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Then There's This: Green Is as Green Does

Robbins' latest 'Directory' follows the flows of water – and power

By Amy Smith, Fri., Aug. 2, 2013

Then There's This: Green Is as Green Does

It's not surprising that water would be the dominant talking point of Paul Robbins' latest edition of the Austin Environmental Directory – a semi-regular, comprehensive resource guide with in-depth articles on green trends and serious topics of the day.

The last directory, in 2010, delved into synthetic fuels, building on the 2006 theme of imported fossil fuels; 2003 explored green businesses as a viable economic engine for Austin; and the 2000 guide provided an environmental report card that flunked the city on everything from green building participation to curbside recycling services.

Austin has made enormous strides in the 13 years since that dismal report, evidenced in part by the new and updated content, and lists of resources, government services, and environmental organizations compiled in the 148-page issue – available for free at Half Price Books, Central Market, and other stores, and online at www.environmentaldirectory.info.

The directory includes chapters on water and the environment, green-building programs, energy-efficient home lighting, locally grown food, recycling, and much more.

As Robbins notes, the directory is probably the only print publication in the last three years that has actually grown in page count – up 12 pages since 2010. There are other changes, too. The new guide has a more durable cover, and a paperback-style binding replaces the staples of yesteryear. Three years may sound like a long stretch between directories, but that's the average time it takes Robbins to research and write the articles, solicit additional content, and then amass the thing with the assistance of other enviro-activists. Once he's finally put the publication to bed, Robbins – an angular vegan who runs on nervous energy – collapses, recovers, and then starts gearing up for the next edition. This year's guide marks the eighth such publication since 1995, and, like the others, was financed through advertising and contributions from individuals and organizations.

As someone who's spent the last 35 years advocating for clean energy (when he isn't taking city councils to task for one thing or another), Robbins is fairly new to water-related research. He started studying the city's water policies and politics several years ago, during the early stages of debate over the controversial Water Treatment Plant No. 4. He gathered reams of documents through open records requests, and from there began connecting the dots between the plant's questionable construction costs and the inevitable increase in water rates.

Drought's Siren Call

For Robbins and most other Texans, the 2011 drought and wildfires marked a turning point for how to think about water and climate change. Robbins provides a very personal account in his introduction, recalling the pounding on his door the afternoon of April 17, 2011, alerting him to the wildfire sweeping across his Oak Hill neighborhood. His home was spared, but 20 others were destroyed. The following September, more dramatic wildfires struck in Bastrop, ravaging homes, livelihoods, trees, and wildlife across 53 square miles.

So, selecting the theme for this year's directory was a given: "Water might be the foremost environmental issue on people's minds here right now," Robbins said.

The directory breaks down the water theme in three exhaustively researched stories (thankfully written in laymen's language). The first addresses the state's dire water situation, an issue that the Legislature finally tackled this year. "Providing supplies for the 21 million more people over the next 50 years is a daunting challenge," Robbins writes in his report. "If there is a central message ... it is that Texas can no longer provide for the insatiable thirst of all who come here without either large increases in costs or creating a water-efficient economy."

The second story delves into the methods and technologies available for using less water. The third and largest article traces the early (and quite colorful) history of Austin's water and electric utilities which, as Robbins writes, is fairly reminiscent of Chinatown, the 1974 film based on the power struggle over water rights in southern California. The Austin version includes a fatal knife fight in 1878 between two council members outside a saloon on Congress Avenue, a costly dam project, and a fight against a utility monopoly that threatened to stifle the city's ability to determine its future. In the end, the city won control over both its utilities.

The chapter brings to mind the present-day debate over who should control the city's electric utility – the City Council or an independent governing board of "professionals"? Elected officials and policymakers might be better informed in their debates once they've brushed up on their utility history. Look for the chapter aptly titled "Headwaters."

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