Friday, January 25, 2008

Let's Start Conserving our Liquid Future Before it's Too Late

Have you noticed that it’s stopped raining?

Okay… we’re getting a little drizzle this week. But just a year ago, as you may recall, we were months deep into one of the worst droughts in history. Lakes were at an all time low. Watering restrictions were imposed across the board, curtailing excess watering, car washing and pool filling. Most folks took these restrictions in stride, and many even went above and beyond to do their part to conserve.

Then it started to rain.

And it didn’t stop.

Between March and June, we got almost as much rain as in the entire previous twelve months. By June, the city council called off the alert and loosened up the restrictions. It was back to business as usual for most area residents. In fact, water usage rose from 139 gallons per capita per day (gpcd) in December 2006 to over 145 last month. And while total usage was down in 2007, we were gulping down 249 gpcd in 2006.

Why is that number significant? According to Mayoral Candidate Maher Maso, the state of Texas – who, by the way, controls the rights to all surface water in the state – has set a target consumption rate of 140 gpcd. Cities that consume more than this target, Mr. Maso continues, may find it difficult to get additional water from the state, regardless of how many new reservoirs they build. While we currently have enough water to meet the demands of our citizens, future growth is bound to put a strain on the supply, even in years with ample rain. So just finding new water sources isn’t the answer. We’ve got to cut back as well.

The other declared candidate for the city’s head office, Matt Lafata, takes a similar view on conservation. His plans include an advisory panel to help craft new water conservation efforts, and a regional approach to ensure the neighboring cities participate as well.

In the meantime, we should all remember the lessons we learned last year. Though we may have adopted them as part of the mandatory water restrictions, most are just a good idea, regardless of the amount of rain we get. The spring watering season is almost upon us (have we even had winter yet?). So here are some things to keep in mind.

Don’t water in the winter. The most common type of grass planted in North Texas is Bermuda. During the winter months, this variety goes dormant. It doesn’t grow. It doesn’t need water. If you’re like my neighbor – running your sprinklers year-round – you’re not only wasting water, you’re throwing away money!

Adjust your sprinklers. Once again, this is a matter of economics as much as ecology. If your sprinklers are pouring water in the streets, it’s not doing your lawn any good. So you’re basically buying water, then donating it to the City of Dallas (who owns the water that runs off of Frisco streets and into Lake Lewisville).

Cut down the watering times. According to Frisco’s Director of Public Works, Gary Hartwell, North Texas soil becomes saturated after about 6 or 7 minutes of watering. So if your sprinklers are running for 20 minutes at a time, chances are that about 60% of that is falling on water-soaked ground, running off into the streets and going to… that’s right… Dallas. I, too, once subscribed to the notion that deep watering promoted deep roots. But if you’ll pardon the pun, that theory just doesn’t hold water. Instead of running your system for 20 minutes once a day, run it three times for 7 minutes each. Your lawn (and your water district) will thank you.

Don’t water in the middle of the day. Particularly in the heat of the summer, you lose a significant amount to evaporation. Instead, run the sprinklers in the early morning hours.

Install an Evapotranspiration Controller. ET Controllers monitor the amount of rainfall and moisture in the air, and turn your sprinklers on or off as needed. Not only does this reduce your water usage (and cost) but you can qualify for a $100 rebate from the city.

Water management is going to be a major issue for all of North Texas (and most of the United States) in the years to come. Certainly this is one of the key factors that should be explored in the upcoming mayoral race. Which of the candidates is willing to take a hard line on water usage? Who is most qualified to set the right direction for Frisco’s water future? Hopefully we’ll have a normal amount of rainfall before the elections this May. But just because it rained some this week, don’t become complacent. Conservation is an activity. And we all need to act to protect this valuable natural resource.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Fire Fighting Class Lends Life Lessons

It was the darkness that struck me most. Sure it was hot: over 400 degrees by one estimate. But we had the right gear to keep the temperature at bay. And while the oxygen flowing from the bottle on my back certainly warmed up, it was clear, with only a hint of the smoke that swirled around us. But scant seconds after the flames roared to life, I could barely see a hand in front of my face. The flames themselves were merely a glow. The beam from the flashlight in the fireman’s hand started out resembling a light saber, but quickly diminished to a tiny dagger.

