Reasoning in the Rain

School with rainwater storage tank, ca 1900. CC licensed image courtesy of Mallala Museum.

School with rainwater storage tank, ca 1900. CC licensed image courtesy of Mallala Museum.


For many thousands of years, humans have captured and stored rainwater. One of the earliest known rainwater capture systems was used in 300 BC to collect water for irrigation of crops. This process of capturing rainwater, known today as rainwater harvesting, is still frequently used but faces a growing number of threats. Rainwater and other naturally occurring sources of water such as aquifers were traditionally considered part of the commons, and the traditional view of human rights includes the concept that everyone has a natural right to access and use resources from the commons. Air and water were commonly viewed to be “unalienable rights” of the sort described by the authors of the Declaration of Independence. They were considered so fundamental and essential to life that no sane person would consider surrendering those rights.

But for people who grow too used to the availability of clean air and water, we sometimes forget how important they are and that leads to a loss of vigilance. There has been frequent talk lately of “privatizing” our water rights, that is, giving them away to big corporations who could then exercise complete control over who gets water and how much they pay for it. For example, the well known video circulating on the Internet in which the CEO of Nestlé maintains that all water should be privately owned (by Nestlé presumably) and that anyone who thinks they have a natural right to water is an “extremist”.

One of the important roles of government is to protect the commons and rights of citizens to access it. Lewis Hyde describes it this way in his excellent book, Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership:

“…this is a freedom that depends on the restraint of other freedoms. A commons is a stinted thing; it requires limits. If you want a viable democracy, you cannot sell your vote…If you and your neighbors live over an aquifer, none of you should be allowed to sink a well and sell the water to some thirsty distant metropolis. Each of these is a contraint on some freedoms but at the same time each is the foundation of others; the freedom to live in a democracy; … to enjoy a constant flow of potable water.

Essential resources from the commons could, of course, be very valuable to someone who could enclose (privatize) them. Many thirsty large metropolises these days have exceeded their available water supplies and rely on water bought elsewhere. Industrial processes like fracking use and contaminate massive amounts of water (millions of gallons per well). No sane citizen who lives in a drought-stricken, warming world would willingly allow water from the commons to be used that way. Thus the pressure to privatize water, to enclose the commons. As Hyde mentions in his quote, a functional democracy relies on votes not being a commodity that can be purchased. That’s not always the case today and the massive amounts of money that have been allowed into politics mean outcomes of democratic processes are no longer limited to what sane citizens would do. If an outcome is profitable enough for a corporation, regardless of its long-term sanity, it can sometimes be achieved through the influence of money.

I live in Irving, Texas. We’re in an ongoing multi-year drought. Earlier this year residents were told we’d reached “stage 3” drought conditions and we can only water our lawns once per week. There’s a long list of other water restrictions that now apply. In an urban area like Irving, a resident is unlikely to have a river or a well on their property. However, rainwater still falls on everyone. Rainwater is one of the last remaining sources of common water in which we can exercise our natural right.

In some states, such as Colorado and Utah, this right to access the commons through collection of rainwater has already been restricted. Even here in Texas, Home Owners Associations, notorious for creating bizarre and draconian rules, have tried to restrict resident’s rights to harvest rainwater but fortunately, in 2003, the Texas constitution was amended to specifically protect the right of residential home owners and forbid HOAs from passing any rule that infringes the right to collect and use rainwater. Further, the awareness of the growing population, limited water supply, and warming climate has led the Texas legislature to enact additional laws. These laws encourage both residential and commercial building owners to harvest rainwater and allow for property tax exemptions as a reward for doing so. This is because when we exercise our right to access the common water, we also reduce the demand on the municipal water supply (as a further benefit, rainwater harvesting also greatly reduces runoff pollution) benefiting every citizen, even those who choose not to harvest rainwater themselves. In 2011, they improved the law further by removing restrictions, allowing harvested rainwater to be used for any indoor or outdoor purpose including potable usage, and allowing private harvesting systems to be interconnected with municipal water supplies (in much the same way that a home solar array can be connected to the municipal electric grid to benefit the entire community).

