Category Archives: Water-waste water

Fracking Our Pristine Mountain Forests

GW forestBy Peter Galuszka

Is nothing sacred? Of all groups, the U.S. Forest Service should protect the lands it controls, but today it introduced a plan that would allow limited hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the 1.1 million-acre George Washington National Forest which straddles Virginia and West Virginia.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe had opposed lifting the ban, although he supports other proposed gas projects in the state, such as the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would stretch from the fracked gaslands of Northern West Virginia over the mountains and southeastward to Southside and Hampton Roads and North Carolina.

Forest lands help supply drinking water to 4 million people including those in Richmond and Washington. Some of the forest land has so-called “Karst” topography made up of rock formation that can be dissolved. In those conditions, any leakage of methane, or the toxic, powerful chemicals used in fracking would be more, rather than less, likely to poison drinking water.

The only good news out of the new USFS plan is that before some 995,000 acres could be available for drilling and that amount will now be limited to 177,000 acres.

But what can’t they let it all be? If you head west where the heart of the Marcellus Shale formation has become one of the mega-meccas of fracked gas, you hear of impacts of all types from drilling. These have included fire, explosions, diesel generators roaring 24/7, drinking water effects, bright floodlights and so on. In fact, I am embarking on a drip in about an hour that will end up in frack-land and will report when I get back.

To be sure, natural gas drilling has been going on for decades in the Appalachian Plateau of the western slopes of the Appalachians. Few pipelines crossed eastward over mountains and it was rare to find many drilling rigs in those areas.

But the fracking craze continues unabated and is now a $10 billion industry in the Marcellus Shale formation. One potential new target could be a different formation that starts from Fredericksburg and slips under the Potomac northeast into Maryland. A Texas firm with a letter drop address has been talking about leasing rights for fracking. One assumes that if the leases are in place, they’ll be quickly flipped to an actual drilling company, but you won’t know who. Virginia is only in the very early stages of setting up state rules for fracking.

Environmentalists say natural gas can be an even worse carbon polluter than coal should methane be released. Some others believe that the biggest damage comes not from the actual fracking process with millions of gallons of water and chemicals but from faulty wells.

One can make an argument that gas is good because it has completely reorganized the global pecking order in terms of energy. It means the U.S. need not be beholden to machinations of the Middle East, Central Asia and the likes of Vladimir Putin.

What bothers me is the rush to frack. I remember back in the 1960s in West Virginia when mile after mile of mountain side had been ripped apart by surface miners. It was a cheap way to get at coal. Mystery companies were supposed to reclaim the mine site but rarely did because they’d bankrupt one alphabet soup firm merely to create a new one.

The fracking craze, if not properly regulated, could yield even worse environmental disasters.

Suburbia’s Silent Storm Water Crisis

What happens when your storm water system fails. Photo credit: Associated Press.

What happens when your storm water system fails. Photo credit: Associated Press.

America’s older suburbs may face an infrastructure crisis from the last place they expect — aging storm water management systems.

In a presentation at the annual LOCUS conference in Washington, D.C., this morning, Ellen Dunham-Jones, author of “Retrofitting Suburbia,” listed a number of factors driving the re-development of America’s suburbs. They include the usual suspects such as energy-efficiency, emancipation from auto dependency and housing affordability as well as some less commonly recognized trends such as the aging of the population and public health. But the one that took me by surprise was water.

“Water is the next oil,” said Dunham-Jones, a Georgia Institute of Technology professor. By that, I understood her to mean that clean water is the next object of resource scarcity, especially in western communities where much of the waste water is, well… wasted.

Water issues also have dogged America’s older cities where waste-water and storm-water infrastructure built a century ago first began to decay. But the problems are spreading to suburban jurisdictions developed since World War II, Dunham-Jones said. The early suburbs were built with little thought to water issues. Many developments were built in flood plains or wetlands. Streams were funneled through storm culverts. Engineered, hard-infrastructure solutions that may have been adequate back then have proven less so as development spread and watersheds were paved over with impermeable surfaces, she explained.

Add to that the fact that some older pipes and culverts are crumbling and that warmer climate is associated with more extreme weather events, and the suburbs could have a time bomb on their hands — one they don’t even hear ticking.

