Clean Water Matters

When we turn on a faucet we assume the water is safe to drink. It’s not a safe assumption in many countries, of course, but regarded here as an unwritten right and safeguarded by public officials (Ahem, what about Flint, Michigan?).

Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 to prohibit the discharge of pollutants into the “waters of the United States.” Unfortunately, the drafters didn’t define “waters.” The Ohio and Mississippi rivers are obviously included, but how far up their tributaries does protection extend?

And now with an Administration bent on watering down regulations we are in a strange phase of history when gains in public health and the environment are being reversed. The EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are now more anemic agents. Our polity has deteriorated so far that challenges end up for courts to decide. It would be comforting to believe that states will compensate with wiser decisions as they are closer to people affected. But rivers are no respecters of boundaries, so an upstream offender sends pollution down to neighboring states.

Stream and waterfall in West Virginia Allegheny MountainsOur region of the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia is the origin of several great rivers. Some 60% of headwater streams feeding into them run as trickles or dry out except after heavy rain or snow melt (like our waterfall illustrated). They are not protected waters, and their purity depends on sensitive stewardship by landowners.

Six years ago there was a chemical spill in the Elk River that left hundreds of thousands of people in nine counties without potable water for months. It was the third spill in the valley in 5 years, only a short distance from the state capitol that almost overlooks the Kanawha River into which the Elk discharged pollution from a leaking storage tank. House Bill 4079 now proposes to exempt standards for released contaminants more than a defined distance upstream of public water intakes. Aarhh!

Most pollutants are probably harmless, but how can we be sure? And even if human health is unaffected, fish and other aquatic life may suffer. We only test chemicals known or suspected to cause harm, and special interests can push back from expanding the list. This is happening now as the WV legislature debates PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). The CDC acknowledges these substances used for coating products by manufacturers, the military and firefighting stations accumulate in the environment because they are stable.

They are among synthetic chemicals called endocrine disruptors that mimic or antagonize natural hormones in the body, potentially causing chronic and malignant diseases, fertility problems and birth defects. Some of them are active at extremely low levels. This is a relatively new area of research, and a subject I currently teach to college students. A community study near Parkersburg, West Virginia, found a probable link between a type of PFAS and several diseases, but testing one chemical at a time is a losing battle. For well over a century, chemists have been synthesizing novel chemicals that now number over 80 thousand. We desperately need high-throughput methods for testing them.

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The Return of the Native

Blogger_at-workApologies to anyone who recently visited my blogs posted between January and March 2013 and found the pictures were missing. This was a widespread problem affecting WordPress bloggers, but the images have now been reloaded.

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A large black-and-white bird flying above our yard towards the James River caught my eye last week. It was no “buzzard.” A bald eagle is still uncommon enough to be arresting, and perhaps there is even a patriotic American somewhere who stands to attention when he sees his national emblem soaring past, like Air Force One. But there is a grander reason for saluting the bird—it is a native that has returned home.

Eagles were a common sight in the Chesapeake Bay watershed until catastrophes in the 1950s and ‘60s. In those decades, an industrial plant was disgorging poisons into the James River. The chemical waste was Kepone, an insecticide related to DDT, which so polluted the river that a Virginia Governor prohibited consumption of fish for a 100 mile stretch. But no respecters of law, eagles kept fishing. Not only did they accumulate poison from eating fish but also lead from the scattered gunshot of duck hunters. Hardly a single chick could be brooded in those days. Those woes were aggravated by the loss of nest sites to waterfront developments, and the failure of naïve birds to navigate around traffic and power lines. It seemed as if the 1940 Act of Congress intended to protect the species had been written on disappearing ink.

bald-eagle
Photo: Don Snyder

Forty years ago you would have been lucky to have seen a single eagle along the James; fewer than thirty pairs nested across the entire state. But after the poisons were banned by the EPA in 1972 river health slowly improved, which encouraged the US Fish and Wildlife Service to launch a program for reintroducing eagles. It is perhaps the greatest American conservation story for a single species. Nest sites are monitored annually by fly-overs in light aircraft, and at the last count there were over 700 breeding pairs in the state, allowing the species to be delisted from the Endangered Species Act. So the bird depicted on the escutcheon of the Great Seal of the United States can now be seen even within Washington DC itself, and that is something that even congressmen who put business before conservation should be proud of! 

On that eagle day, my mind was pulled away from its absorbing interest to thoughts that had no obvious connection.  I found myself thinking about Clym Yeobright in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. When an image comes out of the blue like that I often strain to find a meaning for the unexpected distraction. I suppose there was something inside me trying to fathom a metaphor for what I had just seen.

Thomas_Hardy_novel
Clym Yeobright and his wife Eustacia in The Return of the Native

In the novel, Clym returned to his birthplace on Egdon Heath after making his fortune in Paris. It had been hard growing up on the Heath, but he believed it would be easier now to flourish in the bosom of land that had nurtured his ancestors, where old neighbors would celebrate his return and he could settle down to productive work with a wife and family.

