Monday, June 12, 2017

Water, Water, Everywhere . . .

Water was the topic of discussion at the Conservation Advisory Council last Tuesday night--protecting the source of Hudson's water supply and preparing ourselves for the expected sea-level rise that is a consequence of climate change.

The meeting began with a presentation by freshwater scientists from the Eastern New York Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. The subject was the watershed that is the source of Hudson's water. They were reporting their preliminary analysis of Hudson's water supply and wanted to know if the CAC was interested in having them do a "deeper dive" into the topic--fleshing out a risk and sustainability analysis of our water supply.

CAC member Michael O'Hara said he was interested in identifying the potential sources of pollution to the water supply. Phosphorous had been mentioned in the presentation as a source of pollution, and farming is a source of phosphorous. O'Hara suggested that this could dovetail with Assemblymember Didi Barrett's work in encouraging environmentally friendly farming practices.   

CAC member Nick Zachos indicated that he would like to learn more about Hudson's secondary water supply. It had been indicated in the presentation that the our secondary water supply contained only a million gallons of water, and since the city uses a million gallons of water a day, "you could suck it up in a day." O'Hara, however, described the water supply as "not a very deep bowl" that was connected to a much larger aquifer. The implication was that when water was extracted from the "bowl," it was refilled from the larger aquifer.

Jonathan Lerner, CAC chair, asked if The Nature Conservancy would "sketch out the scope" of the further analysis they might do, to be reviewed and discussed at the CAC's next meeting in July.

Next to be discussed was a subject that is proving to be a controversial one: projected sea-level rise. The discussion began with Lerner asking the members of the CAC if they accepted the Stevens Institute of Technology model as a reference point for sea-level rise projections. This apparently was the recommendation made in a technical memo from Randall + West, the consultants working on the city's Open Space and Natural Resources Inventory. 

Holly Gardner was the only CAC member to voice reservations about the model, saying she didn't agree with it completely and suggesting "it will impact funding if we adopt the most extreme projections." It became clear later in the discussion that the funding she was concerned about was that for restoring the South Bay wetlands, which according to the worst-case scenario, would be completely underwater by 2100.

Zachos pointed out that the CAC was accepting a whole spectrum of possibilities, from low to high--what O'Hara later described as "not one line but a band." CAC member Dale Schafer suggested that going with the more extreme projections might help the city get more funding. Gardner disagreed. O'Hara maintained that New York State will "take into account its own document, ClimAID, and will not be influenced by what we use." (It seems the worst-case scenario projections of ClimAID are similar to those of the Stevens Institute model.) O'Hara concluded, "If we would be in alignment with the state document, that's the way to go."

Zachos told his colleagues that he had talked with people from Scenic Hudson, Riverkeeper, and the Hudson River Estuary Program and reported that "they are all comfortable with the ClimAID numbers." O'Hara offered the opinion, "I'm not concerned that we will over-prepare."

Lerner then brought up the petition signed by fourteen property owners on Cross Street, Tanners Lane, and Mill Street and submitted to the CAC and the Common Council in May by Timothy O'Connor. Lerner said of the petition, "it expresses people's perception of the implications of the decision about the projections." O'Hara pointed out that there were "fifteen different actions the City can take regarding FEMA that would assist residents [affected by sea-level rise]." Zachos commented, "I don't see how the people who signed it fully understood what was happening. I don't think we need to take it super-seriously."

At this point O'Connor, who had initiated the petition, spoke from the audience. After positing that the projections for 2100 being considered by the CAC "assume we will have done nothing to reduce carbon use" and alluding to "potential fanatical resolutions," he asserted that "the point of the petition was to get the CAC to consider the people in the affected houses." He then read a four-page in statement which alternatively refuted the model of sea-level rise being considered by the CAC and castigated the CAC for being "contemptuous of others" and having "issues with sea-level rise which depart from rational inquiry." After reading the statement, O'Connor told the CAC, "You didn't talk to the public. You're fascists!"

When Lerner asked if the CAC could accept the projections by consensus or if there needed to be a vote, Zachos commented that is was hard to consider the objections raised "when it's all mixed up with name calling." In the end, a vote was taken. Five of the seven members of the CAC--Lerner, Zachos, O'Hara, Schafer, and Carol Smilie, who was not present but had given her proxy--voted to accept the sea-level rise projections; Gardner voted no; and Andrea Girolamo abstained. Later she explained her abstention by saying she didn't think the process had been "open enough."

Although the arguments about sea-level rise projections seem at times to take on the quality of medieval arguments about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, the conversation about how Hudson responds to sea-level rise is not over.


