copyright 2007 by George Johnson
Paso Robles Vineyard, photo by George Johnson, copyright 2007
1. Retrofit Arithmetic (and Rainbarrel Economics)
2. The San Juan-Chama Shell Game
3. The Case of the Disappearing Aquifer
4. The Creative Hydrology of Suerte del Sur
5. The City, the County, and a Water Tax Revolt
6. Water Numerology at City Hall
(Our story thus far)
7. The Woman at Otowi Gauge
8. "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
9. The Las Campanas Connection
(Our story continues)
10. The Engineering Solution
March 10, 2007
39. Blinded by Pseudoscience
Earlier this year while I was borrowing some books from St. John's library on the history of electricity, I noticed a photocopied handout at the circulation desk -- an article from the Washington Post headlined Hello, Grisham -- So Long, Hemingway? It was one of the more depressing things I'd read in a while.
You can't find "Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings" at the Pohick Regional Library anymore. Or "The Education of Henry Adams" at Sherwood Regional. Want Emily Dickinson's "Final Harvest"? Don't look to the Kingstowne branch. It's not that the books are checked out. They're just gone. No one was reading them, so librarians took them off the shelves and dumped them.
To make way for the latest John Grisham, Danielle Steel, Michael Crichton, and other "Hot Picks," librarians in the Washington suburb of Fairfax County have pulled thousands of books from the shelves, including Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Hardy's Mayor of Casterbridge, Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, Virgil's Aeneid, Marlowe's Dr. Faustus . . .
In a mild state of alarm, I immediately went to the Santa Fe Public Library's website where I found every one of those titles listed -- and a number of them checked out. Santa Fe not only has an excellent public library, but one that people actually use -- not just as a place to sleep off a hangover but to read books.
Given such a resource it's a shame that plans to equip the magnificent downtown reading room with wireless Internet have been sidetracked by a tiny band of Luddites who blame their health problems, and their general unhappiness with life, on electromagnetic waves impinging on their brains. In step with Santa Fe style, the administration has actually appointed the leader of the group, Arthur Firstenberg, to a technology advisory commitee. It was Mr. Firstenberg, a recent refugee from Mendocino, who interrupted a Coffee with Coss earlier this year declaring that he would have to leave the room unless the mayor turned off his wireless microphone. He might have also asked that he turn out the lights or reconvene in an aluminum foil tent.
While a few disputed studies have hinted at the possibility of subtle neurological effects from clamping a cellphone against your skull all day (cosmic justice of a sort), the signal from a wifi box is weaker than a flashlight, measured in milliwatts. Any effect on a library goer would have to be through sympathetic magic.
The same people are also trying to keep wifi out of city hall and off the plaza. For the administration to give them a seat at the table is like a planetarium hiring a court astrologer.
Catching up on the news
It was a bit of a letdown. After a nationwide search for the best possible person to run the City of Santa Fe, he turns out to have been under our noses all along: Galen Buller, acting city manager, is here to stay.
The unimaginative manner in which Mr. Buller ran the water department (please see Chapter 17, Galen Buller's Day Off) was a disappointment for those who hope to see the river revived. But he is apparently well liked at City Hall and highly regarded as an administrator. If he can get day to day operations back in focus maybe Mayor Coss, his first year already gone, can finally get on with some kind of agenda.
March 12, 2007
More signs of spring: construction cranes preening for both the northern and southern cameras.
March 13, 2007
Praying for Water
Among the savvier things Mayor Coss did right from the start was to hire one of Journal North's best reporters, Laura Banish, as his public information officer. A real pro, Ms. Banish knows that a good way to get a story on page one is to announce a press conference for Monday, a generally anemic news day followed by a fat Tuesday paper hungry to be fed. There it was on page one of the New Mexican: Reviving the river: Mayor touts effort to bring new life to the city's historic waterway.
My heart leapt a little as I began to read what turned out to be a reprise of the same old news -- an admirable effort to clean up river bank trash and control erosion and nothing about the kind of policy being promoted by Watershed West and the Santa Fe Watershed Association -- one that would allow for a continuous, revivifying flow below Nichols Dam.