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) was directed to develop a set of recommended rules for rainwater harvesting systems. These rules became Texas law (section C-1) in June of 2013 and can be used as the basis for city governments to create residential and commercial code, defining how an individual citizen can exercise their right to harvest rainwater in a way that is safe and doesn’t interfere with or endanger their neighbors.

This brings our story around to what I’m working on right now. As a member of the Air and Water Committee of Irving’s Green Advisory Board, I’m taking a first shot at drafting some code that protects our local right to harvest rainwater. The committee’s goal is to come up with code that will add no restrictions beyond those required by other existing codes and ordinances (e.g. permitting for plumbing or electrical connections, etc). The draft code we provide is extremely unlikely to be used verbatim as it will have to filter upstream through various departments and legal approval. But our hope is that the goals and intent of the code will survive to some final draft that is incorporated eventually in official City of Irving code.

The Texas Stream Team

Testing pH the old fashioned way

My participation on the Irving Green Advisory Board has made me aware of how little I know about the environmental aspects and activities of Irving, Texas. To remedy this, I’m taking advantage of every opportunity to get involved in local activities. On Saturday, January 18, I got up early to observe and photograph a Texas Stream Team educational activity at Towne Lake Park.

I noticed the event listed on Irving’s Green Events webpage and also noticed Karen Siddall’s name as the Irving representative of the Texas Stream Team. I had met Karen Siddall in 2012 through my civic hacking connections and knew she worked for the City of Irving but wasn’t aware of her exact job. Then late last year, I ran into her again at a meeting of the Irving Amateur Radio club. We talked a little about her work and I discovered she is in the Public Works department and her title is Drainage Programs Coordinator.

The Texas Stream Team is a group of trained volunteers who test and monitor local water resources. The program was established in 1991 as a partnership between Texas State University, the Texas Commission on Environmental quality (TCEQ), and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It’s administered by the Meadows Center for Water at Texas State University. Unlike most government programs, this one doesn’t spend millions of dollars buying fancy equipment and paying an army of technicians. Given how many bodies of water there are in Texas, that approach wouldn’t be feasible.

Instead the program relies on citizen science, in effect crowd-sourcing the project to a network of volunteers, who are trained and provided with minimal support. The field work is done by volunteers who enjoy the chance to participate or who feel a responsibility to contribute to the well being of their communities. Their work makes possible a massive data collection network at a very low cost. The event I attended was a demonstration of what a Stream Team member does. With so many bodies of water in Irving, there’s a constant need for new volunteers. Several local residents attended the demonstration to observe and ask questions. Hopefully a few of them will choose to become team members.

So what does a Stream Team member do? Each team member is assigned one body of water. They select a day of the month and time of day that works for them. At the chosen time, once a month, they visit their location and make some simple measurements and observations. The measurements are made using basic tools in a provided standard equipment kit. Data collected includes ambient temperature, water temperature, dissolved oxygen level, conductivity, pH, water clarity, and a few other field observations. To keep the costs down, the test kit uses very basic tools like a plastic Secchi disk and a thermometer instead of the modern digital instruments costing thousands of dollars. Of course, that means instead of just pressing a button, team members have to learn some very simple chemistry but the procedures are easy to learn and well documented.

The data collected by Stream Team members goes into a database at Texas State University, where it can be monitored and used by various government agencies. The data is also available to researchers and to the general public. You can browse some of the recent data from Irving by going to the Texas Stream Team data viewer and selecting “City of Irving” from the “group” drop down field. For example, here’s a listing of data for the Towne Lake Park site that I visited: Towne Lake Park gazebo, site 16269.