– JAB

Putting the “Garden” in Rain Garden

Photo credit: Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Fall view of West Island MP. Photo credit: Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

This July Virginians will start spending billions to meet tough new storm-water regulations. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden wants to demonstrate best practices that save the bay – and look really good doing it.

by James A. Bacon

About a decade ago the leadership of the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, an institution known mainly for its formal gardens and conservatory of exotic tropical plants, began re-defining its mission. The new vision called for showcasing how Richmonders and Virginians might address endemic environmental problems such as invasive species and pollution caused by storm water run-off. It was a hard sell at the time, and the 2007-2008 recession dried up traditional sources of philanthropic funding. For years the $9 million project stalled.

But the economy has improved, donations have picked up and the “Streams of Stewardship” vision couldn’t be more timely. The plan calls for reclaiming a stream running through the garden’s 80-acre property, replacing turf lawns with native meadow grasses and using rain gardens to reduce parking-lot run-off – exactly the kinds of things that Virginians will have to do to meet strict new water standards designed to clean up streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

wetlands

View of West Island Garden. Photo credit: Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Come July Virginia localities will have to get serious about reducing nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment borne by storm water run-off.  Localities will have 15 years to meet tough state-federal goals for the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of those pollutants detected in their waterways – achieve 5% reduction in the first five years, another 35% reduction in the second five years, and the final 60% reduction in the third five years. Nobody knows for sure how much it will cost or where the money will come from.

The relatively easy part will be implementing tighter regulations for new development. “The new standards are very stringent but well vetted, accepted by the developer community,” says Chris Pomeroy, chief counsel for the Virginia Association of Storm Water Agencies. As long as developers know the costs of new Best Management Practices up-front they can incorporate them into their business plans. “There’s peace in the valley on that subject now.”

The hard part, says Pomeroy, will be fixing old development. “It’s cheaper to build it right in the first place. It’ll cost something to do new development but the corrective action will cost far more.” The state Senate Finance Committee estimated that retrofitting the state could cost $15 billion. But even that is little more than a wild guess.

If Virginians are going to spend billions of dollars on retrofits, they might as well make sure the end result looks good. Lewis Ginter President Frank Robinson wants the botanical garden to be a living demonstration of the positive possibilities. With a little extra attention to detail, he says, storm-water remediation projects can become beautiful community assets.

In the 1990s and 2000s Lewis Ginter completed a series of improvements – two man-made ponds, a 1.5-acre man-made wetland and retrofitting building roofs to harvest and recycle two million gallons of rainwater annually. Not only did these investments help control water run-off, they made the facility water-independent by using rainwater to irrigate the grounds rather than expensive treated municipal water. By saving the need to purchase 500,000 gallons of  year from Henrico County, those investments offered an attractive Return on Investment.

The next step is to re-work the formal lawn near the entrance and west of the conservatory. Ornamental lawns always will have a place in Lewis Ginter’s formal gardens, explains Robinson, but maintaining vast swaths of turf is an outmoded idea inspired by 18th-century European landscaping models no longer appropriate for Virginia. Lawns of close-cropped green grass are unknown in the natural world and they can be maintained only through the expensive application of fertilizers. Grass lawns absorb little rainwater. The soil is typically compacted and the grass itself has little vegetative mass to hold the water. Rain just runs off horizontally, carrying the chemicals into the watershed where they feed the algae blooms that rob the water of life-giving oxygen.

Industrial discharges are tightly regulated and farmers are getting savvy about managing their fields, says Robinson. Lawns are the last great frontier of cleaning the Chesapeake Bay. The lawn of any individual homeowner seems small but multiply that size by a million suburban houses and the numbers get big. “There is more acreage in lawn in this state than any crop. … If it were a corporation flushing chemicals through their manufacturing plant, we’d be up in arms.” Continue reading

The Internet-of-Things Steamroller and the Economic Competitiveness of Cities

by James A. Bacon

Well, I’m a steamroller, baby, I’m bound to roll all over you.
Yes, I’m a steamroller now, baby, I’m bound to roll all over you. …
– James Taylor “Steamroller

The words to James Taylor’s blues classic “Steamroller” have been churning through my mind during the 2014 Niagara Summit hosted by Richmond-based Tridium as I learn more about the constellation of technologies known as the Internet of Things — the ubiquity of sensors, the falling cost of wireless and data-storage technologies, the rise of “big data” and the emergence of incredibly sophisticated algorithms — and the impact they will have on the business landscape and society at large.