Just more studies, more meetings, with the only bright spot the news that former state representative Max Coll (currently recovering from brain surgery in Texas) will head the latest incarnation of the River Commission.
The Journal, which has been way ahead of the New Mexican on river restoration news, didn't take the bait.
On other fronts the New Mexican's Staci Matlock has been doing excellent water coverage. Yesterday I discovered her blog. A comment in the entry for March 6 sounds right on target:
Ultimately, I have come to believe city water managers must be among the most religious people on the planet regardless of their religion. They won't admit it, but I'm convinced all of them -- after doing a lot of number crunching, hard planning and creative idea making -- resort to a whole lot of praying when it comes to how they'll keep providing water to a growing number of customers year after year.
For all the grandstanding, the Living River Plan also remains a faith-based effort.
March 14, 2007
What Science Really Knows About Wifi
For the last few evenings I've been playing with an old piece of laboratory equipment -- a cathode ray discharge tube -- built to replicate the 1897 experiment in which J. J. Thomson discovered the electron. I hook up the electrodes to a power supply, turn out the lights, and watch as a bluish beam of electrons, accelerated by 150 volts of positive electricity, sprays against the envelope of the glass. By placing a magnet near the beam I can make it move, one pole pulling it toward me and the other pushing it away.
Magnetism can move electrons and other charged particles, including the ions that course through the biological circuitry of the body and brain. Thus it is conceivable that the ubiquitous "electrosmog" ranging from the B-flat hum of power lines to the high-frequency scream of radio, television, and communications towers could have measurable physiological effects. Fixating on this notion, the Firstenbergers have been bombarding city officials with material purporting to show that everything from insomnia to cerebral cancer is caused by electromagnetic waves.
What you won't find in their informational packets is the preponderance of research rejecting these claims. No one questions that X-rays and gamma rays harm living cells. But the vastly weaker "non-ionizing radiation" that surrounds us has been exonerated again and again.
Fears about the low end of the electromagnetic spectrum -- 60 cycle-per-second power line radiation -- were all but dispelled in the late 1990s by the National Academy of Science (Possible Health Effects of Exposure to Residential Electric and Magnetic Fields) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers: Unfounded Fears: The Great Power-Line Cover-Up Exposed.
The case against cellphones, which operate on frequencies from 800 million to almost 2 billion cycles per second (the microwave range), seemed more plausible. The higher the frequency, the more penetrating the wave. But extensive studies have found no harmful effect:
Johansen C., Boice J.D. Jr., McLaughlin J.K., Olsen J.H., Cellular Telephones and Cancer -- a Nationwide Cohort Study in Denmark, Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2001; 93:203-7.
Inskip P.D., Tarone R.E., Hatch E.E., Wilcosky T.C., Shapiro W.R., Selker R.G., et al., Cellular-Telephone Use and Brain Tumors, New England Journal of Medicine 2001; 344:79-86.
Muscat J.E., Malkin M.G., Thompson S., Shore R.E., Stellman S.D., McRee D., et al., Handheld Cellular Telephone Use and Risk of Brain Cancer, Journal of the American Medical Association 2000; 284:3001-7.
Wireless Internet is so new that it will be years before the epidemiological verdict is in. But physics suggests that there isn't much to worry about. While wifi vibrates a little faster than cellular signals -- up to five billion times per second -- that is still 10,000 times slower than the infrared heat from a fireplace and 100,000 times slower than visible light. Biophysicists have found that it is not until you reach frequencies a million times higher -- ultraviolet -- that radiation can begin to break molecular bonds, causing cellular damage.
Last fall in an attempt to humor the opponents of the city wireless plan, the Council passed a resolution calling for two citizens "who represented the wide range of opinions about wifi" to be included in the technological review. But in science opinions count for nothing. What matters is data.
