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A former EPA Administrator is reported to have joked that even if all our waters are not fishable or swimmable, at least they’re not flammable! The Detroit River case shows that we have done much better than that.
CELEBRATING SUCCESS DOES NOT justify complacency as to remaining challenges. Nutrient levels are going back up in Lake Erie, although the causes — Zebra Mussels, climate change, agricultural runoff — are not yet understood.
And just last May, the EPA released its first systematic evaluation of streams that feed rivers, lakes, and coastal areas. This study, the Wadeable Streams Assessment (WSA), was based on sampling at almost 1,400 sites representing similar ecological characteristics in various regions taken by more than 150 field biologists. The results of the WSA reveal that only 28 percent of the streams were in good condition. 25 percent were in fair condition, and 42 percent were in poor condition.
The EPA’s assessment of U.S. coastal waters also points to the need for improvement. Estuaries are in fair condition, varying from poor in the Northeast and Puerto Rico to fair in the Southeast, Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes and West Coast. They are in good condition in Alaska and Hawaii.
Current water pollution problems are more diffuse and harder to tackle because they implicate human activities across the landscape including farming, urbanization, construction, and even air deposition which can deposit, say, nitrogen or mercury into water bodies such as Chesapeake Bay or inland lakes in Michigan. But these are issues we are just beginning to tackle, given our understandable focus on the big municipal and industrial dischargers which have been heavily controlled for decades.
In the transitional zone, between water and land, America appears to be achieving the goal of no-net-loss of wetlands, set by the first President Bush. It might even be close to a net gain, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s latest Status and Trends of Wetlands in the Coterminous United States: 1998 to 2004 (PDF). This is quite an achievement given massive losses of these significant aquatic resources, often approaching 80 or 90 percent, in states such as Missouri or California.
Wetlands not only provide habitat and flood control benefits, but they filter out pollutants that might otherwise contaminate surface and ground water.
There is debate as to whether or not some of the gains in wetlands may be attributed to an increase in man-made ponds, such as water traps on golf courses and stormwater retention basins that do not have adequate replacement or ecological values and functions in terms of biodiversity or hydrology.
On balance “we’re not destroying wetlands at the rate we were, but we’re continuing to lose wetlands of higher value and gaining wetlands or waters of lower value,” says Jeanne Christie, executive director of the Association of State Wetland Managers. The Fish and Wildlife Service will, no doubt, be looking at this question.
MOVING OUT OF THE WETLANDS, and on to the uplands, we find more good news. We see remarkable growth of private stewardship of natural resources, and a renewed spirit of volunteerism for conservation, as evidenced by the phenomenal growth of private land trusts.
This growing movement obviates the need for government infringement on private property rights by utilizing voluntary, free market transactions in the service of land and watershed protection. Its tools are conservation easements, outright purchase, and civic education.
According to the recent 2005 National Land Trust Census conducted by the Land Trust Alliance (LTA), total acres conserved by local, state, and national trusts doubled to 37 million acres over the past five years. According to LTA this is an area 16 Â½ times the size of Yellowstone National Park. Moreover, the number of land trusts grew to 1,667, a 32 percent increase over the same period.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) reports that, between 1997 and 2001, 2.2 million acres of land were developed in the United States. However, Patrick O’Driscoll of USA Today, after reviewing the LTA data, notes that private land protection efforts “now preserve about as much open space each year as is lost to sprawl…”
Which brings us to the subject of dirt. Soil erosion, a fundamental problem dating back to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, encompasses both the removal of layers of soil by rainfall and runoff as well as wind erosion which detaches, transports, and deposits soil where it does not belong. It robs farmland of its productive capacity while polluting nearby rivers, streams, lakes, and estuaries.
Between 1982 and 2003, soil erosion on U.S. cropland decreased 43 percent. As reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, total erosion amounts continue to decline across all major river basins with the most significant reductions occurring in the Missouri and the Souris-Red-Rainy/Upper Mississippi.
Again, life on earth will always present challenges and setbacks. To my mind the shortage of potable water in developing countries and the loss of habitat and biodiversity are huge problems directly linked to the lack of vibrant economies, the rule of law, and stable governments.
But God gave us brains and the will to deal with these and other issues that we cannot yet imagine. So it is wise to take one day a year to learn from our successes rather than obsessing about our failures. It might as well be Earth Day.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?