The Internet of Things (IoT), to borrow Taylor’s imagery, is a steamroller, a demolition derby, a napalm bomb. It will flatten — or, to borrow the tech buzz word du jour, totally “disrupt” — the business landscape. Most Americans have yet to hear of the Internet of Things. But as the next wave of the ongoing IT revolution that has transformed the world since the 1980s, it is as momentous as the rise of the PC, the Internet and mobile computing. Admittedly, the IT industry thrives on hype and the search for the Next Big Thing. But there is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind at Tridium or among the industry illuminati speaking here that the IoT is for real. IBM, Cisco, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, Intel and other industry giants are all piling into the IoT. Google recently paid $3.2 billion dollars for Nest Labs, a company founded in 2010, that manufactures smart home thermostats!

Tridium, whose Niagara Framework software provides the IT foundation for the building automation industry, announced yesterday its intention to expand into adjacent sectors involving large, complex facilities, including data centers, industrial plants and smart cities. Tridium, the most successful IT company ever to emerge from Richmond, is bidding to carve out a big chunk of the IoT. And, as fluid and unpredictable as the IT industry is, it has as good a shot as anyone at this point of being successful.

I have been blogging the event for Tridium’s blog Datamorphosis from an industry perspective but it is impossible not to think about the public policy implications of the IoT and, in particular, the smart cities movement. Asia and Europe are applying IoT technologies far more aggressively than most American cities. As Carrie MacGillivray, an analyst with research firm IDC, noted yesterday, the city of Barcelona, located in debt- and deficit-ridden Spain, is running a budget surplus. Its IoT initiatives have generated roughly $10 billion in savings. Admittedly, smart city initiatives, many of which focus on energy conservation, deliver bigger savings in countries where the average price of a kilowatt hour of electricity is two to four times that of the United States. But European cities are forging ahead in areas such as water and sewer, garbage and recycling pick-up, and parking and traffic management. 

Whether you call it smart cities (evocative of IBM’s “smarter cities” advertising campaign) or the Municipal Internet (a term I just coined), the Internet of Things is sweeping through local government. There will be a lot of experimentation, a lot of false starts and a lot of bad investment that will prompt a lot of political hoo-ha and blowback. But cities and municipalities will learn a lot along the way and, like Barcelona, the intelligent ones also will make a lot of sound investments that (a) drive down the cost of providing basic services, (b) address chronic problems like parking and traffic congestion and (c) promote citizen engagement.

Anthony Townsend, the author of “Smart Cities” whom I recently profiled (“Tech Insurrection“) spoke yesterday at the Niagara Summit. He made the point that citizens and entrepreneurs operating outside the framework of government-funded infrastructure initiatives also have a lot to contribute. Tapping IoT technologies and accessing government databases that have long languished unused, grassroots movements can make cities more environmentally friendly, more responsive to citizens and just plain more fun to live in.

He gave the example of the Trees Near You app that draws from New York City’s tree census data to provide information about some 500,000 trees that live on city sidewalks. “No one at Cisco is ever going to think this app up,” he said, and if someone did, it would never win corporate approval.

oktoberfest_of_thingsThe “Democratization of technology” made possible by the IoT can become a force for social change as well. Citizens have established networks of sensors that measure ozone concentrations with much greater granularity than is possible in large cities monitoring only four or five sites. Another example of bottom-up innovation is Four Square, a social networking app that provides recommendations from friends and associates on the best restaurants and eateries in town, informs you when friends are nearby and extends deals from retailers near you. Some applications are frivolous or amusing, such as the Oktoberfest of Things, which uses sensors to measure how much drink is left in large beer steins. But there is something to be said for making a city a fun place to live.

Some of these innovations may be taking place in Virginia under the media radar but there is not much sign of them. The Virginia Department of Transportation is investing in IoT technology to upgrade the capabilities of some of its highways, mainly in Northern Virginia. But some of that investment has been squandered. (Maybe I’ll be able to talk about Virginia’s rest stops one day.) The City of Richmond is doing some interesting things with Big Data but it is too early to know if anything useful will come of it. Otherwise, I have heard of very little. If anything is happening, it is due to the initiative of exceptional government officials acting on their own — for there certainly is no groundswell of public opinion, or even of public discourse, here in Virginia.

