At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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In Heart of Rand Paul Territory, Public Investment For Public Purposes

Bowling Green, Kentucky applied taxpayer funds to redevelop its downtown despite objections from its most famous resident -- Senator Rand Paul.

Bowling Green, Kentucky applied taxpayer funds to redevelop its downtown despite objections from its most famous resident — Senator Rand Paul.

BOWLING GREEN, KY. – When Gary Ransdell, the president of Western Kentucky University, invites alumni to view this city’s redeveloping downtown from his hilltop campus, the response is almost always exclamations of surprise.

Just below domed Cherry Hall, one of the 108-year-old university’s grandest buildings, are nearly 200,000 square feet of new student housing, built at a cost of $24 million. There’s also a 30,000 square foot, $10 million alumni center, and a 72,500 square-foot $14.5 million Hyatt Place hotel due to open in 2015.

Next door to the Hyatt site is a $28 million mixed use development that is under construction and will house 240 more students on one side of College Street, and a separate building on the other for small businesses, restaurants, and a rooftop pool.

There’s also four new fraternity houses built at a cost of $3 million, and a 450-space parking deck flanked by 30,000 square feet of retail businesses and restaurants that are expected to open next year.

Mr. Ransdell described the projects closest to the 108-year-old university as the latest additions to the $262 million in downtown construction since 2008 that is rehabilitating Bowling Green’s central business district. All of the new structures replace deteriorated homes and ragged retail businesses that for decades formed a barrier between the university and city center.

Bowling Green's new SKyPac theater is a new downtown institution.

Bowling Green’s new SKyPac theater is a new downtown institution.

“There’s been a shift in student density at the north end of our campus. With each new project that density increases,” said Mr. Ransdell, Western Kentucky’s president since 1997. “We’re all a bunch of bulldogs in this community. We haven’t seen a deal that we didn’t like. We want to close them all.”

Judging from the scope and progress made over the last six years, it clearly appears that deal making has evolved into a choice skill in this city of 61,000 residents, Kentucky’s third largest. Arguably the most important was the pact that the city and Warren County reached with the state to establish a 383-acre, 52-block, special development and tax district in 2007.

The district pays local governments 80 percent of the increases in payroll, property, sales and other tax revenue generated by new development within the district boundaries. Revenue is devoted to retiring construction bonds, building infrastructure, and assisting developers, including the university.

In August, while on assignment for The New York Times, I reported on Bowling Green’s successful downtown development project, which was made possible its allegiance to the time-honored American principle of devoting public funds for public purposes. It’s that principle of economic development which is under attack from the Tea Party and its adherents in municipal, state, and the federal government. One of the leaders of that anti-tax, anti-spend sentiment is Rand Paul, the Republican junior senator from Kentucky, who has lived in Bowling Green since 1993, where he opened a medical practice in opthamology.

I asked Doug Gorman, a downtown business owner and chairman of the Warren County Downtown Economic Development Authority, what Senator Paul thought about Bowling Green’s progress and how it was achieved. Mr. Gorman told me he was a close friend of the Senator and one evening, at a party the two attended, Mr. Paul pulled him aside to voice his objections to how taxpayer funds were applied to downtown development. “He wasn’t happy about it,” said Mr. Gorman. “I asked him whether he had a better way to do what we were doing? Because this is the best way we know.”

And for good reason. As I reported in The New York Times in August, this year the city’s development district, formally called the WKU Gateway to Downtown Bowling Green, will return to the city and county over $2 million in revenue. Over its 30-year life, ending in 2037, the tax district will deliver $200 million to the two governments, said Doug Gorman, a downtown business owner and chairman of the Warren County Downtown Economic Development Authority, which oversees the gateway project. “The whole point of what we’re trying to do is to get more people to enjoy our downtown, to live here and work here,” said Mr. Gorman. “If you look around now, it’s pretty clear that people get the point.”

Until the Gateway project began to unfold, Bowling Green was largely known for its university, the third largest in Kentucky, and for the General Motors assembly plant not far away, where Corvettes have been built since 1981. Earlier this year a sinkhole opened in a wing of the privately-managed National Corvette Museum near the plant, swallowing eight sports cars that were on display, and prompting significant increases in attendance.
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Olmsted Locks and Dam, Despite $Billions in Overruns, Keeps Rolling Along

The Olmsted Locks and Dam, 17 miles from where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi, is the largest inland navigation project in U.S. history. Photo/Keith Schneider

The Olmsted Locks and Dam, 17 miles from where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi, is the largest inland navigation project in U.S. history. Photo/Keith Schneider

OLMSTED, Ill. –- Engineers constructing the mammoth Olmsted Locks and Dam spent the summer of 2014 lowering colossal concrete blocks in place on the bottom of the Ohio River.

