"Lisa, the whole reason we have elected officials is so we don’t have to think all the time. Just like that rainforest scare a few years back. Our officials saw there was a problem and they fixed it, didn’t they?" — Homer Simpson
On June 24, 2008, Louie and I curled up on the couch to watch seven of the nation’s foremost water resources experts testify before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.
This was a new experience for us. For my part, the issue to be addressed — "Comprehensive Watershed Management Planning" — was certainly a change of pace from the subjects I ordinarily follow in Judiciary and Intelligence Committee hearings. I wasn’t even entirely sure what a "watershed" was. I knew that, in a metaphorical sense, the word referred to a turning point, but I was a bit fuzzy about its meaning in the world of hydrology. (It’s the term used to describe "all land and water areas that drain toward a river or lake.")
What was strange from Louie’s point of view was not the topic of the day, but that we were stuck in the house. Usually at that hour, we’d be working in the backyard, where he can better leverage his skill set, which includes chasing squirrels, digging up tomato plants, eating wicker patio chairs, etc. On this particular afternoon, however, the typically cornflower-blue
It would have been difficult, on such a day, not to think about water.
June 24, 2008: Water on the Brain
In the Midwest, on the other hand, water was everywhere, cascading across the land and through towns; or, it was threatening to do so, as terrified homeowners and volunteers desperately hoisted sandbags onto levees that were failing, due to forces as powerful as the mighty Mississippi and as seemingly innocuous as burrowing muskrats. The flooding had been ongoing for weeks, killing dozens of people, displacing thousands, and causing billions of dollars of crop, building, and other damage. With
Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Weekly News was reporting that the deluge had swept record amounts of storm-water into lakes and rivers, "bringing along pollutants from urban streets, farm fields and construction sites." To make matters worse, as of late June,
Where were all these chemicals and all that muck ultimately headed? Some of it would be spewed into the
The quality of water in the
But back to the June floods. Where else will the pollution from them be heading? For one thing, down the Mississippi River to the
Even before the relentless late spring rains, scientists had predicted that, in the summer of 2008, this barren area off the Louisiana coast would grow to be a Massachusetts-sized 10,000 square miles. Post-flood, with even more fertilizer and freshwater pouring into the Gulf, that estimate was increased to 12,000 square miles or more, the equivalent of the state of Maryland.
Now, I’m neither a scientist, nor an engineer, nor anything remotely similar to either of the above. Once we got past the planaria in Biology 101, I could never find whatever it was we were supposed to be analyzing on that microscope slide. (I’m not proud of this: it’s simply the stark, unvarnished truth.) But even to a layperson, these Viewmaster shots of the extreme water issues facing the
Still Floundering After All These Years
It would be easy, even tempting, to blame the turbulent state of the nation’s water affairs on the Bush administration. Certainly, they’ve provided ample cause: gutting, and failing to enforce, the Clean Water Act, for instance, and, at best, simply ignoring the obvious problems of floods, droughts, and hurricanes, of shifting weather patterns, of contaminants old and new, and a myriad of other water disasters through eight long years.
The truth is, though, that scientists, engineers, and environmental planners have been advising Congress for years that holistic watershed management is the only rational and practical way to address complex water quality and quantity issues. Why that persistent recommendation? As Delaware River Basin Commission Executive Director Carol Collier told the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment on June 24th, bodies of water don’t respect political boundaries; we have to manage them "on the rivers’ terms." And the stakeholders from both riverbanks — as well as from up and downstream — all need to be at the table. Notwithstanding this long-term chorus of expert advice, our elected officials have merrily continued to legislate piecemeal, funding billions of dollars of local water-related projects without regard to their overall value or impact.
Tragically, as it turns out, faced with the urgent need to change our management of
Although the witnesses at the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee hearing were decidedly nonpartisan, the testimony of each and every one made this fact abundantly, even painfully, clear. They were all measured and polite, of course, but you didn’t have to be Karnac the Magnificent to sense the frustration.
Consider, for example, the testimony of Larry Larson, the Executive Director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. He began: "Once again we are seeing devastating floods in the
"Without dramatic shifts in our approaches and actions, by 2050 flood losses are likely to be far greater, ecosystems may well collapse, the nation’s quality of life will be diminished, and all hope of sustainable communities will be lost."
Not long after that cheery forecast, there was Paul Freedman, Vice President of the Water Environment Federation and President of LimnoTech, an Ann Arbor-based water consulting firm. While preparing his presentation, he said, he had recognized some irony:
"Twelve years ago this month, I co-chaired one of the earliest and largest watershed conferences ever to occur. [The Water Environment Federation] organized it jointly with fifteen federal agencies. Well over a thousand experts participated and more than five thousand participated through videoconference… At the time it was kind of this aha moment, you know, we’d made enormous progress since the Clean Water Act of 1972, but further progress toward restoring the physical, chemical and biologic health of our water resources, and protecting public health and well-being was stalled.
