The Public Policy

Another Earth Day Has Passed

And the lake whitefish have returned to the Detroit River.

By 4.23.07

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Yesterday was Earth Day, a good time to comment on things which, unbeknownst to many, are actually going right with America's environment.

My own children are rather blase about the whole Earth Day thing. It's so 1970s. But I am still going with this shtick because there is a lot of great stuff happening out there. Somebody needs to speak up. Younger people, a rapidly expanding category from my vantage point, do not have a clue how much our environment has improved over the last century. Take water quality for instance.

Upton Sinclair's famous muckraking novel, The Jungle (1906) excoriated conditions in the Chicago stockyards and packing houses. There you will find this description of a body of water surpassing even the much maligned Cuyahoga River in terms of past environmental degradation:

"Bubbly Creek" is an arm of the Chicago River, and forms the southern boundary of the yards; all the drainage of the square mile of packing houses empties into it, so that it is really a great open sewer a hundred or two feet wide. One long arm of it is blind, and the filth stays there forever and a day.

The grease and chemicals that are poured into it undergo all sorts of strange transformations, which are the cause of its name; it is constantly in motion, as if huge fish were feeding in it, or great leviathans disporting themselves in its depths. Bubbles of carbonic acid gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide. Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding, and many times an unwary stranger has started to stroll across, and vanished temporarily. The packers used to leave the creek that way, till every now and then the surface would catch fire and burn furiously, and the fire department would have to come and put it out. Once, however, an ingenious stranger came and started to gather this filth in scows, to make lard out of; then the packers took the cue, and got out an injunction to stop him, and afterward gathered it themselves. The banks of "Bubbly Creek" are plastered thick with hairs, and this also the packers gather and clean.


Conditions such as these are unimaginable today, even on Bubbly Creek, where you can now catch an occasional four-pound coho salmon or buy a million-dollar home.

Whether you consider pounds of pollution abated, stream segments improved, fisheries restored, the nation has made outstanding progress. Today, twice as many Americans are served by advanced or secondary wastewater treatment compared to over three decades ago.

This past August lake whitefish, the number-one commercial fish in the Great Lakes, and a key indicator of water quality, returned to the Detroit River, part of the connecting channels linking Lakes Huron and Erie. They were found spawning there for the first time since 1916.

The Detroit River lost this valuable fishery due to a witch's brew of oil, phosphorus, mercury and organochlorine pollution over many years. Relative to 1972 levels, oil and phosphorus pollution levels are down 98 percent and 95 percent respectively. Mercury contamination in fish tissue is down 70 percent, and PCB contamination is down 83 percent as measured in herring gulls from a nearby island.

The Detroit River is no Garden of Eden, but it now has naturally reproducing populations of peregrine falcons, lake sturgeon, and bald eagles, not too mention a world-class walleye fishery for which it shares honors with Lake Erie, once declared dead or dying.

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 ½ 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.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.