March 15, 2007
I walked down to Patrick Smith Park this afternoon (beer bottles, trash strewn everywhere) and saw that the good news is true. The city has begun a managed release of water, about 1.5 cubic feet per second or a million gallons a day, into the river. Here is the news release.
Though this doesn't mark a change in policy -- the plan is to cut off the flow again later this spring -- it's an encouraging step in the right direction.
March 16, 2007
Both the dailies report on the water release from Nichols Dam, but only the Journal puts it into context:
The Santa Fe River is wet with runoff and timed releases from city reservoirs. But Mayor David Coss' plan to make the long, brown scar of overgrown weeds and scattered garbage into a "living" river again is still a long way off.
The story, by Russell Simon, quotes David Groenfeldt, the new executive director of the Santa Fe Watershed Association:
"They want to capture the last little bit of water in the reservoirs. It's a good thing. But a better thing, in my view, would be to manage the reservoir for the purpose of maintaining a small, mostly consistent flow year-round."
The mayor meanwhile continues to insist that this can't happen until the completion of the ever elusive Buckman Diversion Project, which (judging from a story earlier this month) is as far off as ever.
March 18, 2007
More Rental Racket
Ever since city staff issued recommendations for legalizing but strictly regulating wildcat vacation rentals, the industry's heavy-weights have been pressuring City Hall. It's not enough that the administration has declined to prosecute them for years of violations and is seeking instead to bring them into compliance with looser new rules. From their precarious perch outside the law, they are actually demanding more favorable terms.
Their friend Councilor Wurzburger quickly obliged with a proposal in line with one written and approved last year by the industry's leaders and railroaded through a "citizen's advisory group." (Please see Hotel Santa Fe and The Short-term Rental Racket.) Representing neighborhood groups fighting to avoid being commercially rezoned, Councilor Heldmeyer introduced her own bill.
Meanwhile, the most original solution to the problem may be one suggested in this morning's Journal by retired attorney Richard Ellenberg.
"Transient uses, be they expensive vacation rentals on the east side or pay-by-the-night housing on the west side, are a profound intrusion into quiet neighborhood life," he writes. That is why they are prohibited across the country by zoning codes that are often much stricter than Santa Fe's.
We all have the right to know who is living next door or across the street. A neighbor knows our name, knows which house has a pet that may run out, and if the crying child belongs with the adult it is with. Transients do not take care of or contribute to a neighborhood, do not pick up after themselves, and sometimes behave as if they purchased the right to create a disturbance. Transients are destructive of the fabric of a neighborhood and should be prohibited in residential districts.
Recognizing the city's culpability in allowing the practice to fester, he suggests phasing out the illegal uses and shifting the business to where it belongs -- in commercial zones downtown. (If you don't subscribe to the Journal, you can read the full proposal in an email he sent to the Council.)
In an accompanying piece, Tom Simon, former owner of Kokopelli, repeats the usual arguments that the rentals are good for the economy. Councilor Wurzburger had tried to appoint Mr. Simon to the rental task force, but he was ineligible since he lives in Española. This is a common characteristic of the promoters of short-term rentals: They don't actually live in the neighborhoods they are working so hard to commercialize. The owners of Management Group have their home in Tesuque.
(We also learn, from the tagline to Mr. Simon's piece, that he is the father of Journal reporter Russell Max Simon, who has covered the issue with commendable objectivity.)
March 19, 2007
Word has it that a citizen complaint has been filed against both Kokopelli and Frontier Property Management for advertising illegal rentals as short as one night. If (more like when) the city fails to respond, it may be opening itself to a lawsuit for shirking its ministerial duty to enforce the law.
on to Part 40, Blinded by the Light . . .
Coming pretty soon: The Battle for Talaya Hill
The Tom Ford Webcam
The Andrew and Sydney Davis Webcam
Santa Fe Review Detours of the Wild West
The Santa Fe Review
See the current flow of the Santa Fe River above McClure Reservoir with the USGS automated gauge.
The Otowi gauge shows the flow of the Rio Grande north of Santa Fe.
Santa Fe water information, a collection of documents and links