Cities that adapt the most quickly and intelligently to the IoT revolution will gain an immense competitive advantage in the years ahead — they will be able to provide a superior level of public services at less cost to taxpayers. This is the new frontier of economic development. Virginians need to embrace the IoT or miss an historic opportunity to win the race for livability and the competition for human capital.

April Is The Cruelest Month

deepwaterBy Peter Galuszka

April is the cruelest month, especially for brutal energy disasters.

This Sunday is the fourth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling blowout that killed 11 and caused one of the country’s worst environmental disasters. April 5 was the fourth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29.

What lessons have been learned from both? Not a hell of a lot. In both cases, badly needed, tougher regulations to prevent such messes from happening again go languishing while politicians – including Virginia’s Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe – say move on fast for more exploitation of energy resources including in Virginia’s sensitive offshore waters.

Take Deepwater Horizon. The rig linked to British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico was tapping reserves 5,000 feet down. When the rig hit a rough patch, the blowback exploded upwards, racking the surface part with explosion and fires. Down below, a blowout protector was supposed to swing into action, chop into the pipe and shut down any flow. That didn’t happen and oil flowed freely at the bottom until July 15 generating one of the biggest oil spills ever.

Four years later, what has been done? According to experts S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, and Jacqueline Savitz, not enough. In December 2011, the National Academy of Engineering reported that Deepwater’s blowout preventer had never been designed or tested for the conditions that occurred and that other rigs may have the same problem.

Sixteen months later, nothing has been done in terms of new regulations – not even proposed one. It sounds as if that socialist-minded, regulation maniac Barack Obama is actually off the job. Meanwhile, McAuliffe changed his mind about the risks of offshore drilling and has jumped on board the Republican bandwagon led by former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell to expose Virginians to similar dangers.

McAuliffe’s turnaround came last year during the gubernatorial campaign. According to the Washington Post: “Terry has learned more about offshore drilling from experts in Virginia,” said McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin. “He thinks that because of technological progress we can now do it in a responsible fashion.”

Say what? Maybe he should take a trip to Brazil and Norway that have more advanced blow-out preventers and policies. By the way, Democrat Mark Warner, running for re-election for U.S. Senate, is for offshore drilling as well.

If you really want to see evidence of the lack of regulation, check out Upper Big Branch owned by the former, Richmond-based Massey Energy.

The firm was notorious for its anti-regulation, anti-labor union policies led by its in-your-face chief executive Don Blankenship. Four reports say that Massey’s lax safety standards allowed the disaster to happen, including letting badly maintained equipment be used and not taking measures to keep highly explosive coal dust from building up. A flame caused by a ball of flaming methane touched off the dust leading to an underground blast that covered seven miles underground. In the process, 29 miners were either blown apart of asphyxiated in the worst coal mine disaster in 40 years.

Every mine event has led to some kind of regulatory reform such as the one at Farmington, W.Va. that killed 78 in 1968 and the Buffalo Creek W.Va. coal sludge pond breach and flood that killed 125 in 1972.

Post-Upper Big Branch reforms have been proposed, notably the Robert C. Byrd bill that would protect whistleblowers, hold boards of directors responsible for knowing and doing nothing about safety threats and giving the feds subpoena power which, incredibly, they do not now have in the case of mine safety. The Department of Agriculture can subpoena records in the case of possible milk or meat price-fixing, but the Mine Safety and Health Administration cannot in the case of human miners.

The Byrd bill is all but dead mostly because of the Republican controlled House of Representatives where the majority leader is none-other than business toady Eric Cantor of Henrico County.

And if you want to understand just how little miners’ lives are regarded, compare the media coverage of Deepwater Horizon versus Upper Big Branch. I guess you could say that in the media’s eyes, the life of an offshore rig worker is worth 2.6 times that of a coal miner.  Six months after Deepwater, there were at least six books about the disaster. Four years after Upper Big Branch there is one book about it and it happens to be mine.

So, this Sunday, I propose a toast to the dead oil rig workers and coal miners. Let’s not allow their souls to stay on our consciences. Let’s have anti-regulation reign in the name of free market economic policies and profits! It doesn’t matter if you are a Republican or a Democrat. Salute!