  1. 1.

    There's no debate about climate, nor is there any question that sea-level will continue to rise in Hudson.

    But by endorsing a document which all know the author admits is incorrect - gravely so in my opinion - our meretricious CAC has signaled that river conditions will take a backseat to their general ambition to attract money from Albany.

    Actual conservationists concerned about wetlands ecology are obliged to learn the science for themselves, but expect CAC members to exhibit closed minds.

    If you're concerned about South Bay, you'd be better off scrutinizing the motives and tactics of a CAC which is not science-based (they didn't even pretend to understand), and could only dissemble on Tuesday when asked about the money nexus. (In fact, what Mr. O'Hara concluded was opposite from where he began: that for grant purposes, the State doesn't care one way or the other how they voted, and also that a yes vote would enhance funding opportunities from the State.)

    But the vote to accept the flawed report wasn't unanimous. To appreciate the dissension in the Groupthink, residents would do well to consider the following history.

    The issue of sea-level rise caused inner turmoil for the CAC once before, in early 2016. Keeping his colleagues in the dark, Chairman Lerner secretly agreed to an objectionable contract with the NYSDEC whereby the City would essentially adopt Cuomo's ludicrous predictions of a six-foot sea-level rise in Hudson by the year 2100. (When challenged by the public, even the DEC backed off from it's most absurd predictions for Hudson.)

  2. 2.

    But earlier this year the topic was reprised when the same predictions appeared before the City again. This time, however, residents would be purchasing the prediction through their City rather than State taxes.

    Astoundingly, when he wrote the RFP to find a consultant, Chairman Lerner specified the same approach which had caused so much trouble the last time around. Without knowing a thing about the science, Lerner requested the semi-empirical climate method for Hudson (the method is exactly as it sounds).

    After the previous controversy, the CAC knew at least one thing about the semi-empirical method: that it is rejected for its unreliability by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

    Henceforth Chairman Lerner would double down on his own policy goals from the previous year, forgoing an excellent opportunity to learn something about humility. His greater need now was to suppress dissent, made more difficult (and more obvious) by his lack of knowledge of the subject matter.

    This is the only context in which to understand sudden adjournments of meetings when the residents raised the topic, or Lerner's month's-long refusal to accept a public petition which was mildly critical of his handling of the sea-level rise issue (correction Gossips: the petition was first rejected in April on a matter the CAC still doesn't understand, and one which was never accepted as an Agenda item as requested). We've also had to FOIL scientific claims which were produced with City taxes. From my perspective, this was among the most despicable chapters of any City body since the 2011 Common Council bungled the LWRP.

    Years ago Mr. Lerner described his playful past as a faux terrorist in the following way: "We were contemptuous of others, convinced we had the answers, and willing to impose them ..."


    When I labeled the CAC members "fascists" at Tuesday's meeting, I hoped the quip would get some laughs. But when understood to mean "oppressive and dictatorial control" I was very serious. The members' palpable ignorance about sea-level rise and storm-surge on this particular stretch of the Hudson River was only kept intact thanks to 16 months of suppression and coercion.

    Problems with "name calling"? What do you expect, you fools?

  3. 3.

    During this morning's field work in North Bay (my 7th summer studying its bitterns), it struck me that this is a teachable moment about politics and human nature. It's the moment when our newest officials who like to think of themselves as forward-thinking are mutating into the [new] Old Boys. The new boss is the same as the old boss, which is to say their need to exercise control is all. The controversy at Tuesday's meeting was never about the issues, it was about control.

    Unlike the Old Boys, however, who just didn't like anyone from outside, the new people have a dread of diverse viewpoints. From a fear of disagreement, their defensive need of Groupthink is something which wouldn't have occurred to the old Old Boys. While both share an instinctual loathing for the public, in the new style one's goals are imposed through passive-aggressive conflict avoidance.

    Passive-aggressive: when the consultant who teaches physics at Cornell was informed that his report for the CAC was incorrect concerning FEMA's research, he acknowledged the error and provided a detailed description in an email how he'd fix the important section. When the report was revised, however, the changes weren't made. "Whoops," came the reply, "I meant to change that." But fixing the error was too damning to the rest of the paper, and a second request to correct the error proved a waste of time.

    Passive-aggressive: Immediately before the vote on this uncorrected report, the CAC Chairman stated in a low voice that the consultant "did correct it." But to their disgrace, not a single CAC member had any idea what correction was needed, or why it was being discussed. They didn't care, and just wanted to put the scariness behind them.