Submerging each piece, which form the base of a half-mile long dam that is largely underwater, is an exacting convergence of digital measurements, floating cranes, groaning towboats, and divers working in murky waters that takes over two weeks to complete.

Like everything else about the two locks and the dam that reaches from Illinois to Kentucky at one of the Ohio’s widest points, the 120-foot-long, 2,562-ton blocks are outsized. Completing Olmsted has involved solving wicked structural and assembly challenges prompted by its experimental design. It’s meant fabricating one-of-a-kind heavy lift cranes that crawl on land and float on a barge.

It’s also caused engineers and skilled craftsmen to candidly accept the criticism that comes with a steadily rising price tag that appears to have stabilized at $US 3.1 billion, and to endure a nearly 30-year construction schedule that no one anticipated.

Still, those are not the only distinguishing features of the Olmsted project, the largest and most expensive inland water navigation installation ever built in the United States. What sets the Olmsted project apart is its uncanny ability to attract consistent funding in an era when most of the other water infrastructure projects in the United States are so desperate for money they generally are not built or are years behind schedule. For example:

– The Army Corps of Engineers, which constructs and manages inland water transport infrastructure, including the Olmsted Project, has a $US 66 billion backlog of projects.

– The American Water Works Association, a trade organization, released a study in 2012 that found that due to deferred maintenance, replacing and modernizing the more than one million miles of water supply pipes in the United States will require an investment of $US 1 trillion over the next generation.

– The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, charged by federal law to safeguard the nation’s water quality, reports that “every year across the country, there are approximately 240,000 water main breaks. As many as 75,000 yearly sanitary sewer overflows discharge three to ten billion gallons of untreated wastewater, leading to some 5,500 illnesses due to exposures to contaminated recreational waters.”

My articles on the Olmsted Locks and Dam were published in August in the New York Times, and in September by Circle of Blue.
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World Water Week Beckons For Answers To Scarcity, Pollution, Security

The 24th annual World Water Week attracted 3,000 participants from 130 countries to discuss the ties between energy and water. Photo/Keith Schneider

The 24th annual World Water Week attracted 3,000 participants from 130 countries to discuss the ties between energy and water. Photo/Keith Schneider

STOCKHOLM — Of all the world’s developed nations, none faces a more urgent confrontation between rising energy demand and scarce water supplies than South Africa. Just as in other desert African nations, parched South Africa is desperate to generate more energy while somehow bypassing ecological limits on its water supply.

One in every ten of South Africa’s 51 million residents do not have ready access to clean supplies of drinking water, according Christine Colvin, a freshwater program specialist for the World Wide Fund for Nature in South Africa. More than one in ten South Africans does not have access to electricity in a nation that has built just 46,000 megawatts of electrical generating capacity, said Martin Ginster, a land, water, and environmental manager at Sasol, the big South African coal and fuel producing company.

That’s the same level of generating capacity as Illinois, a big American industrial state with about one-fifth of South Africa’s population. Ninety percent of South Africa’s electricity is fueled by water-gulping coal.

During two programs convened by the World Resources Institute, and held here on the third and fourth days of World Water Week, Colvin and Ginster described the conflicting paths that South African authorities are considering to respond to their nation’s thirst for water and energy. In one scenario, which the nation is pursuing with modest resolve, is to tap the country’s deep shale reserves for new supplies of natural gas. That involves fracturing the reserves with millions of gallons of water, though it is not certain that the fluid needed to frack those wells needs to be fresh water.

The other new pathway is to build more than 18,000 megawatts (18 gigawatts) of new generating capacity from wind and solar photovoltaic plants, both of which require far lower amounts of fresh water. South Africa has set 2030 as the year it wants to reach that goal.

Stockholm, Sweden' 800-year-old capital, is a city of 900,000 residents and a gracious host of World Water Week. Photo/Keith Schneider

Stockholm, Sweden’s 800-year-old capital, is a city of 900,000 residents and a gracious host of World Water Week. Photo/Keith Schneider

Neither Colvin nor Ginster knew what it might cost to build 18 gigawatts of renewable generating capacity, though it’s not a terrifically large amount of power. Yet what was striking about their comments to an ample audience of executives, scientists, activists and government officials from around the world was the agreement both shared about the need to actively pursue the clean energy program and be exceedingly cautious about fracking South Africa’s desert.
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In Detroit, Scales of Finance and Fairness Have Tipped Over

Shuttered homes, empty lots, and acres of open space are common features of Detroit's geography. Since 1954, when the city's population peaked at nearly 2 million, Detroit has lost an average of 20,000 people annually. Less than 700,000 people currently call Detroit home. Photo/Keith Schneider

Shuttered homes, empty lots, and acres of open space are common features of Detroit’s geography. Since 1954, when the city’s population peaked at nearly 2 million, Detroit has lost an average of 20,000 people annually. Less than 700,000 people currently call Detroit home. Photo/Keith Schneider

On July 18, 2013 Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s emergency manager, acted on the remarkably broad authorities afforded him by an eight-month-old state law and filed a petition to launch the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Orr’s intent, he said, was to reduce the beleaguered city’s operating costs, reduce the cost of servicing the city’s debt, and set Detroit on a fresh course to redevelopment and prosperity.

