Sunday, March 23, 2008

Need more education

I'd like to post more often, but the demands of job, parenthood, and now, dog-training, altogether too often take precedence. Add to that my wish to retain at least a modicum of anonymity by posting only from home, and getting the time to post is often difficult.

There's considerable discussion both in the news and the politico-econ blogs I frequent about the economic fallout from the subprime mess, as well as plenty of talk about how it started and who's to blame. What doesn't get discussed is the amount of environmental damage to the desert southwest and its aquatic resources (not to mention T&E species habitat) as a result of the overwhelming amount of development brought on by low interest rates, and quite frankly, the greed of the development industry and investment banking.

I've heard that some of the most heavily developed areas in the southwest, such as the Inland Empire of Southern California, the areas around Tucson and Phoenix, the greater Las Vegas area, and the Santa Fe-Albuquerque area have also had some of the most significant impacts to riparian habitat and T&E species habitat in the country in the last 10 years. Those homes that were constructed and now stand empty, were constructed in areas that hosted habitat for a number of species such as the southwestern willow flycatcher, the California coastal gnatcatcher, the pygmy owl, among other plants, herps, mammals and birds.

Riparian corridors are crucial in the southwest to provide cover, forage, and nesting areas for most of the desert inhabitants. I'll saved the loss of water for another discussion, but the funneling of species into degraded, suburban or urban channels is clearly to their detriment.

Part of the problem, especially in the more arid areas, is there is not enough public education as to the function and the value of intermittent and ephemeral waterways, including amongst regulators and consultants. I frequently come across colleagues in my industry who have little understanding of the functions of an arroyo, which include pollutant attenuation, water infiltration, stormwater and sediment conveyance, and cover and corridors for herps, small mammals and birds, amongst other functions. Other colleagues don't understand that an arroyo's banks are where they are because they do convey that much water on occasion (and it isn't necessarily a hundred-year event when it does, more like a 2- or 5-year event).

If educated biologists, geomorphologists, and other environmental professionals in my industry have such limited understanding of how desert fluvial systems work (or just haven't bothered to keep up with the literature), how can we expect the general public to have any?

3 comments:

Kim said...

I've noticed that local developments seem to view wetlands as something separate from the topography. Destroy a wetland to build houses; design a new wetland somewhere else. The constructed wetlands provide homes for birds (and probably other critters that aren't as obvious), but I wonder how the old drainage would behave after a heavy rain?

coconino said...

It depends on the locale and the local regulation of development and adherence to standard grading/geotech practices. In some states (and counties) in the sw there is strict adherence to providing passage for a 100-yr storm event. So, not only must a developer provide a "new" wetland (they don't always work as well as the old - more on that later), but the redirected drainage must allow passage of a 100-yr storm event. That said, if one lives in an area with limited to no zoning, all bets are off. All counties in CA have strict zoning and environmental regulation. Most counties in AZ do, especially the heavily developed ones. CO has some very loose county regulation, and many counties in NM have no regulation at all. Without any local control, it is up to the federal agency regulating waters and wetlands, which is the Corps of Engineers. It can be difficult for them to reach into those sorts of engineering practices in their regulation. I'm not saying they can or can't, it is often just outside of their normal perview. Good consultants will "bully" their developer clients into doing the right thing, mediocre consultants will encourage their clients to skirt as much regulation as possible.

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