Monday, February 3, 2014

Surprise: We all live downstream

I’ve lived and worked in many watersheds in my 60-plus years.

There’s the Rio Grande in New Mexico; the Platte River in Nebraska; Lake Champlain (once at Plattsburgh Air Force Base on its west side, in New York State, and now on the east side, in Vermont); Lake Thunderbird and the Canadian River in Oklahoma; the Snake River in Idaho; and the Lower Ocmulgee in central Georgia.

They all have lots in common, much of it on the negative side of the graph, unfortunately: The loss of natural land to sprawl and the gougers, diggers, bulldozers, chainsawers, polluters, dam builders, graders and asphalters of urban America.

My home in Vermont is – like yours in Pennsylvania – actually in several watersheds. First is the Winooski River (I live a half-mile from it). Second, and much larger, is the Lake Champlain watershed, which is international and multi-state in scope.

“We all live in a watershed,” reads the election campaign-style lapel button I got from the Puget Sound Partnership in Washington State some years ago.

That conservation outfit is correct. We do.

The EPA gives us this definition: “A watershed is the area of land where all of the water that is under it or drains off of it goes into the same place. John Wesley Powell, scientist geographer, put it best when he said that a watershed is: ‘that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community’."

Many residents of metro Hazleton (oftentimes called “Greater Hazleton”) live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, but neighbors in Carbon County reside in the Lehigh River watershed, part of the Delaware River’s watershed.

Roads, homes and other human activities have altered the composition of forests across the Chesapeake Bay watershed (and all the others, too), reducing tree cover and fragmenting those forests that still exist.

Fragmented forests are less resilient to disturbances and more prone to negative influences like wildfires and invasive species. The ongoing loss of trees and entire forests, with financial profit the true motive, toughens and heightens cost and the cleanup and restoration.

But just because some thousands of acres are (thankfully) owned by a public agency, the Hazleton City Authority, as watershed land, does not mean Pennsylvanians need not worry about the ecological health of that land or, even more so, the diminishing naturalness of other land, private or public, elsewhere in the same watershed.

The logging of hardwood trees relates poorly to the goal of healthy watershed land and the replenishment of groundwater.
The Chesapeake Bay Program: “Forests are critical to the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Large stands of trees can protect clean water and air, provide habitat to wildlife and support the region’s economy.
“But human activities have altered the watershed’s forests, reducing tree cover and fragmenting forests that still exist. Conserving and expanding forest cover is a critical, cost-effective way to reduce pollution and restore the Bay.”
Streams across the United States are suffering a decline in health, as human development alters stream flow and pushes pollutants into the water. It’s a sad commentary on our times when one can stand on the shore of a major Chesapeake tributary (like the York River at Yorktown) and watch as rainwater polluted with the blue sheen of automobile engine oil dribbles into the current and out into the Bay. I’ve watched that process, a bunch of times.
The Bay Program ( “There are two broad categories of chemical contaminants that can be found in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries: metals and organics.
Mercury is the most common metal found in the Bay watershed.
Common organic chemical contaminants include:
-        - Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which act as a flame retardant in electrical equipment. Though their production has been banned since 1977, PCBs still pose a risk to humans and wildlife because they persist in the environment.
-        Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which form when gas, coal and oil are burned. PAHs are common in areas with high rates of development and motor vehicle traffic.
-        Organophosphate pesticides (OPs), which are mostly herbicides and insecticides used in agriculture. OPs can affect functioning of the nervous system.
-        Storm runoff from cities, towns and suburbs picks up oil, pesticides and other chemicals as it flows across lawns, roads, and parking lots and into nearby streams and storm drains. This type of pollution is significant and difficult to control.
Protecting the sources of our clean drinking water does not fit well with the selling of saw timber or the building of a road to get the truck in and the cut out. Every municipal water agency in Pennsylvania could preclude all sorts of problems, some of which I’ve discussed, by buying and protecting natural lands.
I call it Wild Nature and it’s where good water and a lot more come from.

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