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Moreover, this country is also doing a better job on the quantitative side of water management, i.e., water efficiency and conservation. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, all water use in the U.S. amounts to 408 billion gallons per day for all uses in 2000, the last year for which we have aggregated data. This total has varied less than 3% since 1985. In other words, water use has essentially flattened out despite growing population, accelerating economic growth, and growing communities. It seems that withdrawals have stabilized for the two largest uses — thermoelectric power and irrigation.
True, fresh groundwater withdrawals increased by 14%, but no one is perfect. Also, groundwater use is small compared to surface water use: 83.3 billion gallons per day versus 262 billion gallons per day. Now that this information is in the public domain, local communities will mobilize to meet the challenge.
THROUGHOUT THE COUNTRY voters are approving state and local ballot initiatives for conservation. According to the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national conservation organization, voters supported $1.7 billion for land protection and opens spaces in 2005. This past November voters in 17 states cast ballots on 67 different measures; 49 or 73% were approved.
TPL claims that it has helped communities pass 290 local and state ballot measures, since 1996, which has generated more than $48 billion in new conservation-related funding, including $19 billion for land acquisition and restoration.
A recent article by Wayne Curtis in the on-line environmental magazine, Grist, described the revitalization of “community forestry” in New England (“Mapled Crusaders”), February 23, 2006. In Maine, for instance, employment in the forest industry fell by 23% between 1997 and 2002 with a loss of more than 5,000 jobs. This is part of a nationwide trend reflected in about 30 million acres, half the private industrial forestland, having been sold since 1996.
According to Curtis, “Increasingly, communities are reclaiming their working woods, with residents and towns banding together to purchase tracts for two purposes: to protect the land and to bolster the local economy. In some cases, the land is set aside specifically for low-income residents.” In Vermont, approximately 120 of the state’s 251 municipalities own a total of 140 forests. “Town forests” seem to be a New England tradition which is experiencing a renewal in the face of a changing economy.
This being Tocqueville’s America, the private sector has also been active in conserving the nation’s natural resources. Today 1,500 private land trusts are conserving farmland, forests, wetlands, coastal areas, and scenic views. According to the Land Trust Alliance, nonprofit groups have doubled the acreage protected just five years ago and are protecting 800,000 new acres a year through outright purchases or other voluntary land agreements that limit future development.
Local and regional land trusts have conserved over 9 million acres as of 2003. These voluntary associations are being formed at the rate of two per week, with the fastest growth in the West. With 2 million acres a year being consumed by suburban development, these organizations offer a truly unique American response to the challenge of conservation.
Private stewardship can also display an urban aspect. In St. Louis, Forest Park, site of the 1904 World’s Fair and larger than New York’s Central Park, was a tarnished jewel in the City’s crown. Since 1995 it has undergone a magnificent renewal through a public-private partnership that raised $94 million for repair of infrastructure such as sewers, roads, and bike paths as well as the restoration of ecological features such as forests, meadows, and prairies. Lakes and lagoons were transformed into a “river-like” system that promotes better water quality, reduces flooding, and increases habitat. Half of the money for this project was raised by Forest Park Forever, a private, non-profit organization that has broad support from the business and philanthropic communities.
This is a big country, blessed with resources both material and spiritual. To find success in conservation and environmental protection, you need to look at the state, local, and private spheres, not just the federal, important as that is. The genius of our federal system is that we do not put all our eggs in one basket but many. So this Earth Day bask in the light of the accomplishments of a nation that does a fine job of reconciling environmental conservation with a dynamic economy.
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