"Everyone agreed there, watershed management was the only answer to take us into the twenty-first century."
Of course, that particular aha moment occurred in 1996. But University of Maryland Professor of Engineering Gerald Galloway — a retired U.S. Army Brigadier General who was the 2007 President of the American Water Resources Association — had a similar one in 1994.
After floods in 1993 had devastated many of the same
We could rewind to even earlier aha moments. On February 17, 1952, for example, a New York Times headline reads, "Bill Asks Policy for River Basins: President’s Commission Files Draft that Sums Up its Plan for Water Resources." The President in question was Harry Truman and the plan was, according to the article, "based solidly on the commission’s original and far-reaching premise that entire river basins must be considered in one broad and uniform policy." In 1933, of course, the
Words of the Day
In the end, when it came to an assessment of the current state of our national water policy, there were precious few positive sentiments voiced at the hearing. Instead, the most often-used descriptions were alarmingly negative.
As applied to programs and projects, the words of the day included fractured, ad hoc, isolated, random, haphazard, inconsistent, stovepiped, and mish-mash. Relative to congressional committees and federal agencies, the term was hodge-podge. Larry Larson testified that there are a grand total of 36 congressional subcommittees that oversee water-related issues in some fashion or another — with few clearly-delineated divisions of authority.
And just how many federal offices are there in this mix? Well, last week, I spent a really enjoyable day calling U.S. Government offices and doing on-line research. In the end, I determined — conclusively — that it is not possible to actually know how many federal agencies engage in freshwater-related research, administration, projects, oversight, disaster relief, and/or reconstruction.
There appear, however, to be at least two dozen: The Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Council on Environmental Quality, the Food & Drug Administration, the Department of Transportation, the National Park Service, the Agricultural Research Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of the Census, the Office of Housing and Urban Development, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Science Foundation, the Small Business Administration, the Bureau of Reclamation, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the Economic Development Administration, the State Department’s International Boundary and Water Commission, the Rural Utilities Service, and several Department of Homeland Security offices that are probably too secret for us to be talking about.
Finally, with regard to laws, the operative terms were outdated and inadequate. The Clean Water Act of 1972 has made a dramatic difference in water quality and is justifiably considered to be a big success. As Freedman explained, however, the problems that exist in today’s environmental landscape are "dramatically different in scale and in nature" than they were thirty-some years ago.
In the 1970s, he said, the main environmental driver was "point source pollution" — that is, harmful substances spilled directly into water. Now, however, concerns include contaminants from indirect, but ever more ubiquitous, "nonpoint sources" — remember the chicken manure? — as well as "land use, ecosystem restoration, water scarcity, flooding, invasive species, endocrine disruptors, climate change, etc. — the list goes on."
Consequently, Freedman told the Committee:
"Trying to solve these problems with the 1972 Clean Water Act is like trying to use a 1972 auto repair manual to repair a 2008 electric hybrid. It just doesn’t work. So it is with other independent and dated federal programs that don’t reflect the large scale and complexity of the problems we’re dealing with today."
Too Many Uh-oh Moments
As I write this in mid-July, Louie is munching on a trellis. The smoke in our neighborhood has mostly cleared, leaving behind a stonewashed denim-blue sky. Safe and dry and happily back in the yard, it would be relatively easy to follow Homer Simpson’s advice. The disasters that dominated the headlines on June 24, 2008 have now been relegated to interior news pages and after all, there are three dozen congressional committees working on our national water issues.
But the reality is, of course, nothing has changed. The lives of approximately 11 million people in ten Midwestern states have been upended and — in far too many instances — devastated by this year’s wave of
One could argue that a fractured, ad hoc, haphazard mish-mash of random, inconsistent, and stove-piped projects, administered by a hodge-podge of 36 congressional committees and more than 20 agencies in accordance with outdated and inadequate laws constitutes a national water policy. A de facto one. But with so many ignored aha moments followed by ever-more-frequent and disastrous uh-oh moments, it seems we could use a policy that’s not quite so dependent upon sandbags and firehoses.
Elizabeth de la Vega is a former federal prosecutor with over twenty years experience. A contributor to TomDispatch since 2005, her pieces have appeared in various publications including the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, the
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project, author of The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition covering Iraq, and editor and contributor to the first best of Tomdispatch book, The World According to Tomdispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso).]