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Resisting Calls for Active Managment

Government big and small suffers from the admirable if often misguided urge to complete tasks assigned to it w/o thinking through the larger systemic consequences of what happens if it succeeds.  Of course, this is a problem for all fallible humans, but because of the challenges of agency and its ability to command resources, government has it worse.
 
My homeowners’ association shows on a micro level what scales up to bigger problems for bigger organizations. We have had a recurring problem with successive homeowners’ boards to get them to do little or nothing about a “problem” with shade and drainage.  (Yes, for me a good outcome in this situation is that nothing be done.)  I won’t go into details.  Suffice to say, we have an area with growing trees that do the things trees do; they shade, drop leaves and create humid conditions near ground level. These are good things from the environmental prospective
 
People say they like the trees and nature, but they don’t seem to like most things about them. I have found that very often they want to protect the environment, as long as it is not too inconvenient.  You get the picture? So with monotonous regularity, we get calls to “fix” the problem in back of our houses.   

People have complained that there are too many mosquitoes and I hear that a couple people have demanded that the board install French drains, a kind of open storm sewer trench filled with gravel and rock, to quickly channel water away from the houses so that mosquitoes cannot breed. Sounds reasonable.  Here’s why it’s not when you take the time to understand the problem.
 
First, the mosquitoes in question are Asian tiger mosquitoes.  They are another of the many gifts we have recently received from China like the Asian long-horned beetle. These little pests have the nasty habit of being active during the day. The thing to remember about tiger mosquitoes is that they are “container breeding insects,” products of co-evolution with humans that breed only in man-made objects such as pots, discarded bottles, rain gutters or even folds in plastic tarps where water pools up. They do very well in cemeteries because of the presence of plastic flower vases. They specifically do not breed in puddles with dirt bottoms, of which, BTW, there are not many anyway in the area in question. So a French drain would do nothing to slow the mosquito population and in fact the standing water in a man-made drain might increase their breeding opportunities.
 
Second is a bigger thing – the Chesapeake Bay.  Industries, Federal & local governments  eliminated most significant point source pollution (i.e. industrial and sewage plant discharges) years ago.  Today most of the pollution comes from dispersed non-point source runoff.  Agriculture is still the largest source, but it is diminishing.  The only category where this problem is growing is in runoff from urban and suburban areas. What you do in your yard and around the house affects the crabs and fish in the bay and silt covers growing water plants.  One way to mitigate this problem is to slow the runoff and allow water to soak into the ground, where it will find its way into water tables and/or be cleaned by natural processes, i.e. simple things like silt settling, nitrogen and phosphorus being absorbed by living plants etc. Slowing the water flow is also important to avoid storm surges that overwhelm and erode stream and waterways.  This has become more and more a problem as the amount of pavement has increased.  The bottom line is that you don’t want to do things that would discharge rain water more rapidly. A drain system is designed to do just that.  
 
Of course, that assumes the system will work, which may not be a valid assumption.  The saving grace, from an environmental perspective, may be that the drains rarely work as promised to quickly shunt away storm water for long distances.  They tend to clog with mud, making them useless unless constantly maintained.  Actually, they are less than useless, since you have the initial expense of building them and then their presence tends to make it more difficult to grow plants that would do some of the ecological services such as slowing and filtering storm water. 

Specifically for the mosquito problem, what needs to be done is for everybody to get rid of pots, containers, tarps etc that can hold water. This may include very small things, like a broken cup or piece of plastic. All homeowers should also make sure that their rain gutters are not clogged. If all these things were done, the population of tiger mosquitoes would collapse locally, although the chances of all these things being done is slim to none and slim has just left the building.
 
As for the more general moistness problem, the best possible solution is to plant shade tolerate ground cover under the trees and celebrate the ecological benefits of a small moist forest floor environment.  (I have done that on the section in back of my house and there is no longer a problem with erosion or mud.  Interestingly, the ground level is a couple of inches higher now than it was five years ago, as the plants have slowed and captured silt, just like they are supposed to do.) If Association wanted to spend a little more money, we could build a rain garden to create an even more diverse environment.  A low cost solution would be simply to stop mowing the “grass” in the area under the trees.  In places the workers have neglected or consistently forgot about, a decent cover has volunteered. 
 
So if we sum up the possible solutions, the best is the semi-passively systemic – working with nature solution.  Next best is doing nothing at all, actually doing less than nothing if we stop mowing. The worst is the active what we might call an engineering project to build drains that will cost a lot ot establish and require subsequent maintenance.  So which do you think keeps on popping up?
 
The more passive, but effective solutions do not “solve” the mosquito problem. That is true.  (BTW – tiger mosquitoes are easily managed if you just wear long pants. They are low fliers and don’t tend to sting above the knee.) The more active solutions actually make the problem worse and cost a lot of money, but they have the illusion of action and leadership can loudly claim that they are working on the people’s concerns.  Beyond that, contractor can make money off the projects.  They come with nicely done sketches and bogus statistics beautifully graphed on shiny paper.   They dislike it when you ask people to walk across the street to see the clogged French drains installed a couple years ago, now providing only mosquito heavens and lots of mud.  Of course, not many people will follow you when you ask them to look for themselves. There are too many mosquitoes and too much mud.
 
I am afraid that this is how it goes. Big solutions make lots of people happy and some people rich, even when they don’t work – especially when they don’t work because there is more activity required to fix each problem serially created by the initial solution.
 
We should remember that if it is not necessary to do anything it is necessary NOT to do anything. But with an attitude like that, you are unlikely to get elected to anything. Very often the politician code is just the opposite, more like "Something must be done; this is something; therefore we must do it." Much easier to promise and to be like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise.

BTW – I have written on this subject before and if you follow this link you can see what happens when a really big rain lands on area.


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