Perhaps the novel came to mind because I was uneasy remembering how things turned out for the returning native and deep down was wondering about the fortunes of eagles back in their homeland. But unlike Clym, who needed no help moving to the Heath, bringing species back often needs our helping hands, the very hands that originally extirpated them. The job of preserving species seems unfathomably difficult to me, and is yet so immensely important for preserving the web of life and a healthy planet, which some call Gaia. But since human populations are continuing to migrate from rural origins to urban communities it is easy to forget our dependence on biodiversity. Connections between sources of our food, clothing, medicines, and raw materials for manufacturing and building on the one hand and living things “out there” on the other are under-rated or taken for granted. Without beloved companion animals inner city dwellers might even forget that we share the planet with other creatures. And when we do think of human ecology we find it overwhelming and hope that someone else is working on it.

The United Nations has designated our times as a Decade of Biodiversity. It is an admirable attempt to draw global attention to environmental sickness, even if the politicians themselves are soon distracted by the latest humanitarian disaster (caring for the one species instead of for all). Unfortunately, no one I asked had ever heard about this splendid declaration—nor had I before preparing this post—but the responsibility for preserving biodiversity really should fall on our shoulders, and the efforts of government, NGOs, researchers, and citizen scientists need our support.

Since zoos, wildlife parks, and technology can only go so far towards preserving species, rare animals and plants must eventually be reintroduced to their old habitats. The international organization that reports population status and coordinates reintroduction programs is the IUCN. It publishes the famous Red List of species that are threatened or endangered, including those that are extinct. A Threatened species is one that is vulnerable to stepping down the list to Endangered, the dire category which used to include bald eagles. Searching the List for threatened species is quite sobering because it includes 41% of all amphibians, 34% of conifers, 33% of corals, 31% of sharks and rays, 25% of mammals, and 13% of birds around the world. Diners are relieved that most types of lobster are safe, at least for now (1%).

When humans become urbanized the disconnection with nature makes it harder to notice or even care about year-on-year changes in the natural environment or that a formerly abundant species has now grown scarce. Like the drip-drip of a retreating glacier, it is only by observing over a period of time that you notice how far it has retreated up the mountain. At least that is how I rationalize the gap between my impression that songbirds are as common as ever in my backyard and the fact that national bird counts reveal alarming trends over my lifetime.

It is a sad reflection on the character of Homo economus that both the UN and conservationists feel it is necessary to appeal to our self-interest to encourage conservation-mindedness. One of their favorite examples is the Amazon jungle, for which preservation is sought for the cornucopia of potentially valuable products and medical remedies for ourselves. Perhaps we would feel more concerned if we lived five times longer than our four score years, since we would then have to face a more impoverished landscape in our own lifetime. But for me the moral argument is so much more powerful: that if we live more gently with nature we can avoid the curse of posterity for grandstanding and being grand executioners during the sixth great extinction on earth. This is the only extinction we cannot blame on geology or asteroids.

If the resources available for research and conservation were stretched thinly enough to cover most threatened species nothing could be achieved, so hard choices have been made. Those getting most attention are well-loved or iconic species, and many of them sit at the top of the food chain, like eagles. Golden lion tamarins (Brazil), Siberian tigers (Asia), black-footed ferrets (Great Plains), and gray wolves (Yellowstone National Park) have been successfully reintroduced, and the publicity helps to prime the pump for funding other projects. But what about more lowly species that are nevertheless important for supporting those above them in the chain? Who is going to help half-a-million species of beetles?  The physiologist J.B.S. Haldane pointed out that God must have had “an inordinate fondness” for them, so surely they deserve some attention?

I have a particular fondness for the red kite story because forty years ago I drove with student friends to Tregaron Bog in mid-Wales to see the last survivors in Britain. Before persecution they thrived throughout the country where they provided equivalent services to vultures in other countries. We only had a fleeting glimpse of two rusty-colored raptors with forked tails as they flew over the wetland, but this was enough to tick them on our checklists, as crazy birders do, before turning for the long journey home. We anticipated their imminent extinction, but some years later healthy birds were brought over from Europe to found a thriving population now numbering about 2,000 pairs. The bird has been seen again in London and hunts the countryside of Hardy’s Wessex novels.

Yet behind these sweet stories eternal vigilance is needed as the price of biodiversity, to twist an expression often attributed to Thomas Jefferson. Habitats are not static, human pressures come and go and come again, and the globe continues to warm, encouraging competitive alien species, melting ice shelves under polar bears, et cetera. Besides, not everyone welcomes the natives home. Developers grumble that people should have a greater call on waterfront properties than eagles, ranchers in Wyoming and Idaho keep their guns handy watching for wolves, and an English student even complained that a red kite had swooped down for his sandwich! Restoring species to their habitats is patient work, and never ending.

That brings me back to Thomas Hardy who, as a Victorian, was lucky not to live in such anxious times. Life didn’t turn out well for Clym, the returning native. He never settled down happily and found himself at odds with residents and married a belle who became dissatisfied after he fell into poverty, working as a laborer cutting furze on the cruel Heath.

I always hope that after suffering trials sympathetic characters in the novels I read will be rewarded with a contented and harmonious life, but that never happens in the Hardy world where fate trumps hope. The author may have called himself a realist, but pessimism is an unattractive demeanor that curbs endeavor and can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wish it had been Jane Austen who had come to mind on my eagle day because Jane-AustenDarcy returned to Longbourne to marry Elizabeth Bennet and they lived happily ever after, and that is the metaphor I wish for all returning natives.

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