Thursday, October 17, 2019

The State of State Democracy in Trenton

A sparse but engaged audience showed up to hear the good news that democracy is alive and well in Trenton. State government passes hundreds of bills meant to improve life in New Jersey, and a substantial number of those bills are initiated not by legislators but by constituents.

It was enough to make me think of calling Andrew Zwicker and Roy Freiman (our assemblymen), or maybe even our senator, Republican Kip Bateman, and offering some ideas. Frankly, I was surprised I could even summon their names, given the prevalent disconnection between voters and local representatives. It helped that my daughter had worked for Zwicker's first campaign, which he won by 78 votes.

We were advised that it's easiest to reach out to Assemblymen, since there are two covering the same territory as one senator, and there is added timeliness because the two representing Princeton are perched at the top of the ticket for November's election. The race between Democrats and Republicans for those seats tends to be tight, so every vote matters.

Ingrid Reed was the moderator who organized the event, bravely seeking to counter widespread apathy and cluelessness about the state government just down the road. State Senator Linda Greenstein spoke convincingly about how she had won elections by finding out who votes and then knocking on their doors. Making personal connections had gotten her on the ballot and over the top on election day. Former State Senator Jennifer Beck later questioned the utility of knocking on doors in an age when opponents can repeatedly deliver negative broadsides to targeted voters via Facebook. Former NJ Assemblyman Skip Cimino reassuringly spoke of factors that discourage corruption. A representative may try to condition support of a bill by demanding money for some project in his or her district, but granting such wishes can lead to others withdrawing the support they had offered without conditions. As a Republican in a Democrat-controlled state government, Beck was able to get some of her legislation passed by channeling it through supportive Democrats and giving them the credit. They said that a lot of power is concentrated in the legislative leaders, though the Assembly Speaker, Craig Coughlin, is good about seeking input from others.

Though I didn't ask about it, I'm puzzled by what seems like a disconnect between state and local government. For instance, why are manufactures allowed to make packaging out of a baffling variety of materials, and leave it up to the consumer to figure out whether it's recyclable or not? This lack of regulation greatly complicates our lives. And why does the state lay down rules on putting loose leaves and brush into the street, then "leaves" each town on its own to scramble, usually ineffectively, to live by the law. And why is the most visible action on energy the digging up of our streets by PSEG to lay new gas lines, when the urgent need is to break our dependence on fossil fuels?

Personal course of action: Vote, and look into it all more later.

Friday, October 04, 2019

How to Easily Reduce Water Use

If you go to the American Water website and log into your account, you'll find under the tab "usage" a link called "usage overview". Click on that and it takes you to a graph like the one below. Click on the "Neighborhood Average Usage" box in the upper right and a green line will appear that compares your water consumption to the local average.

Below is what ours looks like. We use about 2000 gallons per month, which is less than a sixth of the local average. How do we manage this? We're empty nesters for one, but it's mostly a matter of valuing water, and understanding that every time you turn on the tap, you're consuming elaborately treated water that was pumped 20 miles uphill to Princeton, and that every bit of the water that goes down the drain then has to be elaborately and expensively treated at the Stonybrook wastewater treatment plant on River Road. That understanding makes us less cavalier about water use. Some easy strategies for reducing consumption are listed below the graph.

  • Resilient native landscaping, and mulch to prevent the soil from drying out
  • Get in the habit of turning the water off when washing hands, brushing teeth, i.e. don't let water run straight from faucet to drain. 
  • Shorter showers, or even "Navy" showers (turn water off while lathering up)
  • low flow toilets (people liked to make fun of them, but they flush better than the inefficient older style); lots of good brands. Ours are American Standards available at the local hardware.
  • Get in the habit of using cold water for most tasks, rather than waiting for the hot water to arrive at the faucet. 
  • Front load washing machines use a minimum of water
  • See below for way to minimize water use when washing dishes.
  • I once learned that your annual sewer bill is calculated based on your water usage in the winter (likely Jan-March), since they want to charge you only for water that goes down the sewer, not the water you use in summer to irrigate your yard. Therefore, winter is an especially good time to hone your water conservation habits, since it will save you money on your sewer bill year-round. 
  • Adjust your water heater (somewhere in your basement) so that it only heats the water slightly beyond the hottest water you need. Many water heaters are needlessly overheating water, which is not only wasteful and expensive, but also leads to lots of fiddling with faucet handles to mix in just the right amount of cold water. Ideally (though no use of fossil fuels is ideal), you should be able to turn the hot water on for a shower--no cold at all--and be comfortable.
  • A novel approach to hand-washing dishes: One doesn't need standing water in the sink. Moisten the dishes while stacking them in the sink, to soften the dirt. That way, nature does most of the work. Put some dish soap on a sponge, then with the water turned off, wash some dishes and set them on the counter. Turn water on to rinse that batch, using the rinse water to further moisten the unwashed dishes in the sink. Then turn the water off and wash some more. This way, no time is wasted turning the water on and off to rinse each separate dish. Sounds elaborate, but quickly becomes second nature, and avoids having water running directly from faucet to drain--the ultimate in pointless consumption. Also, try using only cold water. Water that isn't hot enough to kill germs just makes them stronger. Hot water may be needed if there's grease, but otherwise is not essential. Best time to start the habit of using cold water is in the summer, but the habit once established can often continue through the winter.