Friday, June 29, 2007

Back to Basics

Back to Basics

I have resided in Walworth County for the last ten years, and like any area on the edge of an expanding megapolitan region at the tail end of the oil age, we are at a crossroads. Our county’s unique resources and amenities can be preserved through sustainable and local development (as in economize, localize and produce), or we can retain a cheap-labor, environmentally degrading, extractive economy dependent on the whims of outside forces and a declining petroleum resource, as our current path is dictating to us. I have spoken with many friends and they feel the same way I do.

This is why I have become interested in starting a Sustainable Walworth blog, with the hopes of eventually kick-starting a Sustainable Walworth movement in which we celebrate and preserve our unique character and give hope to the next generation. This aims to be a clearinghouse of ideas, independent thought and discussion as to how to sustain ourselves. Walworth County is a special place because of our beautiful lakes and countryside, environmental resources, ample agricultural base, potentially vital small towns, and potential of access to the culture of urban centers in Chicago and Milwaukee. We need to emphasize ways to preserve and enhance these special things.

Why do we need a new direction? I write this as the cost of basics (food, energy and shelter), and our dependency on the external economy to provide them, skyrockets each year, consistently outpacing the average rate of inflation. Energy is shipped in via massive power lines from off-site coal-fired and nuclear plants. Our transportation system in Walworth County is nearly completely dependent on the personal automobile and trucking paradigm, with the exception of a few decrepit, lightly used freight rail lines. Public transit is non-existent as the last passenger commuter rail service was discontinued in the early 80’s, and public bus transit exists only in the form of a few resort shuttles in Lake Geneva, despite a population that exceeds 30,000 within a ten-mile radius in the center of the county and a massive influx of tourists in the summer and on weekends. In spite of our plentiful, fertile farmland, most food is shipped in, with the exception of a few farm stands in summer. The money spent on energy and food is largely shipped out of the region or even out of the country to fill the coffers of the utility industry, the oil companies, car companies, and suppliers of oil imports, and daily drains the pockets of our citizens and leaves the local economy. A retail and service-dependent cheap labor economy forces our citizens to go elsewhere for gainful employment, racheting up our dependence on expensive energy and road-based transport.

It is time we rebuild our local economy and ecology. Our county has substantial potential to provide basic needs through its local economy for its citizens, without resorting to this over-dependence on external sources. Rich farmland has the potential to provide our citizens with excellent, locally grown foodstuffs. Many areas have the basic infrastructure in place (railroad tracks or centerlines of existing road beds), which can be upgraded to begin a shift to transportation alternatives, and many locations have the potential to produce local, clean energy through wind, solar and in a few locations, small hydropower. Re-tooling our existing developments in the right way and providing sustainability guidelines for new development will help conserve our water resources, and the quality of our lakes and streams, and promote a greater sense of community. This will provide the added benefit of helping to preserve our region as a tourist destination, which is one of the main engines of our county economy.

Unfortunately, it seems that many recent trends in our county are aping those of the sprawl suburbs of Chicago and Milwaukee, particularly Waukesha County. Developers with deep pockets are buying up vast chunks of land with the hopes of cramming in large, high profit developments – local sentiments and environmental quality be damned. Such developers are attempting to use money and influence to play off local governments against each other, or insert themselves into small entities, such as townships, that lack the resources to regulate them. Developers with deep pockets are also salivating over the remaining undeveloped lake front land, large open spaces, and natural areas, and we have no funded mechanism for land conservation like the forest preserve and conservation districts of our neighbors to the south.

As a result of this trend, lake watersheds are becoming overdeveloped and runoff from this development is compromising our crown jewels such as Geneva Lake and Delavan Lake. The county picks on easy targets such as small homeowners and contractors, while allowing deep-pocket developers to chop up virgin land such as the recent destruction of one of the last high-quality remnant wooded slopes above the Lauderdale Lakes chain. Vast sums of cash were expended to rehabilitate Delavan Lake nearly 20 years ago and now runoff from development and inappropriate land use has degraded the lake to an algae-choked state similar to its condition before restoration. Part of this is due to the pavement and impermeable surfaces that are becoming ever more frequent, with poor quality stormwater management.

The paving of the county is also evidenced by Lake Geneva traffic gridlock throughout the summer and on many weekends, no thanks to the removal of passenger rail access in the 1970s that could now be reducing the congestion and pumping more money into our local economy. This traffic gridlock is, according to the Wisconsin DNR, contributing to local air quality that trips the non-attainment levels mandated by the U.S. EPA. The standard auto-dependent big box stores have popped up, and traffic lights and jams are sprouting up like weeds. We are moving towards Crystal Lake style congestion, without the Metra trains that they are fortunate to still have, or even worse, Waukesha County, which is slated to hit 500,000 souls in the near future, nearly all of whom will be clogging the roads with their personal cars thanks to the knee-jerk resistance of local politicians to trains. Even the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, who should know better as a public, non-partisan planning agency, fails to think outside the car box, with flawed studies dismissing commuter railroad extensions to the county, and a long range plan that includes new road construction and highways. These flawed studies are based on usage demand assuming inflation-adjusted gasoline prices at $2.35 a gallon through the year 2030. As we all know, gasoline prices have exceeded this price by nearly 50 percent, and most sources studying peak oil indicate peak oil will have long since happened by 2030. Unless we can wean ourselves off the black crack, the downslope from peak oil is likely to lead to ever-increasing fuel prices above and beyond the general inflation rate.

Our petroleum dependency is also shown in our landscapes. Lake and stream front property owners are improperly applying pesticides, clearing native vegetation, planting invasive species, or overusing the turf lawn, which contributes to global warming, wasteful use of oil, and general mis-allocation of resources. All the while, as our environment degrades and it becomes harder and harder to keep up with the cost of necessities, our state, local and federal politicians dither and obsess about god, guns and gays, while neglecting the basic, everyday bread and butter issues.

I have two school age children, and not to sound trite, leave Walworth County to them as good or better a place as what I know now. We need to think outside of the box that the powers that be are putting us in, or they will inherit a worse place.

How to get us out of this mess? We have the ability to take a new and different path, unlike the sprawl suburbs of Waukesha County and our neighbors to the south. We need to learn from our past history and the best of what’s new to come up with better ways to feed us, to move us about, shelter us and in a resource-limited world, to economize, localize and produce. We need to impress on the powers that be that they need to begin paying attention and return to the basics that sustain us, and help them by acting as a clearinghouse for new and better ways. In future postings, we will look at green building, local agriculture, sustainable landscaping, sustainable development, transit-oriented development, ways to build transportation alternatives to the car, supporting local manufacturing, production, and professional expertise, and retrofitting our built spaces. We will look at things that can be done at an individual level, as well as changes to county-level policy that support long-term sustainability of our resource base.

Big projects such as Sho-Deen’s proposed Jackson Creek mega-development in Delavan Lake’s headwaters have opened our eyes to what could be if outside forces steer us, and baby steps such as cooperative meetings of local officials, and regulations such as non-phosphorus fertilizers in Delavan Lake region indicate that the time is right for a new paradigm for the county. People are hungry for alternatives, as evidenced by the last election, when the “bums” in Delavan Township that supported the unsustainable sprawl Jackson Creek development were removed from office. We invite you to join us and help brainstorm solutions, and to lend your support.