Fracking the Mother of Presidents

fracking rigBy Peter Galuszka

Controversial hydraulic fracking appears to becoming a distinct possibility in areas south and east of Fredericksburg on land that is famed for its bucolic and watery splendors along with being the birthplaces of such historical figures as George Washington, James Monroe and Robert E. Lee.

After several years of exploring and buying up 84,000 acres worth of leases from Carolina to Westmoreland Counties, a Dallas-based company that uses a post office box as its headquarters address participated in the first-ever public discussion of what its plans may be.

According to the Free-Lance Star, the meeting was put together by King George County Supervisor Rudy Brabo to air concerns and hear plans of Shore Exploration and Production Co., which is based in Dallas and has offices in Bowling Green. Its headquarters address is registered with the State Corporation Commission as P.O. Box 38101 in Dallas.

About 100 people attended the meeting April 14, but judging from the newspaper’s account, not many questions were answered. Participants repeatedly asked Shore CEO Ed DeJarnette what his plans were regarding fracking and who would be responsible for damages if something went wrong.

DeJarnette responded that his firm is merely buying up leases and is looking to sell them to other gas drillers and operators. The state’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy issues permits one at a time and is responsible for enforcing them, he said.

Hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling have touched off a revolution in the American energy industry in recent years, particularly in the Marcellus Shale gas formations that stretch in the Appalachians from New York State to southwest Virginia. The methods have also been used to reach rich shale oil deposits in North Dakota and other western states.

Fracking has been used as a drilling process for years according to media accounts and authors such as Gregory Zuckerman whose recent book “The Frackers” covers the process’s increasingly widespread use in the past several years.

Among concerns are that the toxic chemicals mixed with water and then pumped hundreds of feet underground could eventually ruin groundwater serving streams and wells. Other concerns are that the inevitable “flowback” in drilling will require surface ponds to handle toxic waste. In places such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia where fracking is permitted, quiet country areas are badly disturbed by the roar of diesel generators at drilling sites and from trucks that are constantly delivering drilling supplies. Methane can leak from drilling rigs, further complicating global warming issues, and flash fires can be problems. Fracking can also consume great amounts of water which often has to be trucked in.

On the plus side, holders of mineral leases can receive great sums in royalties and various taxes and other payments can boost local tax coffers. Natural gas is cleaner and less deadly source of energy than coal, plays a big role in electricity power generation in the Mid-Atlantic.

At the King George meeting, DeJarnette told the audience that he preferred using nitrogen as an element in fracking rather than water, but there were few details in the newspaper story.

While providing scarce details on who would actually handle the drilling, how it would be done and who would be responsible for damages, DeJarnette repeatedly emphasized the monetary benefits and jobs fracking would bring.

If it proceeds, fracking in the Taylorsville Basin would likely be confined to Virginia, which is more business-friendly than Maryland where the basin also extends. The field stretches across the Potomac River into Charles, St. Mary’s, Calvert and Anne Arundel Counties but Maryland has a moratorium on fracking until it can be studied further.

DeJarnette says he wants drilling to start by late this year or in 2015. Major oil firms explored the Northern Neck area and found some evidence of oil and gas deposits there in the 1980s.

Tech Insurrection

AnthonyTownsendSmart cities, says Anthony Townsend, will be forged by geeks, activists and civic hackers through bottom-up technological innovation.

By James A. Bacon

Anthony M. Townsend, a research scientist at New York University, has made a big splash with his book, “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia,” in which he makes the case for a bottom-up, technology-driven transformation of the world’s cities.  But he’s not satisfied with preaching from his academic perch on how a grassroots movement of civic hackers is rewriting the social contract between citizens and government. He is taking active part.

As audacious as it may sound, Townsend hopes to build a peoples’ wireless telecommunications system on the New Jersey coast in place of the ATT and Verizon networks that failed during Hurricane Sandy. He is one of a group of citizen volunteers in the Hoboken area who are patching together a distributed wireless network at very little cost. Paralleling the municipal Wi-Fi movement of a decade ago, each participant contributes a piece of the network. The trick is to tie all the pieces together.

“For $60 we can configure a radio that someone can take to their house and point to our rooftop tower,” he explains. The devices discover one another and, in the fashion of a bucket brigade, pass packets of information from one to another. “We’re putting a network together with our bare hands and spare change.”

