Monday, October 31, 2016

Caveat Empty: The National Flood Insurance Well is Dry

One reason not much gets done about climate change and sea level rise is that government has coddled communities affected by climate-driven storm surges. Understanding that there are numerous cases which have been left to wallow and others compensated meagerly, it appears that some are nonetheless satisfied, shifting the burden onto their fellow taxpayers for their risky decision to perch themselves on the edge of a sea containing melting ice cubes.
Photo by Richard
A coddling case in point is the nearby Cove Point neighborhood, Calvert County's most flood-prone community, which is receiving federal grants to allow homeowners to elevate their homes. The same community is also up in arms over the (ill conceived) efforts to make the Cove Point LNG plant export-capable. Their NIMBY campaign stems from concerns for their safety, but the Cove Point plant has been there for some forty years, handling LNG imports, why weren't they protesting then? They bought their homes with full awareness of the plant's and sea's presence, but now they expect to be protected from both. An inflated sense of entitlement and lack of responsibility for personal decisions seems common to both grievances.

The moral hazard of rewarding recklessness has brought the National Flood Insurance Program to be $23 billion in debt, with more possibly coming in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. As claims go unpaid, or as more debt is incurred, FEMA will be loath to give money away to communities like Cove Point who choose to ignore the obvious risks.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Canoe U - Who Knew?

Consciousness of global warming will rise with the seas. Other parts of the world, particularly the Far East, will gain consciousness earlier than America, but the truth will become clear to those of us on the east coast faster than you might expect. Studies modeling climate change often select the turn of the next century as the datum for reporting outcomes, leading casual readers to think that the interim won't pose a major problem. In the case of sea level rise, it is important to understand that there is no escape - we are already locked in to being driven back by the sea in many littoral areas regardless of how much we mitigate carbon emissions. The more salient question is: how quickly will the seas continue to rise?

Recently, scientists have found that there is a strong possibility that previous estimates of the inextirpable rate of sea level rise are short by half if the West Antarctic ice shelf calves off into the drink. A study done this year looks at what that could mean for east coast U.S. military bases. It also includes a scenario for the case that Antarctica doesn't fall apart. Either way, bases on the east coast will struggle to adapt to the sea's encroachment on their territory.

The Navy will gain awareness more quickly than other services as a result of port visits in Japan, the Philippines, and other countries where sea level rise is having a more dramatic effect. Several coastal military bases will also find themselves surrounded by communities suffering from increasingly flooded homes and businesses. As storm intensity increases, the rise in mean sea level can also be magnified by storm surges, so natural disasters will convince many more military leaders of the problem sometime in the next two decades.

Annapolis, though hardly the most severely impacted, has a recent litany of incidents that serve to raise awareness of not only the Navy community, but also Maryland lawmakers who convene about half a mile up the street from the frequently flooded dock area. Even without the new alarm over Antarctica, projections are for an increase of flooding events to 180 times per year by 2030. The Naval Academy has already seen an increase in flooding and can expect to lose all of its athletic fields along with several buildings over the long term.
Photo: Bill Taylor 
There will probably be those from the "ships at sea" school who try to capitalize on the expansion of their nautical domain, but they will be outnumbered by sand crabs who won't appreciated being flooded out of their secure nooks. I wouldn't be surprised to see an increasing number of midshipmen being steered into oceanography or other new environmental majors in the coming years.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Dock Days on the Horizon

In the Maryland Department of Transportation road show visit to Calvert County, a few local industries were mentioned to point out the value of Maryland's maritime transportation infrastructure. Three businesses, to be exact, seem to be all that they could come up with for this slice of the Southern Maryland peninsula. They were Victor Stanley, Dominion (Cove Point), and Yesteryear Wicker. These businesses employ only about 300 of the approximately 50,000 strong Calvert County workforce.

Nevertheless, change is coming in the next twenty years that will make shipping over water more common. It just won't require Calvert to rely on the Port of Baltimore. Local waterborne cargo businesses will spring up at a multitude of the private docks along the bay and inlets in conjunction with the shift of short haul logistics onto cargo bikes.
Photo by Andrew M Butler

Factors contributing to these changes will include financial and commercial collapse, the peak oil descent, America turning inward as the world closes in around it, and more need of U.S. armed forces and police, burning more fuel in their desperate effort to stop insurgencies, rebellion, and mass pillage. If the latter driving factor does not manifest, then President H.R. Clinton's last gasp efforts to hold on to dominant U.S. influence abroad will also crimp domestic fuel supply, while more Middle East oil flows to the Far East.

