Science to Live By: A Floriescence Water View

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© J. Dirk Nies, Ph.D.

Yin shui, si yuan (When you drink the water, remember the spring.) – Chinese Proverb.

Water is the most critical resource issue of our lifetime and our children’s lifetime. The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land.

– Luna Bergere Leopold, son of famed land conservationist Aldo Leopold, and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Chief Hydrologist from 1956 to 1966.

Our economy, our society, our very lives depend on water.

Abundant, clean, fresh water is as essential as the food we eat, as indispensable to us as the air we breathe. It is good and wise to remember where our water comes from. A thankful heart will make us appreciate it more and motivate and prompt us toward its care.

Sixty years ago, Dr. Luna Leopold recognized conventional water management policy was not working. It wasn’t working because policy was based upon traditional political, social and economic factors. He articulated a broader, more scientifically based philosophy of water management.  Successful management of water resources, he argued, must be guided by a thorough understanding of the natural hydrological cycle.

Yes. To manage our water resources properly and effectively, we must have a high degree of ‘Natural Intelligence.’  We must recognize and appreciate how water moves through, interacts with, and is acted upon by the entire ecosystem. To understand water, we must also possess a comprehensive knowledge about the air, the land, and the plants and animals that live within the watershed.

Water quality is like the canary in the coalmine. It is an indicator of working conditions. As Dr. Leopold said, “The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land.”

With this in mind, let us now turn our attention to the ambitious Chesapeake Bay Program, and the efforts of federal, state and local governments to fully restore the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams by 2025. Let’s evaluate these programs from three Floriescence vantage points: Nature, justice and aesthetics.

President Obama issued Executive Order 13508 on May 12, 2009, directing the federal government to redouble efforts to restore and protect the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed.

“Despite significant efforts by Federal, State, and local governments and other interested parties, water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay prevents the attainment of existing State water quality standards and the ‘‘fishable and swimmable’’ goals of the Clean Water Act. At the current level and scope of pollution control within the Chesapeake Bay’s watershed, restoration of the Chesapeake Bay is not expected for many years. The pollutants that are largely responsible for pollution of the Chesapeake Bay are nutrients, in the form of nitrogen and phosphorus, and sediment. These pollutants come from many sources, including sewage treatment plants, city streets, development sites, agricultural operations, and deposition from the air onto the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and the lands of the watershed.

Restoration of the health of the Chesapeake Bay will require a renewed commitment to controlling pollution from all sources as well as protecting and restoring habitat and living resources, conserving lands, and improving management of natural resources, all of which contribute to improved water quality and ecosystem health.”

Prodded by this Executive Order and using the authority of federal, state and local statutes and regulations, the U. S, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Albemarle County’s Department of Water Resources Management have prepared plans to reduce the flow of these pollutants into Chesapeake Bay waters.

The operative phrase and guiding principle in the President’s Executive Order is “controlling pollution from all sources.” The most illuminating sentence is, “The pollutants that are largely responsible for pollution of the Chesapeake Bay are nutrients, in the form of nitrogen and phosphorus, and sediment.”

Nutrients are pollutants! What does this tell us? It tells me two things.

First, we are squandering resources. We are washing valuable assets down the drain. Nature’s ways of handling nutrients are much more frugal than ours.

Second, labeling nutrients as pollutants stunts creative problem-solving and limits the effectiveness of governmental plans to improve the health of the Bay.

These nutrients—nitrogen, phosphorus, soil—cycle through the atmosphere, the water and the land all the time. They are not hazardous toxins being discharged from a pipe or emitted from a stack.  These are vital materials that are intimately woven all through the fabric of life. Traditional pollution control measures that do not fully take this into account will forever be inadequate for the task at hand.

Consider this: Scientists have developed a multi-faceted water quality measure called the Bay Health Index. The Bay Health Index is an average of seven water quality indicators: chlorophyll a, dissolved oxygen, water clarity, total nitrogen, total phosphorus, aquatic grasses, and the benthic index of biological integrity. An Index rating of 100 percent is ideal.

In 1991, the Bay Health Index stood at 50 percent. After more than two decades of pollution control programs and billions of dollars spent on bay restoration (total projected costs are in the tens of billions of dollars, most of which are unfunded), the Bay Health Index had worsened slightly.  In 2013, it had dropped to 45 percent.

Our current water protection programs are merely treading water. As things stand now, managing our water resources is like steering our car with the front end way out of alignment and the wheels out of balance. Until we address the underlying disorder, we are putting ourselves and others at greater risk of accident. We will be perpetually fighting the steering wheel unless we realign and rebalance our human economy with Nature’s economy.

To bring about this necessary realignment, urban planners need to incorporate ecological knowledge into the design of communities.  Architects need to integrate this knowledge into the design of homes and commercial office space. Manufactures need to put in place this knowledge into their factories and industrial operations. Farmers need to assimilate this knowledge into their farming practices.

Smart planning, low impact development and green practices are happening.  The transition away from the industrial, post-World War II economic model is exciting. And government, which has consistently promoted this unsustainable model, has a role to play in helping bring these transformations about.

The urban poor often are exposed disproportionately to the sordid underbelly of our consumer economy. Not only are they at greater health risk by living in more highly degraded environments, they often are doubly impoverished by living within visually degraded environments as well. For example, Baltimore’s Patapsco River—which comprises the waters of the downtown Inner Harbor—and the adjacent Back River have a combined Bay Health Index of 19 percent. They earn a water quality grade of F. Four out of the seven water quality indicators have failing scores, including water clarity (0%), nitrogen (0%) and phosphorus (11%), all of which are “very poor.” These waters of the Upper Bay have the lowest ranking of any region within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This is where restoration dollars should be spent.

Closer to home, the James River Basin has scores of nitrogen (80%) and phosphorus (36%).  Its water clarity score (6%) indicates we still have much work to do to reduce sediment runoff into the James. Focusing efforts here would make the largest impact on water quality.

The Lower Bay, which receives the waters of the James River Watershed, has scores of nitrogen (97%) and phosphorus (99%). These are excellent. Like the James, however, its water clarity (5%) score is poor. Nevertheless, the overall Health Index of Lower Bay water is 61 percent.  This is a “B-” grade, indicating “moderately good ecosystem health.”

Many lower and middle income property owners, farmers and small business owners feel they are being squeezed ever tighter economically. To be successful, the County’s funding strategy for future water projects needs to be fair and equitable, and it should reflect these realities.

The County should develop a more compelling vision that clearly illuminates tangible benefits that will be seen locally as well as regionally. The County’s action plan needs to better spell out how its expanding water programs will help residential property owners, business owners, and proprietors of local garden centers and nurseries, orchards, vineyards, farm pastures and hay fields become better stewards of water, nitrogen, phosphorus and soil—and how they will do so in a way that adds beauty to the landscape.

The health of the Chesapeake Bay reflects how we live upon the land. The Chesapeake Bay Program will achieve equitable, comprehensive and long-lasting improvements in water quality as we redress our ways that are misaligned with Nature’s patterns. To make this happen here in Albemarle County and throughout the region, citizens should be encouraged—not threatened. Landowners need to be educated, not kept in the dark. As a community, we desire to be engaged and involved, not dictated to.  And we all want leadership—not ‘we have to comply with mandates’ rhetoric —that reassures us that what we are doing as a community will make a real difference in the quality of water, the land and our lives.

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