During a news conference that evening, Detroit’s elected one-term Mayor Dave Bing stood meekly by Orr’s side and offered his reluctant support: “This is very difficult for all of us,” Bing said. “But if it’s going to make services better off, then this is a new start for us.”

In the more than 13 months since the bankruptcy petition was filed it’s become steadily clearer who’s better off in Detroit and who is not. The owners of small and medium-sized businesses that have invoices still to be paid by Detroit are not. They could receive 30 cents on the dollar or less on the outstanding balances.

The city’s 22,500 retired employees are not. They will experience pension cuts. About half the city’s general employees agreed to cut their pensions almost 5 percent, slash their health benefits 90 percent, and receive no cost of living adjustments. The other half – retired police and firefighters – will receive full pensions, but accepted a 55 percent reduction in cost of living adjustments and will receive only a small cash stipend to offset the cost of their new private health insurance plans.

Thousands of residents, many of them jobless and impoverished, also are not better off. They face losing their water again as a 37-day moratorium is lifted today and Detroit’s water department resumes cutting off water to property owners who are either $150 in arrears or 60 days late in paying their utility bills. Some 83,000 residences and businesses are said by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to owe $90 million to the utility.

“There’s lots of reasons why people have fallen behind,” said Baxter Jones, a city resident. “Some of my friends have had their water turned off. Some people that I know that have had to take their kids different places to wash up. It’s very, very sad when you think about it because there’s so many different reasons why you need water.”

But there’s another group, largely composed of professionals from outside Detroit and outside Michigan, who’ve benefitted enormously from the Detroit bankruptcy, pocketing tens of millions in city payments  from the circumstances that led to the pension reductions and water shutoffs.

A Shrinking City Under Emergency Rule
Detroit’s bankruptcy trial is scheduled to start Tuesday, September 2, in U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes’ courtroom at the U.S. District Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Over the next eight weeks or so, the trial proceedings are expected to reveal just how much “better off” the big banks financing the city’s new debt and financial obligations — as well the lawyers, bankers, accountants, and consultants involved in the deal-making — will be from rearranging Detroit’s fiscal operations.

Alice Jennings led a team of eight civil rights and human rights attorneys in filing a class action lawsuit in U.S. Bankruptcy Court to halt the water shutoffs. A hearing on the case is scheduled for September 2, the same day that the Detroit bankruptcy trial starts. Photo/Keith Schneider

Alice Jennings led a team of eight civil rights and human rights attorneys in filing a class action lawsuit in U.S. Bankruptcy Court to halt the water shutoffs. A hearing on the case is scheduled for September 2, the same day that the Detroit bankruptcy trial starts. Photo/Keith Schneider

An examination by Circle of Blue of the reports, exhibits, studies, and court orders filed with the federal bankruptcy court yields a disturbing and unassailable conclusion:  While unionized employees lost jobs and substantial portions of their pensions and benefits, and thousands of Detroit’s poorest residents are severed from water supplies and sewer services the nation’s biggest banks are making $6 billion to $7 billion in new bonds available to refinance city debts, a move that should reduce interest payments.

Meanwhile, tens of millions of dollars in transaction fees will be collected by bank officers. Traders selling the bonds could collect hundreds of millions of dollars more. And the regiment of lawyers and accountants handling the deals and managing the bankruptcy, at fees that range from $500 to $1,000 an hour, are collecting over $8 million a month for their services and expenses. Read More

Circle of Blue Honored by Society of Environmental Journalists

Kettleman City resident Maria Salcedo's ten-month-old daughter, Ashley Alvarez, died from complications stemming from multiple birth defects during a rash of such occurrences between 2007 and 2008 in this small farmworker town in the Central Valley. Contaminated drinking water is viewed as one of the potential causes.

Credit: Photo © Matt Black / Circle of Blue
Kettleman City resident Maria Salcedo’s ten-month-old daughter, Ashley Alvarez, died from complications stemming from multiple birth defects during a rash of such occurrences between 2007 and 2008 in this small farmworker town in the Central Valley. Contaminated drinking water is viewed as one of the potential causes. Photo © Matt Black / Circle of Blue. Click image to enlarge.

 

Circle of Blue, where I’ve worked since 2007, and full-time since 2010, is steadily earning a reputation for best-in-class reporting, photography, and data design graphics on the global contest for clean water. This week, Circle of Blue’s trendsetting reporting on Western water issues in the United States and its scintillating photography on the contest for fresh water in India, California, and the Great Plains were honored with two awards from the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), the premiere professional trade organization representing 1,400 journalists and academics in 27 countries.