    When one member had gone out of his way to learn that the DEC and Scenic Hudson are "comfortable" with this activist nonsense, what he didn't admit was that he made no inquiries with anyone who disagreed with him. (Is there even a scintilla of awareness that the institutions which answered so "comfortably" are pursuing their own financial interests by doing so?)

    In this way, a desperate need for trigger warnings (a form of passive-aggressive control) takes precedence over thinking for oneself. There are so many issues involved!, everything except the subject of sea-level rise itself.

  4. 4.

    Speaking of interests, one CAC member with an arguable financial interest in the outcome of the vote (possibly a reason for his endorsement) concluded that the signatories of a petition that's critical of the CAC didn't "fully understand what was happening." Offering no evidence for this belief, he then dismissed something which HE couldn't possibly have understood. (Passive-aggressive: for three monthly meetings in a row the petition was rejected as a CAC Agenda item.)

    In contrast to the CAC, the residents who signed the petition actually understood it perfectly. Suddenly at Tuesday's meeting, almost on cue, the greatest concern which several signatories volunteered on their own was initiated by the CAC itself (moving things closer to those "fanatical Resolutions" to come ...).

    In reply to the Chairman's patronizing observation about "people's perception of the implications," a CAC member informed the public that there are "fifteen different actions" through which the City can "assist residents" regarding predictions of sea-level rise so extreme they're rejected by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

    To "assist" residents the CAC may encourage the regulation of building materials, which can translate into area deductions in everyone's flood insurance rates (surely, people working on houses on all three streets in question are pining to be regulated).

    But what would CAC members do if it turned out the very people they were assisting had their own opinions? We already know that the CAC prefers to "assist" from afar, even to the point of practicing censorship to maintain that distance. Who'd believe the passive-aggressive CAC would actually go speak with these residents before attempting to "assist" them? I don't believe it for a minute, being the one asked why people's email addresses weren't listed on the petition. I replied that it was a "creepy" request, and that the CAC would surely find a way to penetrate these neighborhoods if it really wanted to.

    The men on the CAC behave like "Company Men"; they make the same shoddy excuses as the Old Boys; ride rough-shod over the public; and flatly deny statements everyone knows are true, including them ("he did correct it").

    Someone ought to warn you boys that hypocrisy is a very slippery slope.

    Try fewer politics and more science.

  5. 5.

    I read this in an op-ed today:

    "There are plenty of people who will believe (or profess to believe) in something as a way of proclaiming their virtue, both to themselves and third parties, and self-interest will usually be somewhere in their calculations too. 

    "[For example] those who proclaim the merits of the powerful, nurturing state may believe that such a state is a worthy moral goal, but many of them will also think that they will either be running that state, or be valued or, at the very least, helped by it." 

    The CAC's conversation about sea-level rise was limited to potential money-getting from the State of New York, much of it through the Hudson River Estuary Program.

    The same conversation was totally unmoored from the City's actual empirical conditions, notwithstanding a description in the City Charter that the CAC was established "to provide technical guidance and conduct research ... regarding matters involving questions of environmental resources."

    To their credit (I suppose), nobody on the CAC pretended any scientific knowledge about the local conditions in question. To their discredit, none had any familiarity with the actual concerns of residents in potentially impacted neighborhoods, the same homeowners (and a single renter) who signed a petition alerting CAC members of these concerns.

    As mentioned earlier, the petition was rejected as an Agenda item for three consecutive CAC meetings.

    Instead, the CAC demonstrated its unfamiliarity with residents' concerns when members vaguely telegraphed financial benefits for these same residents from increased regulations in their neighborhoods only.

    Never mind scientific discipline, and the improbability that these currently nonexistent conditions will ever come to pass (though they'll still provide the basis on which our Natural Resource Inventory will proceed). Adoption of this particular policy on sea-level rise translates into money for the City and savings for certain residents. (Evidently some will suffer, while others will benefit from their neighbor's suffering.)

    Never mind an acknowledgement by the author of the now-endorsed recommendations that his account of the science was flawed. Indeed it was this incorrect claim which had implicitly endorsed one set of policy recommendations at the expense of other.

    For the current CAC, nothing must stand in the way of the City's grant-getting opportunities, not even science or a lack thereof.

    This is how pecuniary interests trounce the empiricism which the CAC was established to interpret.

    But it's even a little worse than that. To paraphrase the op-ed quoted above, those who proclaim the merits of State-endorsed projections on sea-level rise may believe these are worthy moral goals, but among the believers are those who can expect the advancement of their personal goals too.

    In this case, mere idealism has found a substitute for science which ennobles and occludes a relationship founded on the vague promise of State monies.

    In what way can any of the above be called responsible governance?