City-wide Rain Collection

Rain is all the news here in California lately, and with good reason.  This is the second drought I’ve lived through.  I was five when the 1987-1992 drought started.  I was at a very impressionable age, and yet still very oblivious.  I figured I had lucked out when I only had to take a bath every other day, when children living in the rest of the world were forced to bathe every night.  Unfortunately that habit has stuck with me… that and becoming very anxious whenever water is running needlessly.

It is very easy to get political about water here, what with idiots wanting to split the state into six separate states, big ag lobbying for public money to build a pipe that will only cater to their wasteful farming practices, and people already jumping to conclusions wondering why we haven’t built five desalination plants already.  But the biggest problem with all of these is just that: they’re huge, expensive solutions that will take years to build.  There are small measures we can take now that can make a big impact!

A friend of mine who also grew up in California posed an interesting question on Facebook the other day: “I wonder how much flow you could remove from stormwater system during the critical first 5 minutes of a major storm event if everyone in the neighborhood put all their pots pans, buckets, etc. outside.”  To which, someone else answered “ [There’s] 38 million Californians, if we all used a 5 gallon bucket, that’s about 190 million gallons.”

Which got me thinking.  That’s a lot of water.  A lot of water.  Wasted water that is washed off roofs, swept down into the street and out to god-knows-where, not be used in any fashion other than to back up storm drains and flood streets and even homes and business.  This is how we deal with California’s most precious resource?!

I thought about equating this scenario with a business–as all good entrepreneurial blogs would–but I’m not going to.  I think we’re all smart enough to see there’s a problem without having to first picture that it is money that we’re flushing down the pooper.

My friend then went on to point out that it is still against building code to put rain barrels on your downspouts in most California cities, and that gray water recovery is also a code violation.  Considering he’s mastering in land use and environmental studies at Cornell, I tend to take him at his word.  For the sake of this and the following two articles I’ve devoted to better water management, lets pretend that after two major droughts in my lifetime and three in my parent’s, the Golden state has taken some action toward water conservation and overturned this legislation.

Rainwater collection is a simple enough idea.  You put a bucket outside, it rains, you have (somewhat) usable water.  The more buckets you put out, the more you capture, right?  But what if you don’t have a yard?  What if you do have a yard and don’t wish to turn it into a mosquito nursery?  What if, instead, all of the water that runs off of your roof and down your gutters doesn’t go to a storm drain or the sewer, but is instead collected, processed and re-used?

If the idea of drinking roof water grosses you out, we can always use it for something else, like watering parks or fountains perhaps.  I should also point out the added benefit of keeping local rivers, lakes and other bodies of water clean!  If storm water is being reclaimed, treated and reused, that means it is not being directed toward the nearest stream–or in my case the San Francisco bay–where it is loosed upon the environment, carrying with it everything in it’s path; a thought that should make all locals shudder, and never want to eat anything that comes out of this bay.

The point is, you can build conservation into city infrastructure itself.  Maybe while Google is ripping up streets to install fiber, we can also divert the storm drains to local aquifers.  Two birds, one stone, thousands of gallons of conserved water!

Kick the Habit (you’re doing it wrong)

Anti-smoking campaigns by the FDA and The Truth are ramping up again, this time focusing on at-risk teens.  You may or may not recall the last legislative effort in the Golden State, prop 29, which narrowly escaped approval.

The simple explanation of Prop 29 is that it would add a $1 tax to cigarettes that would go towards cancer research.  Sounds greats, right?  Unfortunately nothing is ever that simple.  The problems with prop 29 is that it didn’t guarantee cancer research would be done here in CA, and money raised from the tax could be used to the line the empty coffers of the anti-tobacco lobby, plus, there was no real oversight of the money in the first place.  Fun fact, did you know that tobacco companies are required by the US government to devote a portion of their profit to educate the public about the dangers of smoking?  Think about that one.

The real problem with the tax is that it assumes that charging more for a product will discourage people to buy it.  I think we can all agree that at this point in our capitalist experience we can deem that a false notion.  (If that were the case, people would have stopped buying real estate in San Francisco fifteen years ago.)  More expensive cigarettes will only encourage more black market spending.  With California being so close to Mexico, I image the US border will turn into the world’s longest mini-mart.  Just ask New Yorkers, where a pack of cigs cost about twelve bucks now.  By this reasoning, there should be no smokers in New York City–and I think we all know this is not the case.

This approach might be successful in discouraging new smokers.  Or at least, will create very industrious teenagers.  Parents, be forewarned: if your kid is begging you to let them work at McDonald’s, it just might be to fund their smoking habit.

I have friends and family who smoke right now.  I don’t hate them for it.  Yes, I do think it’s gross, and I wish they would quit.  But I also understand it’s an addition.  I tried putting myself in their shoes by “quitting” sugar.  Lets just say I haven’t ever been able to kick the habit entirely.  There are days when I eat no sugar, but I either have to be ridiculously distracted or use every ounce of self control I possess not to run to the store and buy a whole bag of cookies, or at least a chocky bar.  (Always dark, and with nuts.  The internet says it’s better for you.  Don’t judge me.)

Anyone who has ever tried to quit something they are addicted to knows that someone nagging them every time they light up–or buy a pint of Ben and Jerry’s–will not convince them to quit.  If anything, it will just make you very annoyed with that person.  And if you are like me,  you’ll savor your delicious peanut butter cup ice cream that much more.  (Because deliciously smooth, slightly peanut buttery ice cream isn’t good enough.  There has to be candy in it too.  Crunchy, yummy, salty-sweet, peanut butter cup candy bits strewn throughout the pint… in every bite….)

But I digress.  How many times must we go over this?  Negative reinforcement does not work.  People need to be encouraged to quit, not discouraged.  What if we redesigned one of the already existing taxes on cigarettes that goes towards… something, (positive I’m sure…), to instead go toward a holding fund.  The tax would be collected as usual, but put into a savings account were it can accrue interest.  Every time someone quits buying cigarettes they would get a tax refund!  How could we possibly keep track of that?  You already have to show your ID when you buy cigarettes!  Stores who sell cigarettes would scan your ID to indicate purchase of a pack.  If a person can go a whole year without getting their ID scanned, they would get a tax refund at the end of the year!  (Oh stop whining.  The government already tracks everything you do.)

This plan isn’t perfect, obviously people could still get around it by buying on the black market.  But buying black market is also a hassle and hopefully the price staying the same will discourage people from going that route.  Also, most people I know who smoke do want to quit, they just need help or encouragement.  How much would it take to convince you to quit?  A 5k bonus with next year’s tax return?  10k?

Of course, the real issue with this idea is that the tax would go right back to the people and not some powerful lobbyist group–even if they protest to be doing good.