The reward will be reliable, almost no-cost Internet service that should have enough redundancy built in to withstand another hurricane. Elevating the network to a level of performance on a par with the incumbent providers will be a challenge, Townsend admits.  There will be gaps in their system. But the plug-and-play, distributed nature of their system will cost a tiny fraction of what the telecoms spend on cell towers, infrastructure and other overhead. “It’s very cheap and easy to build,” he says. “We’ll be a lab to test it in the real world.”

Imagine the same kind of technological disruption applied to the electric grid, mass transit, paid transport services, parking, municipal lighting, water and sewer, education and other municipal systems. Then imagine technology applications that no one in municipal government or the Fortune 500 companies are even thinking about – like citizens collaborating to monitor the environment. Municipal government could become unrecognizable. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that, if Townsend’s vision pans out, institutions for providing utilities and local government services will be reinvented on a scale not seen since the early 1900s.

The agents of disruption likely will not be municipal governments themselves, nor even the big technology companies and management consulting firms peddling efficiency and productivity solutions to local governments, says Townsend. The innovators will be tech-savvy citizens – civic hackers – who exploit the rapidly declining cost of sensors, microchips, wireless connectivity and networking technologies to conduct lots of experiments, learn rapidly and disseminate best practices around the globe. Already, he says, “The really transformative things are built by hackers, artists and entrepreneurs that are very end-user focused.”

Needless to say, there is some very smart money – with very deep pockets – that says Townsend is wrong. Tech giants like Cisco and IBM see local government, utilities and infrastructure as an emerging multitrillion-dollar market. At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, Cisco CEO John Chambers forecast cumulative revenue and productivity gains for the government sector globally to reach $4.6 trillion by 2020. Big Tech promises the ability to monitor things that have never been monitored, collect unprecedented volumes of data and crunch the numbers to identify patterns and anomalies that municipal managers had not noticed. By reducing leakage from water pipes, improving police response times, coordinating traffic signals and reducing power usage by street lights, technology companies promise billions of dollars in savings. Equally ambitious, IBM markets a “decision support system” that accesses vaults of under-utilized municipal data to analyze the interaction between everything from building permits to high school drop-out rates, housing vacancies to commuting times, to help managers and elected officials understand how investing money in one government sector will reverberate through the system to impact other sectors.

In a recent online debate with Townsend organized by the Economist magazine, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, a VP emeritus with IBM, argued against the proposition that “smart cities are empty hype,” insisting that top-down governance could work. “Digital technologies and the many data services they are enabling will significantly transform cities and make them smarter,” wrote the IBM executive. “These are highly complex projects, requiring considerable research and experimentation. As is generally the case with disruptive technologies, it is all likely to take longer than we anticipate, but the eventual impact will probably be deeper and more transformative than we imagine.” Not surprisingly, Wladesky-Berger sees the big corporations playing a major role.

Taking the position that smart cities are hype, Townsend raised the specter of tech companies creating proprietary “urban operating systems” and ecosystems of software vendors that extract royalties for “shuttling our money and data around smart cities.”  Worse, he said, “once ensconced, these firms will be nearly impossible to dislodge.” Read more.

(Cross posted from the Datamorphosis blog.)

Reinventing the Formal Garden

lewis-ginter-conservatory

The Lewis Ginter conservatory for exotic plants

by James A. Bacon

When a group of Richmond botanists, horticulturalists and interested citizens founded the Lewis-Ginter Botanical Garden in 1981, their vision was to plant formal, European-style gardens to rival the finest in the country. They succeeded in that goal beyond their expectations. Lewis Ginter is consistently rated as one of the Top 10 gardens in the United States. Of its 350,000 visitors in 2013, an estimated 20% to 30% came from outside the metropolitan region, making it the No. 2 visitor’s destination, after the Richmond International Raceway, in Henrico County.

President Frank Robinson, who joined the staff in 1992 and is planning to retire next year, could be forgiven for resting easy with that accomplishment. But he’s not. Society has changed over the past three decades, he says, and the organization has evolved along with it. The thrust of Lewis Ginter’s current $9 million fund-raising effort is not to build more formal landscaping worthy of coffee-table books, rather it represents a return to nature — or, more accurately, a reconciliation of urban development with nature.

