stay in areas of the city that are increasingly rural when no city could realistically support those services for such spread out areas.

The Water Problem

Then a story by Noah Ovshinsky on WDET opened up another can of worms: water. The Detroit water infrastructure is aging. It’s in need of repair and upgrading, which is an expensive undertaking. Other cities are facing this same problem – this is not unique to Detroit.  But with a shrunken population and a need to invest in building vibrant, functional urban pockets within the city, it doesn’t make sense to maintain, much less upgrade, the water infrastructure for the remaining open spaces. And thus, this becomes a large reason why people think that eminent domain might be invoked to move people from these spots.

Such a move would be a nightmare. It shouldn’t happen. And it doesn’t have to.

The cost of moving someone to a new home is high. The cost of fighting a legal battle over it is also high. And that’s just the finances. The cost the culture of the community, the political process and the creative energies of the community are also very high (if harder to measure).

But Detroit can still lower it’s investments in those neighborhoods while not forcing anyone to leave. It can pay for those homes to become water self-sufficient. I call this approach Rightsizing with Rainwater.

Rightsizing with Rainwater

I recently gathered some information, available at the Go Green blog at WARM Training Center, on the cost of adding full water catchment systems to homes in similar climates. We’re a water rich region, so this isn’t as challenging as it would be in other parts of the country (another reason why Michigan’s going to be a great place to live in the 21st century). The cost of adding a full water catchment system is only about $12,000. While we might see higher costs for overflow raingardens, roof adjustments, etc., we could also see lower costs for building many of these systems at once. Let’s give ourselves some reasonable  (and possibly generous) wiggle-room and assume  $20K as a general cost placeholder.

Sewage is a bigger problem, but also surmountable. Creating the option for composting would dovetail very nicely with the move toward more agriculture in Detroit’s open spaces. Out of the box home composters cost between $1200 – $6000 for a family of 4 (Check out this great overview from the EPA). For our estimate, we should assume something on the higher end, to make certain that needs are adequately met. We don’t want to have a system that only meets 95% of the need! Therefore, let’s assume a $6,000 system.

(Another option would be building septic fields. It’s what they do in the country, and that’s some of the model we’re looking at for these areas, if the concentration of homes is low enough. Septic fields cost about $1,000 – $2,500, making this a cheaper option than the composting toilets, but it probably wouldn’t work in most settings. Homes would need about an acre to accommodate the field, and even in “rural Detroit” this is more land than most property owners are likely to own. )

So combine water catchment with composting toilets for a total cost of approximately $26,000.

All of this would cheaper than the cost of making someone move from their home when they didn’t want to. And it models better use of remaining spaces. I can easily imagine some people feeling that it’s not fair for the city to buy these expensive self-sufficiency systems for people who are being “uncooperative”, but it really is a win-win. Remember, that this would be coming at the same time as offers for assistance to move people into more functional parts of the city with the benefits of real urban density, while also severing many existing city services to the “disinvestment” areas. Most people would probably choose to relocate. But there’s no reason to force relocation at a higher financial, personal, community and political cost if it’s not necessary.

Of course, some legal barriers would have to be removed, with special codes being developed for dealing with water catchment and on-site water treatment. This is no small task. But the future will demand that we need to do these things anyway. This could become another example  where Detroit’s hardships could help pioneer a new trail for the rest of the nation. It is but one way that Detroit could become a model green city for the world.