This was the highlight of the Frisco Fire Department’s Citizen’s Fire Academy. After being outfitted with full “bunker gear,” a half-dozen of us marched into a small, concrete room piled high with oil-soaked hay bales. After a few cautionary words, Chief Siebert struck a match and plunged us into the nightmare environment that fire fighters endure on a regular basis.

That’s one of the reasons I enrolled in this popular class. There’s been a lot written in recent years about the heroic men and women who make up the fire fighting teams around the country. I wanted to get a better picture of what they really do from day to day. Over the 9-week course, we heard from a variety of groups within the department, most with some sort of “hands on” demonstration. We hooked a student up to a heart monitor during the EMT demonstration. We lugged fully-charged hoses and used pincers to cut through solid steel. The non-acrophobic amongst us scaled the heights of an extended ladder.

Throughout the course, Frisco Fire Chief Mack Borchardt poked his head in from time to time. Chief Mack is a fire-fighter’s fire fighter and he’s full of stories about his early years, when the force was largely made up of volunteers. These days, he commands a group of professionals nearly 150 strong, counting full time and volunteer forces. But when it comes down to it, the lessons learned in his past are equally relevant today. During our final class, Chief Mack shared with us some nuggets of knowledge which he’s gleaned from various sources throughout the years. He’s quick to point out that many of these aren’t his alone, but represent that collective wisdom of fire fighters from across the country and over the ages.

Here then, are a few of the fire fighters’ Words of Wisdom, translated for everyday living:

The only safe assumption is to assume the worst. Fire fighters train constantly to ensure that things don’t go badly. But when approaching a blaze, one has to be prepared for things to go wrong. By the same token, we should approach life optimistically, but that’s no excuse for not preparing for problems. Whether it’s contributing enough to our retirement funds, or just having a fallback plan if your current job gets eliminated, you’ll live happier knowing you’re prepared.

One should not stand too close to the guys who are all banged up. We all know those people who go through life leaping from one crisis to another. Chances are, many of their problems are created from the bad choices they make. In a fire fighter’s world, following these people can get you into a dangerous situation. In everyday life, these people can drag you down emotionally, if not physically.

In most cases, extinguishing the fire solves the majority of problems. Too often, we get so caught up in the minute details of a situation, and neglect the real source of our problems. But if you can set those aside and focus your energy on the core problem, you’ll be surprised at how many things you thought were major issues simply go away.

If the fire is not going out, you’re not putting enough water on it. This is my favorite. The simple solution is often the right one.

Effective analysis must always be mixed with water to put out the fire. In the business world, this has its own buzzword: analysis paralysis. You spend so much time and effort studying a problem that you don’t get around to solving it. While proper planning often leads to a better solution, it won’t do you any good if it’s delivered too late. Which leads us to…

The longer you take to make a decision, the fewer options you have. If a fire fighter takes too long to decide between two courses of action, one of them is likely to disappear in a roar of flames. Likewise, if you take too long to decide whether to go for that promotion at work, or accept another position elsewhere, the choice could be made for you.

The very worst plan is no plan; the second worst is two plans. Make a plan and stick with it. You’re wise to have a backup plan (see above), but if you try to attack a problem from multiple directions at once, chances are you’ll reduce the effectiveness of the single approach.

I learned a lot during the Citizen’s Fire Academy. Certainly I saw some of the challenges fire fighters face during emergencies. But I gained a newfound respect for the preparation, community education and occasional ping pong games that make up the bulk of their time. And if I ever find myself in a hot spot with limited vision, I hope I can apply some of their wisdom to find my way out.

On another note, the city of Frisco is accepting applications for its City Hall 101 class. This 12-week session provides an inside view of our city government, how it works and the people who run it. If you’re curious about what makes Frisco tick, I highly recommend that you sign up. Visit the city website at to enroll.