The Streams of Stewardship initiative challenges expectations of what landscape design should be. Conventional Virginia tastes are heavily influenced by a heritage of gardens designed for French kings and English aristocrats from a very different era. But the challenges of 21st century America call for something new. The introduction of foreign ornamental plants and the voracious consumption of land by 20th- and 21st-century suburbs stresses Virginia’s natural environment, sterilizing the habitat for wildlife and polluting streams and rivers with fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. A new landscaping aesthetic can reverse some of the damage.

Lewis Ginter’s intention is to transform the 30 acres not dedicated to formal gardens on the 80-acre site with two goals in mind: to show how landscaping can clean creeks and streams polluted by urban run-off and to re-establish indigenous plants that support local wildlife. Plans call for replacing acres of formal grass lawn and large mulched beds with ornamental grasses and shrubs. A native plant garden will be established along a restored stream, and a woodland garden will provide natural filtration for excess nitrogen, phosphates and other algae-feeding nutrients flowing from a neighboring subdivision, a nearby golf course and Lewis-Ginter’s own property.

As Executive Director Shane Tippett puts it, Lewis Ginter wants to demonstrate that it is possible to meet a triple bottom line of creating beautiful places, restoring the environment, and doing so economically.

It’s not enough to show that such things can be done: The garden also wants to drive aesthetic and cultural change in the Richmond region, educating its 350,000 annual visitors, connecting with local landscapers and horticulturalists and reaching out to developers and home builders. In sum, the botanical gardens want to be a resource for the community.

Frank Robinson standing in the kind of tall grass that will replace acres of turf lawns.

Frank Robinson standing in the kind of tall grass that will replace acres of turf lawns.

The organization has largely fulfilled its core mission, says Robinson. “We knew we had to create very fine gardens to draw people here. And we had to generate earned income to support the enterprise.” And that it has done. The gardens are magnificent, and people are drawn year-round by a series of events: beautiful tulips in the springs, light displays at night, bonfires, jazz concerts, hot chocolate and the like. “Ultimately, it’s about the aesthetics. We had to do that to build the brand, the audience. We wouldn’t have been so successful if we’d started with a field of native grasses.”

The garden leadership began moving toward the new vision a decade ago, starting with a $1 million investment in a system that collected rainwater from building roofs and funneled it into two lakes on the property. Except for one year of severe drought, the property no longer needs county water. Avoiding the consumption of more than 7 million gallons a year saves Lewis Ginter hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in water bills and frees up county water capacity for someone else. The investment paid for itself in three or four years.

The 2007-2008 recession put the “Streams of Stewardship” fund-raising on hold but Richmond’s philanthropic community has revived to the point where Lewis Ginter is getting new commitments. Rather than waiting for the full $9 million to start, Robinson says, the garden is phasing in pieces of the plan as money comes available.

Meanwhile, the garden is taking an increasing leadership role in the community. It has invited to speak Lynden Miller, a nationally recognized garden designer, to Richmond, and Doug Tallamy, author of “Bringing Nature Home,” author of a treatise on how home gardeners can restore indigenous species. Its Beautiful RVA program brings together tree lovers, gardeners and landscapers to share ideas and build enthusiasm for creating quality public places.

“We never wanted to become a monastic community,” says Robinson. “It’s a big city out there. We can impact so many people beyond this property.”

This is the first of a planned series on the Lewis-Ginter Botanical Garden to be published as time permits.

Tar Heel Grief Just Down the Road

By Peter Galuszka

It’s sad to see mccrorytwo states to which I have personal ties – North Carolina and West Virginia — in such bad ways.

The latest raw news comes from the Tar Heel state where we are seeing the handiwork of hard-right- Gov. Pat McCrory who has been on a tear for a year now bashing civil rights here, pulling back from regulation there.

The big news is Duke Energy’s spill of coal ash and contaminated water near Eden into the Dan River, which supplies Danville and potentially Virginia Beach with drinking water. Reports are creeping out that the McCrory regime has been pressuring the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to pull back from regulation.

According to Rachel Maddow, DENR officials had stepped in with environmentalists as plaintiffs on two occasions in lawsuits to get Duke Energy to clean up coal ash. But when a third suit was filed, McCrory, a former Charlotte Mayor and career Duke Energy employee, influenced a third lawsuit settlement against Duke to be delayed.

Also, not long before the Eden spill, the City of Burlington released sewage into the Haw River which flows into Lake Jordan serving drinking water to Cary, Apex and Pittsboro. DENR allegedly did not release news of the spill to the public.