Even with several people watching and asking questions, and with me stopping her periodically to shoot photos, Karen was able to complete the entire data collection procedure in about an hour. Without us there, she probably could have done it in a much shorter time. So a volunteer is only giving up about one hour a month to help maintain and protect their city’s water resources. If you’ve been looking for a volunteer opportunity that gets you out of the house, doesn’t take much time, and provides a real benefit to your city, the State of Texas, and the environment, this might be what you’re looking for. You can find out more about the Irving branch of the Texas Stream Team on their facebook page. If you live in another Texas city, visit the Texas Stream Team partner list to find out who to contact in your city. And, if you’re curious, you can see my full set of photos documenting the morning’s events.

Going Green

Last night I went to my first meeting of the Irving Green Advisory Board since being appointed. I learned that I’m filling a vacated position (officially “Place 8”) so apparently my first term will be slightly longer than the usual one year. I got to meet most of the 14 other board members and was one of two new members attending the meeting. It was the last board meeting for 2013 and not much actual work was done, it was mostly summing up what had been done in 2013 and listening to a couple of presentations.

The first presentation was about Lady Bird Johnson Middle School, which is a LEED Gold building and the first middle school in the US to be net zero – that is, producing the same amount of energy as it consumes. The building uses photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, geothermal wells, rainwater harvesting, grey water harvesting, xeriscaping, LED lighting, and a variety of other technologies. The presentation included data from the first years of operation, confirming that the building had successfully achieved net zero operation. Check out live telemetry from the school’s systems or read more about the technology.

The other presentation covered a leasing program for residential photovoltaic systems. A resident who had gone through process described the details and costs. She listed the rates three of our local electric utility providers charge for electricity vs what they pay. Two of the three charged twice the rate they paid (e.g. you pay them 10 cents per kWh but they pay you only 5 cents per kWh). Only Green Mountain offered a fair deal (12 cents both ways).

I also got an overview of the topics that we’ll be dealing with in 2014 for the City of Irving and it sounds like fun. It matches up pretty closely with topics I’m interested in anyway. There’s the obvious stuff like air quality, water quality, waste management, and recycling. But we’ll also be working on bicycle lanes, West Nile and mosquito control, urban gardens, fracking, residential solar and wind turbine systems, xeriscaping, bat houses, just to name a few.

The Green Advisory Board has several committees within it where a lot of the work gets done. So the next thing I’ve got to do is pick out which committees I want to be on. I’m also reading through minutes of past meetings so I can get caught up on work that’s already been done. I should be up to speed and ready go when we start meeting again January. It will be interesting to see what we can actually do.

We met in a conference room at Irving City Hall. I brought my notebook computer to take notes and so I could do any quick research if needed. I was quite surprised to find there’s no public WiFi in City Hall. I could see an SSID called COI, obviously a City Of Irving official WiFi. I asked a couple of folks if they knew the login but was told it was for internal use only and that the City’s IT staff refuses to allow public WiFi access within the building because of security fears. As I’ve learned from civic hacking efforts, IT departments can be the biggest impediment to engaging Cities through modern technology. For now I’ll tether from my Nexus 4 phone.

Goodbye Acura RSX

In my last post I told you about the theft of my Acura RSX. It was stolen from our driveway in the early morning hours of Sunday, Sep 27. The police didn’t come out and collect any evidence, they just took a report over the phone. We did a little evidence collection on our own, finding a clipped wire, a plastic pop-rivet, and a pair of black latex gloves. If real life was like the CSI TV show, they’d just turn the gloves inside out and grabs some prints.

A few days later, my Acura RSX reappeared on the shoulder of 75 near Mockingbird Lane. It was stripped. The police had it towed to their impound lot but were otherwise uninterested in it. They didn’t check for finger prints or any other type of evidence. Their only concern was letting me know that I owed them a hefty storage fee that would increase by $20/day.

