On February 27, seven old faithfuls and three perky guests bubbled with opinions about Alice Outwater's Water: A Natural History. Our group included a water quality scientist, and extremely knowledgeable members of the local Watershed advocacy association, who contributed much to our discussion.
Outwater's book ripples with fascinating details plumbed from Herculean research into North America's past. Chapter by chapter, the book mixes a toxic brew of evidence: civilization has damned our continent's ecological systems that formerly provided a continuously self-cleaning, self-renewing water cycle. As the Fox admonished the Little Prince, "You become responsible forever, for what you have tamed." Without the natural wetlands, free flowing rivers, and intact forests, we awkwardly, expensively and unsuccessfully attempt to use technology and regulations to produce what was once provided free, by Mother Nature. The book underscores how all aspects of nature are related, and work in concert. Removing one species can have a domino effect. For example, Europeans' lust for fashionable and supremely warm fur almost extincted the North American beaver, the wetlands engineer par excellence.
Comments of amazement and uncomfortable heightened consciousness at what has been lost through ignorance, negligence, short-sightedness and sheer greed, in only a few centuries, were followed swiftly by queries as to what can be done? The sheer volume of human population, agricultural, mining, manufacturing uses and abuses, not to mention polluting sources such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products, when taken together suggest hopelessness as to ever restoring a natural balance. We wondered--are other, less developed countries learning from our mistakes?
Members mentioned the Green Belt tree planting movement in Africa, and the use of human waste as fertilizer in China. A member who had recently returned from visiting a South African city noted that power outages are routine, occur without warning, and are simply adapted to by the populace. In Croatia, coal falls from the sky. In the Middle East, conflicts are over access to water of any kind, quality is a secondary issue. We are lucky to live where there are regulations on the books, even if they are imperfectly enforced, and as unfunded mandates, become a cruel mirage.
Our watershed association visitors (See Opeqon Watershed, Inc. and Opequon Creek Project ) offered that West Virginia has the most dams of any state in the nation--494 at last count. The WV EPA has determined the most polluted watersheds are home turf: Sleepy Creek and Opequon. The association hosts two water cleanups yearly. The Associations' monitoring for E. coli has been discontinued for now. We know that rain storms spike it. The EPA safe standard for E. coli is 235 MPN/100 mL--a storm event raises it to 1600. Waste water treatment plants, agricultural runoffs, raw sewage are primary culprits.The WV Department of Agriculture is monitoring the streams. Unfortunately there is no one site a concerned citizen can go to to see all the different monitoring results gathered by various entities that relate to water quality.
The EPA has a Watershed Implementation Plan that specifies upgrading of all Wastewater treatment plants. As demonstration projects, the association built five rain gardens throughout the area to retain run off but it has been found that they require so much maintenance that they are not as efficient mechanisms as originally believed. Riparian buffers--three rows of trees by the sides of rivers and streams--do much to prevent erosion and minimize runoff. There are federal funds and other types of grants available to offset costs. The Association holds several tree plantings yearly and draws folks from all over.
How can we take action? Join and become active in water quality activist groups like your local Watershed Association or Riverkeepers group, as well as chapters of national groups such as the Sierra Club. Donations are always welcome! Write to your local, state and national legislators, and agencies such as the EPA. Participate in water monitoring projects. Vote. Think about your consumer choices. If you own property, think thrice before building, altering the landscape, removing natural flora, or using pesticides and fertilizers. Educate yourself. Dispose of waste responsibly. For example, keep unused pharmaceuticals out of the waste stream. Contact your local hazardous waste disposal agency and check out these guidelines here.
We thank Alice Outwater for her work. We now have a thirst to learn more, do more to protect our water.
Comments about books can be made online using the comment feature. Personal book reviews may be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration to be posted on the blog. Original nature writing based on personal experience may also be submitted for inclusion on the REFLECTIONS page of the blog.
January: Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez February: Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez March: The Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich April: Tinkering with Eden by Kim Todd (Recipient of Pen/Jerard Award) May/June: Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear July/August/September: My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir October: All Things Reconsidered by Roger Tory Peterson November: Sierra Lane by Amy Minato December/January: Outermost House by Henry Beston
February 2011 Alice Outwater: Water, A Natural History /March 2011 John McPhee: Encounters with the Archdruid /April 2011 John Himmelman: Discovering Moths /May 2011 Bernd Heinrich: Summer World /SUMMER READ (June through September Hiatus) Scott Weidensaul: Mountains of the Heart /October 2011 Jane Goodall: Reason for Hope /November 2011 Barbara Hurd: Entering the Stone /December 2011 Barry Lopez: Arctic Dreams
The Potomac Valley Nature Writers' Group (PVNWG) formed in early 2009 to promote the art and appreciation of nature writing. This genre of literature explores and celebrates the natural world and our relationship within it. PVNWG welcomes both readers and writers to participate.