Late last year, Amy Adams, a senior DENR official, resigned to protest the massive cuts McCrory and Republican legislators were forcing at her department, notably in its water quality section.

McCrory’s been on a Ken Cuccinelli-style rip in other ways such as cutting back on unemployment benefits in a top manufacturing state badly hit by the recession and globalization. He’s shut down abortion clinics by suddenly raising the sanitation rules to hospital levels, much like former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell did in Virginia.

A reaction to McCrory is building, however. Recently, I chatted with Jason Thigpen who served in the Army and was wounded in Iraq in 2009. When Thigpen returned to his home in southeastern North Carolina, he was upset that the state was sticking it to vets by making them pay out-of-state college tuition in cases where some had been state residents before deploying. So, he started an activist group to protect them.

Next, Thigpen decided to run for Congress. His views fit more neatly with the Republican Party but he simply could not take what McCrory was doing in Raleigh so he became a Democrat and is a contender in a primary this spring.

Why the switch? “I just couldn’t see what the GOP was doing with my state in Raleigh,” He told me. “Also, I didn’t like what they were doing with women. I had served with women in war and they come back to North Carolina and they are treated like second class citizens,” he said.

West Virginia, meanwhile, is still struggling with its drinking water issues from a spill near Charleston. Although drinking water for 300,000 is said to be potable, children are reporting rashes.

Somehow, this conjures up another story involving a Republican governor – Arch Moore.

Back in 1972, Moore was governor when Pittston, a Virginia-based energy firm, had badly sited and built some damns to hold coal waste. After torrential rains, the dams burst and a sea of filthy water raced down the hollows, inundating small villages and killing 125 people. The state wanted a $100 million settlement from Pittston for the Buffalo Creek disaster, but Moore interceded and they settled for a measly $1 million.

Moore was later convicted of five felonies after he was caught extorting $573,000 from a coal company that wanted to reduce its payments to a state fund that compensated miners who got black lung disease.

Does anyone see a pattern yet?

Meanwhile, we in Virginia should breathe a sigh of relief considering just close it was dodging the bullet last election.

Journalism’s Death Is Greatly Exaggerated

rachel_maddowBy Peter Galuszka

“Investigative reporting, R.I.P. In-depth reporting is dead. If not dead, it’s comatose. Reeling from declining revenue and eroding profit margins, print media enterprises continue to lay off staff and shrink column inches.”

Err, maybe not. James A. Bacon Jr., meet Rachel Maddow.

The quote comes from advertised “sponsorships” in which an outside entity can help fund reporting and writing on this blog. It’s a morphed form of traditional journalism and there’s nothing wrong with it, provided the funding source is made clear.

But what might be jumping the gun is the sweeping characterization that in-depth reporting is dead. That is precisely the point of Maddow’s monthly column in The Washington Post.

She notes that it was local traffic reporters and others who broke the story about Chris Christie’s finagling with toll booths to punish a political opponent. She shows evidence of other aggressive reporting in Connecticut and in South Carolina, where an intrepid reporter got up early one morning, drive 200 miles to the Atlanta airport and caught then disappeared Gov. Mark Sanford disembarking from an overseas flight to see his Latin American mistress when he had claimed he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Closer to home, it was the Post, which has seen more than 400 newsrooms layoffs over the past years, that broke GiftGate, the worst political scandal in Virginia in recent memory. The rest of the state press popped good stories, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch that has been somewhat reinvigorated despite nearly 10 years of corporate cheerleading and limp coverage under publisher Tom Silvestri. The departure of the disastrous former editor Glenn Proctor, Silvestri’s brainchild, helped a lot as did the sale of the paper by dysfunctional Media General to Warren Buffett.

To be sure, there are sad departures. The Hook, a Charlottesville alternative, did a great job reporting the forced and temporary ouster of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, but it has folded.

Funding, indeed, remains a huge problem, even at Bacon’s Rebellion where we all write pretty much for free. One solution, Maddow notes, happened in a tiny Arkansas town that found it was located over a decaying ExxonMobil fuel pipeline. The community raised funds to help hire more reporters to break through the news.

She suggests: “Whatever your partisan affiliation, or lack thereof, subscribe to your local paper today. It’s an act of civic virtue.”

Hear! Hear!