For now, I’m driving a Nissan Versa rental car paid for by State Farm insurance. State Farm picked up the car from the impound lot and moved it to a State Farm location yesterday. Before they picked it up, I made a trip over to the impound lot myself to check for any personal belongings the crooks might have left in the car. Oddly, I’m less annoyed by the loss of my car than by the loss of several hard to replace CDs, my prescription sunglasses, a Mega-Donkey t-shirt and an assortment of robot parts.

The Dallas Police impound lot is huge. It’s like a shopping mall parking lot but without the shopping mall. There are vans that transport people from the main office to the section of the lot where their car resides. Tow trucks are coming and going like cabs at the airport. It was an interesting experience. I brought my camera along and shot a few photos.

The woman who drove the van I was in described how to break into each of our cars. “Oh, on this model you pop off a panel and cross two wires to disable the alarm. On that one you use a jiggler key.” One of the other guys in the van had a club on his car. His car was stolen and the thieves left the club lying in his driveway. Our driver said, “Clubs are worthless. Just spray freon into the lock, tap it with a hammer and it opens right up”. She went on to describe how to overcome alarms, immobilizers, and all sorts of other things.

My RSX had an alarm plus an RFID-based immobilizer which is supposed to shut down the engine if it’s started without the encrypted key present. Yet, the thieves drove it away in seconds without even breaking the glass. Turns out you can buy a Honda/Acura jiggler key online for $30 that will open any Acura RSX easily. Once inside, it’s apparently trivial to disable the alarm and override the immobilizer. There are several methods of doing it that can be found online with a little googling. Brad Stone wrote a piece for Wired on the ease with which you can steal cars. Some methods are so easy they’re stupid – write down a vehicle’s VIN, visit the dealer and tell them you lost your key, use your new key to steal the car.

Yesterday, I spoke with the Irving Police detective about my case one last time. She was friendly and sorry about the theft. But at no point did the police send anyone out to the crime scene or the recovered car to look for evidence. When I described the black latex goves, she said they hadn’t heard of them being used but weren’t interested in investigating further. At the impound lot, I noticed my car was coated in a sticky substance similar to Cosmoline. I hypothesized this was to prevent or obscure finger prints. The detective said they’d never heard of this being done. I suggested it might be helpful to analyze the chemical and find out what it was. Perhaps it would offer a clue to where the chop shop was. She didn’t think it would be worthwhile. If my casual observation turned up two things the cops have never noticed, you have to wonder what a trained crime scene investigator might find.

I also noted that my car was found on a major freeway monitored by 24/7 traffic cams. I suggested it should be possible to check the traffic cam recordings to find the make and model of the vehicle which dumped my car there and perhaps even track it backwards to the point it entered the freeway, offering another clue to the chop shop location. She didn’t think it would be worthwhile to do all that work. I asked if anyone had thought of correlating the locations of theft vs the locations where cars are dumped. With dozens of cars stolen every day, you’d think that might be useful. She thought there was a “task force” somewhere that did stuff like that but it wasn’t her job to do anything like that. As far as the Irving and Dallas police are concerned, the case is closed.

Missing: Blue 2002 Acura RSX Type-S

If anyone notices my Blue 2002 Acura RSX Type-S license plate GSK-950 around the Dallas/Ft.Worth area, please contact me or call the police. It was stolen between 11pm Saturday, Sep 27 and 10am Sunday, Sep 28.

I slept late Sunday morning. Around 10am I went out in the garage to prep the lawnmower for the weekly mowing of our yard. I opened up the garage door and pushed the mower outside. Usually I push the mower down the driveway, between our two cars, and start mowing down by the front sidewalk. Today, however, I didn’t. There was something missing in the driveway. It took me a moment to put my finger on it. There was Susan’s red Acura but beside it, where my blue Acura RSX is usually parked, there was just empty driveway. This was such an unexpected, out of the ordinary thing, I walked back in the house and asked Susan if we had left my car somewhere. Surely we’d dropped it off at the dealer for service or something like that and I’d just forgotten. As I thought about it though, I knew that wasn’t the case. It was gone. Stolen; right out of our driveway while we slept.

