Letters 10-24-2016

It’s Obama’s 1984 Several editions ago I concluded a short letter to the editor with an ominous rhetorical flourish: “Welcome to George Orwell’s 1984 and the grand opening of the Federal Department of Truth!” At the time I am sure most of the readers laughed off my comments as right-wing hyperbole. Shame on you for doubting me...

Gun Bans Don’t Work It is said that mass violence only happens in the USA. A lone gunman in a rubber boat, drifted ashore at a popular resort in Tunisia and randomly shot and killed 38 mostly British and Irish tourists. Tunisian gun laws, which are among the most restrictive in the world, didn’t stop this mass slaughter. And in January 2015, two armed men killed 11 and wounded 11 others in an attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. French gun laws didn’t stop these assassins...

Scripps’ Good Deed No good deed shall go unpunished! When Dan Scripps was the 101st District State Representative, he introduced legislation to prevent corporations from contaminating (e.g. fracking) or depleting (e.g. Nestle) Michigan’s water table for corporate profit. There are no property lines in the water table, and many of us depend on private wells for abundant, safe, clean water. In the subsequent election, Dan’s opponents ran a negative campaign almost solely on the misrepresentation that Dan’s good deed was a government takeover of your private water well...

Political Definitions As the time to vote draws near it’s a good time to check into what you stand for. According to Dictionary.com the meanings for liberal and conservative are as follows:

Liberal: Favorable to progress or reform as in political or religious affairs.

Conservative: Disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditions and limit change...

Voting Takes A Month? Hurricane Matthew hit the Florida coast Oct. 6, over three weeks before Election Day. Bob Ross (Oct. 17th issue) posits that perhaps evacuation orders from Governor Scott may have had political motivations to diminish turnout and seems to praise Hillary Clinton’s call for Gov. Scott to extend Florida’s voter registration deadline due to evacuations...

Clinton Foundation Facts Does the Clinton Foundation really spend a mere 10 percent (per Mike Pence) or 20 percent (per Reince Priebus) of its money on charity? Not true. Charity Watch gives it an A rating (the same as it gives the NRA Foundation) and says it spends 88 percent on charitable causes, and 12 percent on overhead. Here is the source of the misunderstanding: The Foundation does give only a small percentage of its money to charitable organizations, but it spends far more money directly running a number of programs...

America Needs Change Trump supports our constitution, will appoint judges that will keep our freedoms safe. He supports the partial-birth ban; Hillary voted against it. Regardless of how you feel about Trump, critical issues are at stake. Trump will increase national security, monitor refugee admissions, endorse our vital military forces while fighting ISIS. Vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence will be an intelligent asset for the country. Hillary wants open borders, increased government regulation, and more demilitarization at a time when we need strong military defenses...

My Process For No I will be voting “no” on Prop 3 because I am supportive of the process that is in place to review and approve developments. I was on the Traverse City Planning Commission in the 1990s and gained an appreciation for all of the work that goes into a review. The staff reviews the project and makes a recommendation. The developer then makes a presentation, and fellow commissioners and the public can ask questions and make comments. By the end of the process, I knew how to vote for a project, up or down. This process then repeats itself at the City Commission...

Regarding Your Postcard If you received a “Vote No” postcard from StandUp TC, don’t believe their lies. Prop 3 is not illegal. It won’t cost city taxpayers thousands of dollars in legal bills or special elections. Prop 3 is about protecting our downtown -- not Munson, NMC or the Commons -- from a future of ugly skyscrapers that will diminish the very character of our downtown...

Vote Yes It has been suggested that a recall or re-election of current city staff and Traverse City Commission would work better than Prop 3. I disagree. A recall campaign is the most divisive, costly type of election possible. Prop 3, when passed, will allow all city residents an opportunity to vote on any proposed development over 60 feet tall at no cost to the taxpayer...

Yes Vote Explained A “yes” vote on Prop 3 will give Traverse City the right to vote on developments over 60 feet high. It doesn’t require votes on every future building, as incorrectly stated by a previous letter writer. If referendums are held during general elections, taxpayers pay nothing...

Beware Trump When the country you love have have served for 33 years is threatened, you have an obligation and a duty to speak out. Now is the time for all Americans to speak out against a possible Donald Trump presidency. During the past year Trump has been exposed as a pathological liar, a demagogue and a person who is totally unfit to assume the presidency of our already great country...

Picture Worth 1,000 Words Nobody disagrees with the need for affordable housing or that a certain level of density is dollar smart for TC. The issue is the proposed solution. If you haven’t already seen the architect’s rendition for the site, please Google “Pine Street Development Traverse City”...

Living Wage, Not Tall Buildings Our community deserves better than the StandUp TC “vote no” arguments. They are not truthful. Their yard signs say: “More Housing. Less Red Tape. Vote like you want your kids to live here.” The truth: More housing, but for whom? At what price..

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Water & the West

Observations of a Michigander cycling through the green deserts of the West

Bob Otwell - December 10th, 2012  

Last fall, my wife Laura and I embarked on an adventure. With good health and time available, we cleared our schedules and relied on friends and family to fill in on the home front. We dropped our youngest daughter off at college, and took off for a 10-month, 9,000-mile journey around the perimeter of the USA on touring bicycles.

The geography changed subtly over the days as we travelled at the speed of a bike. Coastlines, mountaintops, watershed divides, and rivers valleys are features that defined our trip. The view from a bike seat was so rich and detailed, even the 1,000 miles of the Great Plains provided flora, fauna and topography that you miss in a car.


We first noticed that something was wrong as we cycled into north central Montana.