Let's just hope that the rising sound and fury is tempered by all parties' adherence to the Paris treaty. Otherwise, the climatological fallout could be worse than the horrors of war.

In any case, the Port of Baltimore is bound to suffer some major losses. Maryland is the third most vulnerable state (behind Florida and Louisiana) to sea level rise. The average period between Superstorm Sandy level catastrophes for the U.S. East coast is now predicted at twenty years and dropping.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Plan on Pedaling

One of the ways Maryland is trying to improve transportation is to support bicycle riders and pedestrians, especially in the more populated towns and cities. There is a lot of progress to be made, since Maryland ranked 39th in the nation for bicycling when the O'Malley administration decided to do something about it. What they came up with is a 20-year plan with the vision that "Maryland will be a place where bicycling and walking are safe, practical, and inviting ways for people of all ages and abilities to complete their everyday travel."

Much of what they are doing deals with bikeway construction. You can use the interactive map to find roads that are good for cycling. There aren't that many in my area, but one way for me to use the map is to find bike roads in populated areas where I might need to spend a day and take my bike along for intracity travel, rather than worry about parking costs or bus fares.

Regardless of how many bikeways there are now or in the future, bikes are going to be a primary means of travel and roads less and less dangerous as gasoline becomes more scarce. In the upcoming rearrangement of our economy, bikes will be more valuable than gas-powered cars. Until then, stocking up with bicycles and bike accessories would be a good investment strategy.

I'm not talking about gathering a collection like that of the late Robin Williams. He loved bikes for recreation and sport, but utility will be, by far, the value proposition for bicycles in the coming age. In that vein, there is a class of bicycles known as "cargo bikes" that will be used for short haul cartage in lieu of cars. There are enough makes and models of cargo bikes to make any collector happy, though they tend to be expensive.

My dream machine would be an electric-power assist bike like Felt's Tote'm. You might fall for it, too, by watching Felt's short video. My closest distributor is Parvilla Cycle up Annapolis way.

Before I shell out four grand for an electric bicycle (which may eventually prove essential with all the hills in my neighborhood), I will try to work my carrying capacity up by putting a front and rear panniers on my comely, but heavy Schwinn Wayfarer.
 Image result for Schwinn Wayfarer
A step up would be to get a lighter weight cargo bike.

Yes, there are alternatives to cars. We aren't going back to the stone age.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Collapse's Silver Lining

Photo by Lynne Hand
Maryland's Energy Administration can claim the lion's share of the progress in greenhouse gas reduction for the state over the past seven years, though several facets of the EmPOWER Maryland Program are led by other agencies. Transportation, which emits roughly one-third of the state's greenhouse gases, has not been a major contributor to Maryland's success in pursuit of the 2020 mandated emissions reductions. Greenhouse gases emitted by vehicles has decreased, but not at a rate that would make the 25% reduction anticipated by the Maryland Commission on Climate Change. Page 40 of MDOT's annual attainment report has a bar graph that cuts through a lot of obfuscation.

Ironically, Maryland will probably meet not only the 2020 target for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction, but also the additional 15% reduction mandated by the 2016 version of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act. You may think that electric vehicles will be a big part of the reason, but I am thinking more in terms of the slowdown in the economy that will come about when the central banks have lost all control of the financial system. The Great Recession had the salutary effect of lowering GHG emissions. It appears that nature has a different view of goodness than the majority of humans, at least as measured by the greenhouse effect. While many will see the collapse of the financial system (coming soon to an economy near you) as a catastrophe, take comfort in the thought that it may also be the salvation of the world.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Traffic Snarls

Image by Torley
Annapolis politicians are squaring off over billions of dollars worth of potential gridlock remedies. A new coalition called Fix270NOW came out a few months ago advocating that Maryland pour huge sums into expanding I-270, the main route between Washington, D.C. and Frederick, Maryland. Another group, the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition (MTOC), formed, it appears, in response to Fix270NOW's efforts, is in favor of building new transit lines instead of widening existing roads.

The contest for political backing will take place over several months, well into 2017 as the Maryland Department of Transportation takes their road show to all the counties to talk about the proposed Consolidated Transportation Plan for the upcoming 6 years. The CTP tour schedule shows it reaching Calvert County on October 18th. The CTP includes the BaltimoreLink bus system rather than the Red Line rail system that MTOC is advocating.