We did all the things you’re supposed to do. I called the police. They took a report over the phone and gave me a report number. As with most crimes these days, that’s about all the police do. They’re really just heavily-armed data entry clerks as far as I can tell. They don’t really come out and investigate crime scenes like you see on TV, they don’t put out an APB like in old movies (“calling all cars, be on the look out for a stolen blue Acura”), they don’t look for clues and solve crimes like Sherlock Holmes. They just enter a description of the crime into a database and generate a report for insurance purposes. And they aren’t really open on Sunday anyway for minor things like auto theft.

They said they’d pass the report along to a “detective” on Monday but it didn’t sound like any actual detecting was likely to happen. However, they said if someone happened to pull over a blue Acura RSX for a traffic violation, they’d probably run the plates, might even notice it was stolen and perhaps would detain it. And they also noted that many stolen cars are found within a month or two, just not in one piece. They said mostly like it would turn up in a few weeks as a burned out hulk on back road somewhere. Nice.

Next I called State Farm insurance. Like the police, they don’t do much on a Sunday other than take reports on the phone. Apparently Saturday night/Sunday morning is a great time to steal cars since it gives you a 24 lead over the police and insurance companies. State Farm said someone would get in touch with me anywhere from a day to a week later. The weekend report-taking crew wasn’t able to give me much information about what happens next.

Last, I called our neighborhood association and let them know about the theft. They provide weekly news to the neighborhood residents about things like that, so maybe we can at least prevent another theft from occurring.

Since nobody else showed any interest in the crime scene, I decided to investigate it myself. The first thing I noticed was a half-inch long piece of wire. It was stranded copper wire with a black plastic sheath. It had clearly been cut with diagonal cutters on both ends. Nearby was what looked like a small plastic pop-rivet. My guess is they cut the wire to the car’s alarm system, opened the door, popped one of the plastic panels off the steering column, and hot-wired the ignition. I saved the “evidence” in a plastic bag in the unlikely event that anyone official got interested. Next, I examined Susan’s car. The crooks had unlocked it and there were marks in the dust on the passenger side window. Nothing was missing inside. I guess they didn’t want her car or could only take one at a time.

On Monday I called State Farm again. They told me there was a 14 day waiting period before they could process the claim. It seems most stolen cars are either discovered within this time period or never. Fortunately, they’ll cover a rental car in the interim and they offered to help me set up the paperwork at a nearby Enterprise car rental office.

I also called the police again and spoke to the “detective” assigned to my case. As best I can tell, the procedure used by the modern, high-tech police detective to solve auto theft consists of – doing nothing at all for 30 days. If doing nothing hasn’t solved the case in that time period, they figure it’s probably impossible to solve and file it away. But, if you’re lucky, the car thief will be stopped for a traffic violation or use the car in a crime and maybe end up in one of those high speed chases that ends with the suspect wrapping the car around a tree. In that case, the detective will examine the remains of the car for clues that might solve the crime. Yippee.

Update: If you’re curious how things turned out, see my next blog post, Goodbye Acura RSX.

Unusual Mammal Report

So, a few days ago we were walking in Campión Trail (location of my infamous Campión Trail chigger adventure) after a thunderstorm. As we came around a curve in the trail near the river, we saw what looked like a very large feral house cat lying in the grass watching joggers go by. We stopped and approached a little closer. It had a very short tail that was twitching back and forth like a rattlesnake’s. The cat didn’t seem frightened of us at all, but when we got close enough, it stood up began to walk slowly away. When it stood up, it became apparent that it was a good deal larger than a house cat and it revealed a leopard-like pattern on its legs and underside. It also had strange little curling tufts of hair at the tips of the ears and alternating white and black lines on its face. What we were looking at was a Bobcat. They apparently adapt quite well to populated areas. We’ll be returning to the location with camera but I don’t have much hope of seeing another as they are normally nocturnal.