We had left the forests behind in northwest Minnesota, and entered the mostly treeless Great Plains. It was October, and we were camping in an arid region that receives less than 12 inches of rain a year, and there were mosquitoes, lots of mosquitoes. As we looked at the landscape, we noticed there were no lakes or wetlands, few trees, little rain, but pesky mosquitoes; how could that be?

We continued west to the Pacific Ocean, and traveled 1,000 miles south along the coast to Southern California. In December, we stayed for several weeks in Carlsbad, a tropical-looking small city on the coast with lush vegetation and hundreds of blooming Birds of Paradise flowers. Again we were struck by this arid region with little rain and asked ourselves, how it could be so lush?

We left Carlsbad, climbed over the coastal mountain range, and dropped into the Anza-Borrego Desert, a real desert, scattered with cacti as the only living things visible.

We camped at a primitive campsite with no drinking water, and no mosquitoes. The next day, after traveling relatively few miles, the environment changed completely. The landscape was filled with green farm fields, and there were Great White Egrets fishing along the irrigation canals. All of this in a region that receives only three inches of rainfall a year, and the average high temperature in July is 108 degrees Fahrenheit.

I studied civil engineering and hydrology in college, and have worked as a consulting water engineer most of my career. I know something about dams, reservoirs and groundwater supply wells. But until this trip, I just never realized the magnitude and immense scope of the fabricated environment that we have created out West.

The breeding ground for the Montana mosquitoes was an irrigation canal along the Milk River, fed by reservoirs. The 20 million people who live along the Southern California coast receive most of their drinking water from the Colorado River via the 240 mile Colorado River Aqueduct through the Mojave Desert, and from northern California via the 300 mile California Aqueduct. The California Aqueduct includes open canals and conduits where water flows through a series of pumping stations, eventually climbing 2,000 feet over the Tehachapi Mountains before entering the LA basin.

The Mormons of Utah were among the first to employ irrigation to help them grow crops in the late 1800s because of the inadequate precipitation in the arid west.

Initially, the Mormons and other settlers simply diverted water from streams. As more water was needed, however, settlers wanted to store “wasted” runoff from rains and snow for later use, and small dams and reservoirs were built in the early 1900s across the west, mostly through private and state efforts.

The Reclamation Act of 1902 lead to the formation of the Federal Bureau of Reclamation, which became involved in the planning, funding and construction of water projects. The initial act required that water users repay construction costs from which they received benefits, and the goal was to provide water for small farms.


When my wife and I returned home to Traverse City this past summer, I did some reading on the development of the western water projects. Cadillac Desert (Reisner, 1986) was particularly revealing. The book discussed how projects were planned, funded and built despite questionable and perhaps short-term benefits, not to mention all of the tremendous cultural and environmental impacts.

It was the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s that really ignited the colossal federal water projects out West that would open the floodgates to new farming acreage, expansive farms, and uncontrolled population growth across the arid landscape.

From the 1930s through the '70s (when the environmental movement slowed the relentless pace), hundreds of major dams were built. These projects were mostly federally funded, and what western politician wouldn’t love a project that would bring water and also electricity to her/his area? As the water fever grew, merits of a particular project became less important than just getting your fair share of the federal dollar. The concept of users paying for the cost of the projects also fell by the wayside.

One goal of many of the projects built in the 1930s was to provide jobs. This made sense at the time, but rings hollow now.

We camped for two nights at Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River in northern Montana. Built by the Army Corps of Engineers, this dam created a reservoir 130 miles long and 200 feet deep. Picture an artificial lake that would stretch from Traverse City almost to Lansing. In the 1930s there were 10,000 construction workers living in the Town of Fort Peck and area shantytowns. Last fall, we could not buy a loaf of bread within 20 miles of the mostly abandoned town.

Because of these water projects, population in the U.S. has moved westward, in turn shifting Congressional votes and political power. For example, in 1932, California and Michigan had about the same number of congressional seats (20 versus 17). California now has more than doubled their seats to 53, and Michigan has dropped to 14 seats. This growth could not have happened without federally-funded water projects.

The problem with all of this, and what it may mean to those of us in the Great Lakes region, is that these projects have a useful life, and the useful life of many of these projects will be coming to an end, sometime soon. Dams eventually fill up with silt, and the structure deteriorates. Irrigation in arid climates de-waters aquifers and can increase the salinity of the soil. Climate change will put additional stress on the system, with rising demand for irrigation water, increased evaporation from reservoirs, and less snowpack in the mountains. The unprecedented artificial environment that has been created out west will not last. Where will they look for new sources of water?


The West’s need for water is not diminishing, and conservation is only ingrained in isolated pockets of populations on the landscape. For example, Arizona state parks were the first ones we encountered in the West where the showers were free, all of the hot water you wanted, for free (not that we complained). At the same time, Tucson is monitoring their depleted groundwater levels, and that data is now reported in the daily news, like the weather. There is perhaps a growing realization of the need to conserve their limited water.

Those of us living near the Great Lakes have a treasured resource that we need to be vigilant to preserve, value and guard for our future generations. I now have a new appreciation for the massive projects that can be built when a regions’ unchecked needs and its political will gain momentum. Shipping Great Lakes water westerly does not seem so far-fetched if we look at the past and ponder the future

Bob Otwell has lived in Traverse City for the past 23 years. He is the founder of Otwell Mawby, P.C., an engineering consulting firm. He is also the former executive director of TART Trails, Inc. Today, Otwell volunteers with For Love of Water (FLOW), a nonprofit whose mission is to recognize the Great Lakes as a commons held in public trust for the benefit of current and future generations and to raise public awareness on how public trust principles can counter systemic threats to the Great Lakes.

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