Sip, Don't Gulp, Your Water

It's a funny time to talk about this (it has been raining a lot in Texas lately), but Dallas is running out of water, and the problem is one of its own making.
August 2004
By Otis White  |  Contributor
President of Civic Strategies Inc.

It's a funny time to talk about this (it has been raining a lot in Texas lately), but Dallas is running out of water, and the problem is one of its own making. Dallas businesses and residents use 75 percent more water per capita than the national average--and between 56 percent and 89 percent more than other Texas cities, such as Houston, Austin and San Antonio. Too much bourbon and branch water in the Big D? More likely, say city officials, it's too much cheap water. Even after a recent 11 percent rate hike, the average customer's bill is only $39 a month. "Obviously," says one city council member, "the price is not an impediment." A major reason for such high consumption: The city doesn't have an effective water-conservation program. Dallas has made some efforts, though. Two years ago, it imposed restrictions on lawn watering and is thinking about using recycled wastewater for golf courses and parks. Still, experts predict that Dallas will exhaust its current water supply in a little more than 20 years-- unless conservation efforts ratchet up dramatically.


Have you seen the beer commercial where a guy trains a falcon to swoop down on sidewalk restaurants and steal beers for him and his buddies? The funny part, of course, is the chaos caused by the aerial attack, as diners dive under tables and waiters flee in terror. As it turns out, though, the idea of falcons roaming the skies of big cities isn't fanciful at all. In fact, peregrine falcons love big cities and nest on the top floors of many skyscrapers. In Atlanta, you'll find a falcon nest (they're called eyries) atop the SunTrust Building, in Cleveland on the lovely, historic Terminal Tower and in Seattle on the east face of the Washington Mutual Tower. So what makes falcons such committed urbanities? Food, security and the hand of man. Turns out that among falcons' favorite foods are pigeons, which cities have in abundance. In the wild, the enemy of falcons is the great horned owl, which thankfully is not a city dweller. Then there's the hand of man. Falcons were nearly wiped out by the insecticide DDT in the 1950s and 1960s. What brought them back was the banning of DDT in 1972 and the release of captive, bred birds in various locations, including cities. As luck would have it, tall buildings closely resemble the cliffs that falcons choose for their eyries in the wild. Only problem: Sometimes young falcons run into plate-glass windows.


An influx of artists and gays fixing up old homes or converting warehouses into lofts is often a harbinger of neighborhood turnarounds. But do large national retailers ever act as as urban pioneers? Yes and no. No in the sense that, in almost every case, it's locally owned businesses that lead the way in marginal neighborhoods. But yes in the sense that, once the turnaround starts, there are national chains that will move in quickly. One is Borders Books. How bold is Borders? It has opened a store in downtown Detroit, which delights--and surprises--office workers there. "They say, 'Oh my God, I can't believe it's a bookstore in downtown Detroit,'" the store manager says. And Detroit isn't the only place where Borders is on the leading edge. It recently opened stores in transitional parts of San Francisco and Chicago. These moves are not accidental; Borders looks for neighborhoods on the way up. "We hopefully make that decision [to open a store] at the right time," said one official. What's the benefit of being a pioneer? Better locations and leases than those who come later.


The Phoenix suburb of Paradise Valley is a pretty nice place, and recently it got a lot nicer. That was when the city celebrated a milestone: 80 percent of the utility poles in the city are now gone. It's not uncommon for cities to require that new subdivisions bury their power, phone and cable lines, but Paradise Valley has a program for ridding the city of all its overhead lines by 2010. Why? Attractiveness is the big reason. From Paradise Valley, you have nice views of Camelback Mountain and the Phoenix Mountain Preserves, except for those blasted power lines. There are other reasons for wanting the poles down, such as safety and reliability. But the view is the big reason. "It's a quality of life issue," the mayor says. "It's so much better for everyone really if those things are not there." How much is this costing the taxpayers? The city has set aside $8.8 million of its capital improvement budget for the next seven years to "utility undergrounding" projects (out of a total capital budget of $33 million). That's not the complete cost of burying the lines. Thanks to a 1988 agreement with Arizona Public Service Co., which serves 90 percent of the electric customers in Paradise Valley, the utility is kicking in a good portion of the cost. In neighborhoods, the city pays 55 percent of the cost and APS 45 percent. Residents also pay something for buried service: $1,500 if their lots are relatively flat, $4,500 for those on steep hills.