Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Big Government As Environmental Damager

I am not quite as enthusiastic about the "free markets will solve all environmental problems" idea as I once was, but there certainly plenty of reminders that the government is quite effective at impairing the environment, simply because when it does something stupid, everyone is required to participate in the idiocy.

My eldest sister called me this morning to wish me Happy Birthday (I'm 51 today), and she told me about a couple of truly stupid ordinances that Bandon, Oregon has. It seems that some of the local environmentalists wanted to set up rain barrels to catch water coming down from the roof gutters. These barrels are sealed up so that there's no way for mosquitoes to breed in them, and they have a valve at the bottom that lets you hook up a hose.

The idea is that you accumulate the water during the winter months, when it rains a lot, and then in summer, when water is in scarce supply, you use it for your lawn or garden. This water is free--unlike city water. I rather doubt that most people are going to install rain barrels, and even those that do are unlikely to make a major difference in their water consumption--but if it makes the environmentalists feel a little less guilty, what's the problem?

My sister tells me that Bandon has a city ordinance that requires water coming from the roof gutters to go into the sewer system. (Bandon, like a lot of small towns, still has a combination sewer and storm drain system.) Apparently this was originally because when it rains hard there, it is very easy for water to accumulate on the property of others. If you have an older house without roof gutters, you don't have to install gutters and hook up to the sewer system--but this idea of hooking up rain barrels to the roof gutters is unlawful.

I suppose if there's really a legitimate public purpose to requiring the gutters not to spill water onto the ground, they could rewrite the ordinance to allow people to use rain barrels, or some other method storing rainwater for later use. But it seems hard to believe that the public safety reasons explain this. Apparently a big chunk of the city's revenue comes from utilities--including the providing of water! (Be glad that they don't sell sunshine--they might require your house to be covered by an opaque covering.)

Not only is this stupidity a problem for the rain barrel enthusiasts, but it also strikes me that it increases demand on the sewage treatment plant as well. I don't know how much extra water goes through the treatment plant during heavy rainstorms, but I know that was one of the reasons that Los Angeles created a separate storm drain system some years back--because during heavy storms, the sewage treatment system would be overwhelmed, and they would often be forced to dump raw or partially treated sewage into the Pacific because of this.

I keep saying to myself, "Forget about ideological solutions--can we just have governments employ some common sense?" But alas, I don't think common sense is in very strong supply.

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