Brett Walton, Circle of Blue’s Seattle-based correspondent, won third place for “outstanding beat reporting” in a small market for five articles encompassing drug disposal in California, water scarcity in the Colorado River Basin, water pricing in 30 American cities, drought in Texas, and disinvestment in water infrastructure.

J. Carl Ganter, Circle of Blue’s Traverse City-based co-founder and managing director, joined Choke Point: Index photographers Matt Black and Brian Lehmann in winning second place honors in environmental photojournalism for five compelling photographs of the competition between water, food, and energy on two continents.

SEJ said that it considered 313 entries for the 2013-2014 awards and chose 21 winners in seven categories. Circle of Blue is the only news organization to win two awards in this year’s contest.

It is the second time in two years that Circle of Blue’s reporting and photography on the global contest for fresh water has been recognized for its excellence. In 2012, the Rockefeller Foundation honored Circle of Blue with its $US100,000 Centennial Innovation Award.

“It is with humility and gratitude that we thank our colleagues and peers at the Society of Environmental Journalists for these honors,” Ganter said. “The story we are telling about the shrinking global supply of clean fresh water is critical to the security of every nation, every economy, every community. It is an honor to work with our exceptional Circle of Blue team. With these awards, it’s very gratifying to know such an esteemed group of environmental journalists thinks we are on the right track.”

Circle of Blue joined a prominent list of mainstream and online news organizations that also won SEJ awards this year. They include: The Baltimore Sun, Climate Wire, High Country News, the Miami Herald, National Geographic, Natural History, The New York Times, Scientific American, and The Seattle Times.

The contest judges made these comments about Brett Walton’s work:

“Brett Walton’s stories on the timely topic of drought brought out the calculations and competing interests for water in three major Western states, and he spun the issue out to the international level. The judges liked his easy, digestible writing style.”

And the judges said this about Circle of Blue’s photographers:

“From India to the Midwest to California, J. Carl Ganter, Matt Black, and Brian Lehmann capture in both intimate portraiture and dramatic aerials the changes to lives and landscape brought and wrought by the world’s quest for water.”

Brett Walton’s Award-Winning Stories

Circle of Blue’s Award-Winning Photography

Kettleman City resident Maria Salcedo's ten-month-old daughter, Ashley Alvarez, died from complications stemming from multiple birth defects during a rash of such occurrences between 2007 and 2008 in this small farmworker town in the Central Valley. Contaminated drinking water is viewed as one of the potential causes.

Credit: Photo © Matt Black / Circle of Blue
Kettleman City resident Maria Salcedo’s ten-month-old daughter, Ashley Alvarez, died from complications stemming from multiple birth defects during a rash of such occurrences between 2007 and 2008 in this small farmworker town in the Central Valley. Contaminated drinking water is viewed as one of the potential causes. Photo © Matt Black / Circle of Blue. Click image to enlarge.
Punjab Green Revolution rice wheat aspen poplar flood irrigation grain harvest Choke Point India water food energy nexus Circle of Blue Wilson Center

Credit: Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue
Desraj Khai, 57, has worked the Sekhon family’s land for nearly five decades, since the start of the Green Revolution, when Western crop scientists introduced Punjabi farmers to hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, and chlorine-based weed and insect killers. Click image to enlarge.
John Burchard, General Manager of the Alpaugh Community Services District, walks a ditch bank on the outskirts of town. The small farmworker community in California's Central Valley suffers from high levels of arsenic and other contaminates in its drinking water.

Credit: Photo © Matt Black / Circle of Blue
John Burchard, General Manager of the Alpaugh Community Services District, walks a ditch bank on the outskirts of town. The small farmworker community in California’s Central Valley suffers from high levels of arsenic and other contaminates in its drinking water.Click image to enlarge.
A golden circle, this one near Edson, Kansas, is the tell-tale sign of an irrigated corn field ready for harvest. Farmers in the Great Plains produce some of the highest corn yields in the world thanks in part to abundant water supplies from the Ogallala Aquifer. The aquifer, however, is draining away because more water is pumped out than filters back in.

Credit: Photo © Brian Lehman / Circle of Blue
A golden circle, this one near Edson, Kansas, is the tell-tale sign of an irrigated corn field ready for harvest. Farmers in the Great Plains produce some of the highest corn yields in the world thanks in part to abundant water supplies from the Ogallala Aquifer. The aquifer, however, is draining away because more water is pumped out than filters back in.Click image to enlarge.
©JGanter_India_G7_0095

Credit: Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue
Click image to enlarge.

View the complete list of winners at Society of Environmental Journalists.

– Keith Schneider