All of these ideas are far too ambitious for these times. Not only that, plans that rely heavily on fossil fueled modes of transportation are doomed. Of the three proposals, I agree with MTOC's the most, since it is very much public transit oriented, meaning more energy efficient. Part of MTOC's proposed build out includes a Southern Maryland Rapid Transit line from the DC Metro to Waldorf. It doesn't come close to reaching the part of Southern Maryland where I live, but does address a major traffic bottleneck.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Off Broadway

As a plebe (freshman) at Annapolis, I loved the several opportunities to escape the confines of our pressure cooker environment by taking group trips to watch Broadway plays at the Kennedy Center and the Arena Stage. The half-price tickets were just cheap enough to make it affordable for me, but now, decades later, and living, once again, close to Washington, D.C., I am not able to afford such venues. Back in the '70's, I realized that I was living the dream and that life after the Academy wouldn't afford the same privileges. Being priced out of today's Broadway shows is, therefore, no great surprise.
Photo by Flipsy
Any latent disappointment over the loss of those glory days was erased Saturday night when my wife and I took in our first play performed at the New Direction Community Theater. Lacking only the grandeur and amenities of metropolitan playhouses, but not the acting quality or set realism, this community theater brought me as much of an escape from my work-a-day existence as those that draw audiences by the hundreds. It also costs less than I paid 40 years ago to watch professional acting.

I like the name "New Direction," because it implies to me the change in lifestyle we will all soon experience to some degree, i.e. valuing local community activity more than cosmopolitan pretense. Another difference is that, as part of a small audience, you become a bigger factor in the play's success by your attentiveness, reactions, and applause than when there is a larger audience to carry things along. You also are more likely to get to know the performers and crew, especially if you attend frequently. You will certainly get a seat closer to the action.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Growing Pains

At one of our county's workshops for updating the comprehensive plan, a survey of the audience indicated that growth was perceived as the greatest challenge facing the county. Most, if not all, of those who gave this answer were implying that we should be making extra effort to ensure that the county grows economically. My own view is that economic growth is not in the cards, as our nation is already stagnating and the fuel for its growth (cheap oil) is past peak production. There are other ways in which growth is possible, but if the majority insist on government banging their heads against the glass wall of making America great again, efforts to collectively grow in more sublime ways will be foregone

I was prepared to read a speech detailing my vision for the county's future up to 2040, but it turned out that the workshop was not structured as an open forum. Nonetheless, I emailed a link to the transcript, which follows, to the planning department for consideration.

By sometime in the next decade,
Neither the population or the county government grow. Emphasis has shifted from building a strong local economy to building a resilient one.
The ambitious economic benchmarks in the earlier plan are laid aside in order to accommodate the new realities of zero growth and to recover from the geopolitical and economic trauma of recent decades.
Federal government employment remains strong, but most Federal employees in our county telework more often than they commute.
We selectively abandon maintenance of roads, as ownership and ridership in motorized vehicles dwindles in the post-fossil fuel age. For long distance travel, we begin to use waterborne transport and a railroad built over one side of route 4, with the other side a two-way road for small vehicles and light trucks.
The Cove Point gas plant gets converted into a farm of climate-controlled, giant greenhouses fashioned out of the frames that once supported the dozen or so huge tanks that never found a use as the natural gas fracking boom quickly petered out. The biomass output of these greenhouses dwarfs anything that could be produced from conventional farming and serves as raw material for several indigenous industries, as well as for food. The nutrients for the rapidly growing crops in these greenhouses comes from thermogenic composting of treated sewage at a facility co-located with the Appeal wastewater treatment plant.
From the inception of this updated plan, our efforts turn to transitioning to a prolonged period marked by simpler living. Consumerism is out. Working in step with nature is in. Our most popular pastime shifts from going shopping to staying home making. Entrepreneurs organize ten-acre farms instead of cell phone game companies. Able-bodied citizens engage in physical labor instead of watching television. Local government and developers replace our expanding suburban wastelands with compact, walkable towns. We conduct more plays, concerts, sing-alongs, and puppet shows and put aside national television extravaganzas and world-wide web entertainment. We learn to make things of quality by hand instead of buying car loads of stamped out plastic widgets guaranteed to fall apart by next week.
Environmental restoration, including greenhouse gas reduction, becomes everyone's concern.
We realize that holding back the rising ocean is infeasible. We become proactive in moving away from coastal development in areas at risk from inundation or erosion by the bay and tidal waters. Investment is channeled, instead, to upland areas, while low lying waterfront properties grow flood-mitigating living shorelines that will gradually migrate inland, keeping pace with the rising tides.
Calvert County's landscape is characterized by forests, fields, farms and villages, surrounded by a healthier river and bay.  Habitat destruction by new land development is stymied by government-imposed barriers and enforcement of laws and regulations allowing no net loss of forests.
Cottage industries emerge to serve local needs in ways that are ecologically compatible. Many of these are in the realm of agroforestry, meaning forest garden ecosystems sustainably supply a large portion of all of our products. In addition,

