Monday, April 29, 2013

Is Water a "Boutique Environmental Cause?"

Sediment plume in Maryland's Severn River.
Photo: Josh McKerrow, Annapolis Capital 
In the Chesapeake Bay, the debate continues to boil over the estuary's ill health, and the even worse health of many of its rivers and creeks.   I've spent all but 18 months of my 39 years living in Maryland and Virginia, both places where people of all walks of life are quick to tell you, "We love The Bay.  It's so important."

There is unanimous consensus that the Bay, currently holding 1% of historic oysters and 10% of historic crab populations, and a watershed supporting hundreds of millions of dollars in annual water-dependent economic activity,  is in steep peril.   There is unanimous consensus that 25 years of voluntary, patchwork stream, wetland, and forest restoration work has helped slow the decline, but has not effectively restored much beyond the immediate downstream extent of each restoration project.   There is unanimous consensus that the Bay and its waterways will never be restored voluntarily, which means they must be restored via public mandate - if they are to be restored at all.  There is complete agreement among conservative, moderate, and liberal lawmakers, businessowners, and citizens that something must be done, and that it will hurt.

Yet, the consensus evaporates each time a framework (and fee) is proposed.   Currently, a caustic discussion is underway in Maryland, certainly the wealthiest state in the Bay watershed, over whether or not Maryland, its counties, and its citizens should have to pay their representative share of the Bay cleanup.  Sophomoric oppositions to this process have run an impressive gamut, from "Yes we need to clean up the Bay - but this is a federal responsibility!" to "We should phase in the fee!" (an ill-conceived balloon payment structure against a fixed cost and fixed federal deadline (2025)).  However, the most depressing and ignorant comment I've heard and read is that, "Clean water is just another boutique environmental cause."

Hmm.  As I wrote last year in "Why Headwaters Matter," if any of us are sincerely curious if readily available clean water is too expensive, we merely need to do nothing and find out how expensive it is to go without clean water at all.   Idle threat? I don't think so.  Nearly 1 billion people do not have access to any clean water today.  1.7 billion more people fully rely on water sources that are currently being depleted - and that's just quantity, not quality.  One of the fastest drying sources, America's own Ogallala  Aquifer, fully feeds municipal water needs for eight states, and 30 percent of the USA's farm irrigation supply.  The Ogallala, which has been collecting water since just after the peak of the last ice age, was not tapped for irrigation until the 1950s, and yet, is projected to largely run dry by 2030.    Liberal conspiracy?  Ask Texas Governor Rick Perry (yup, the same guy who only slightly opposed Texas' secession from the USA after Obama's re-election).  Governor Perry has ordered state officials to start working with agricultural co-ops across west Texas to prepare for the inevitable loss of irrigation (at least, irrigation as we know it).

Closer to home, Anne Arundel County's own Aquia (and lower, dirtier) Magothy Aquifers supply the full extent of the entire county's public and private drinking water (plus many more counties from Long Island, NY, to northeastern Virginia).  Since irrigation is at a much smaller scale, there should be no problem, even with projected County population growth at around 25% in the next 7 years.  Right?  

The state geologist glumly announced 10 years ago that "The Aquia Aquifer has reached its maximum allowable yield."    The report concluded that with extensive, deeper drilling and extensive (new) treatment of groundwater, the Magothy formation can withstand the short term population growth.  However, this means that well water and municipal water will become more expensive.  And that is simply to maintain quantity, not quality, of the resource.

Back to surface water, Maryland county governments refuse to conduct regular bacterial monitoring on about 60% of the state's public beaches.   Why? 33% of the tested beaches exceed state bacterial standards during the "beach season," which inevitably means more monitoring, politically costly beach closures, and perhaps environmental cleanup mandates from the state.   Current state law does not require testing of bacteria in state waters within the first 48 hours after a rain storm because state governmental policy is that contact with the water after a rain storm is inherently dangerous and assumed to be polluted with bacteria.

Similar stories from Maryland and other Bay states are legion, but those above should suffice.  In a county like Anne Arundel, with nearly 600 miles of private shoreline not open to the public, who else but property owners who benefit from the water, and directly pollute it with motor oil, lawn fertilizer, Round-Up, septic and sewer overflow, and pet waste should fund the water's cleanup effort?   Kansans?  Iowans? Who else should pay?

So, is water a boutique cause?  I've tried to think my way around it, and I can't see it.  30% of our nation's irrigation supply - 15,000 years worth of water -  is about to evaporate into thin air.  Waterborne disease is the world's leading killer of human beings.   10% of earth's population has no - zero - access to clean water. Most of our nation's beaches now face annual closures (a day here, a week there) due to bacterial contamination.   And here, in the backyard of one of the wealthiest counties in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in the world, people dare to say, "It's not our responsibility to clean up our own pollution - it's a boutique environmental cause."   With all due respect to endangered owls and salamanders, we're not talking about owls and salamanders.  This is freaking water.  WATER. 

At a certain point, "Well, We All Love The Bay, but I'm not paying for the pollution I generate, NOW GET OFF MY LAWN!" becomes its own polluting pile of horse manure.  Its own rotting, stinking, blatantly dishonest statement that brings back memories of neighbors in my native rural Virginia........

"Well, sure I love my dog.  Yeah, he's tied to a tree, in the sun, every day. And sure, we ain't washed him in years.  And yeah, that looks like a rat bite on his ankle.    Kind of festering.  But I think YOU should have to pay me to take care of him, if it bothers you that much.  He's fine as far as I'm concerned - I just try not to smell him or touch him or look at him for too long.  Still, it should be clear to you just how much I love this dog."

Oh yes.  It's crystal clear. 


Federico said...

It's not my bay, it's not my water, and most importantly it's not my country and not my continent. But if you are passing the hat around for Chesapeake Bay lemme know, I'm happy to contribute. And, yeah, I agree with what you said.

walt franklin said...

Thanks for drawing our attention to a critical issue. It's gonna take money and personal dedication to make a difference in the watershed and the bay. Here at the headwaters about all I can do is plant trees along the streambanks, talk to landowners and work with environmental groups on in-stream projects. Wish I had more money to donate directly. Meanwhile we've got to spread the good word.

Aquaread said...

Great to see the awareness and action regarding water testing is becoming more and more prevalent. The importance of this, from a safety point of view cannot be understated, especially when drinking water in concerned. 
It's not just on a grand scale that water testing can be achieved. Home kits are now readily available, and yield the exact same results as large scale water testing; at an affordable price too.
This is really great to see

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