* Agriculture has been transformed from its former industrial mode, though some of the new forest gardens approach farm scale as they grow
* Flowers bloom all over the place
* Fruits and nuts swell on trees everywhere and other foods grow along your path - you even know all their names and how to use them
* Citizens are educated and active stewards of the land and surrounding waters
* Fishing is better
* Previously isolated forest fragments are linked to each other
* Our habitations and surroundings are starting to look, feel, and function more naturally, enabling us to feel healthier, more alive, and more connected than we had for generations
Holding onto the elusive dream of continuous growth hurts our future environment because decision makers give a back seat to changes that don't have the imprimatur of progress. It is difficult for them to accept that diminishing returns are beginning to fall short of increasing costs to upgrade or build traditional infrastructure such as wastewater treatment plants or dams, especially if one factors in the historical costs of failure under stress. By holding onto these flawed architectures, they only close off opportunities for better, albeit less sophisticated, solutions such as humanure composting and wild rivers. Such regressive measures are considered defeatist and are rejected out of hand, even if that leads to ruining the environment and the economy.

The spike in sewage overflows caused by Superstorm Sandy may have to be experienced again in Hurricane Matthew, and more storms before someone with enough common sense makes a decision to avoid such spills in the future by recycling this valuable waste without dumping treatment chemicals into our bays and rivers.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Storm Purges

Photo by Magnus Franklin
It's been four years since Superstorm Sandy poured down on the northeastern U.S.  Now, major hurricanes simultaneously threaten to cause disasters in both hemispheres. Despite Matthew's menacing track forecast, there is a good chance it will stay out at sea. Either way, it looks like much of the east coast is in for a deluge. One of the greatest impacts caused by Sandy and many other extreme rain events is one we seem to forget too quickly afterwards - overflowing of sewage treatment plants. The cumulative result,  in connection with Superstorm Sandy, was discharge of some 11 billion gallons of raw sewage to our environment. While 7 million gallons is enough to push me to take desperate measures, billions of gallons may drive me to despair.

Our wastewater treatment infrastructure, like so much else in our country, has not been maintained or renewed enough to keep pace with a growing population. Add to that the stress of climate change, and there is bound to be an increase in failures. Rising sea levels, even from a storm surge, is particularly culpable.

Inundation also affects septic systems by raising the water table well inland from the shore, causing degradation of septic system performance - all the more reason to transition to humanure composting in lieu of sewage and septic solutions. Septic systems, for various reasons, pollute proportionally more than sewage overflow incidents, but for my money, humanure composting is better than either.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

How Quickly Things can Change

Photo by G. Crouch
In little time, Matthew went from a tropical storm to a category 5 hurricane. By late next week, peoples' lives on this coast may be dramatically interrupted. When these storms track west of the Chesapeake Bay, the storm surge has been reported as high as 15 feet in one long ago incident. The flood hazard estimates for the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant use a maximum probable surge of 27 feet (the plant survives, but so long Norfolk, Annapolis, and Baltimore).

Storm surge isn't the concern for my home, but a major hurricane hit would possibly take off the roof or knock down walls. We would not be in the house at that point, having evacuated to a shelter or to the hinterlands about a day ahead of the storm. More than likely, we would be dealing with something less than a category 3 hurricane this far up the bay, so my choice would be to ride it out (though, this time, with all of the saturated ground, toppled trees would be a bigger problem than usual).

Time to start going through the hurricane checklist. Hopefully, track forecasts will allow me to put such preparations aside short of having to shift to the evacuation checklist.

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