Old standards aren’t good enough anymore

Yesterday, a disturbing story appeared in the New York Times about the safety of our drinking water. Today I’m going to talk about the story’s implications.  I see this story as a metaphor--a lesson about how standards are changing--how they HAVE TO change.

And that, I think, is what the greenway controversy is really about. The old standards for storm water engineering won’t be good enough for the 22nd century.

Wait, was that a typo?  No--the greenway repairs will last for 100 years. That brings us to the year 2110.…the 22nd century. Sobering.

Madison in the 22nd century

If we get a bad plan for the greenway, we're stuck with it for a hundred years.  To be a good plan, it needs to work both now and in the future.

Without invoking crystal balls, it’s likely our future Madison will be:

  • More dense--more people, and more sources of pollution;
  • Open country will be further away;
  • Transportation will be a lot more expensive (so maybe recreation will be closer to home).
These trends suggest that we’ll find our lakes, or parks, and our greenways ever more important… at the same time they will be under greater threat from population and pollution.

This may sound depressing to some. But I’m not ready to throw in the towel and leave a more polluted and tattered world to my children. That sentiment is what’s motivating many greenway supporters to fight for better plans.

Among other things, I’ve advocated a watershed approach for the greenway--along with funds budgeted for advanced rain gardens.  When I suggested the “watershed approach” to Lisa Coleman of City Engineering, she replied that, if they waited for action at the watershed level, they’d never get anything done.  I can appreciate her need as an engineer to “get things done.” That’s her job.

So it’s our job, as citizens, to make sure that the system is overhauled so that it CAN address the issue at a watershed level. And that may involve improving citizen input into the Board of Public Works. They are “the Boss,“ because they approve the storm water budget.

It used to be we could just throw our garbage in the nearest stream, and the currents would take it away… to somewhere else. That day’s long gone. Today, the world is so crowded, and problems so complex, that the way forward seems bewildering.

But as challenges increase, our tools are improving as well. We have better science today, and we have the benefits of computers in looking for solutions. The main thing for citizens to realize is… that we have to keep raising the ball. The old standards simply won’t do any more.

And now for some examples...

Tap water is legal but may be unhealthy

The thrust of the NY Times article is that “the 35-year old federal law regulating tap water is so out of date that the water Americans drink can pose what scientists say are serous health risks--and still be legal. Only 91 contaminants are regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, yet more than 60,000 chemicals are used within the US.”

The head of Los Angeles’ water supply says, “We work very hard to give this city the cleanest water in the state.  But water sources are getting more polluted. If we just do what’s required, it’s not enough.”

At the EPA during the Bush administration, scientists tried to point out the dangers of contaminants that were unregulated, but industry lobbyists fought back. “’It’s hard for me to describe the level of anger and animosity directed at us for trying to publish sound, scientific research that met the highest standards,’ Dr. Preuss said.”

The state of the nation’s drinking water is one example of how we are falling behind--because we are not tightening standards as the world becomes more crowded.

Likewise, storm water standards have to be tightened. Here’s a small example.

Erosion control on Pheasant Branch

A week ago, I reported on how Middleton is improving erosion control of the stream banks, a much needed improvement, with some innovative approaches.

In the process of poking around the area, I found a ravine that had been stabilized by riprap.

Pheasant Branch erosion control--rock to last a thousand years.

What amazed me about this little project was the huge amount of riprap, with several dams, and bales of rock, held together in wire baskets. Probably the engineers involved felt they were doing the right thing. Once they had the trucks lined up, they might as well dump enough rock there to last a thousand years.

The erosion did need to be stopped, for the health of the Pheasant Branch Conservancy, and the health of the Lake Mendota. But this is yet another example of destroying nature to save nature. Our engineering standards have to be more precise and surgical. Dumping tons of rubble into a tiny ravine is no longer good enough.

It reminded me of how they destroyed the last stretch of ailing Westmorland Creek to save Lake Wingra. Pardon the comparison to the health care debates, but that’s like "pulling the plug" on Grandma, just because she gets a little constipated. Our standards have to be higher.

Mono Lake versus Los Angeles

Mono Lake is a starkly beautiful, otherworldly lake in the desert, just east of Yosemite National Park. When I visited Mono last summer, I learned about the struggle lasting three decades to save Mono Lake.

Mono Lake, 2.5 times saltier than the ocean, is teeming with life.

The lake--about 20 miles across, is 2.5 times more salty than sea water. Only two kinds of animals live in the lake--brine shrimp and salt flies. But their populations are vast, providing food for untold millions of migrating birds. Since the lake has no outlet, it exists in a delicate balance between mountain creeks that feed it, and evaporation from its surface.

Mono Lake began to dry up, after Los Angeles tapped its sources.

Years ago, Los Angeles began diverting water for municipal use from the creeks that feed Mono Lake. As evaporation exceeded inflow, lake levels dropped steadily, threatening to turn the lake into a source of toxic dust storms, and destroy the entire ecosystem, migrating birds included.

Finally, environmentalists succeeded in stopping the water diversions, and lake levels stabilized. Creeks flowing into the lake were restored, and once again they became wonderful places to fish.  To prevent harmful consequences for LA, conservationists worked to conserve at least as much water in LA as LA would lose from stopping diversions from Mono Lake.

Nevertheless, LA began to experience water problems, because now it had to rely more on groundwater from the nearby San Fernando Basin, and other more polluted sources.
The San Fernando basin was the home of industrial pollution so severe it had been named a Superfund Site, and as pollution spread underground, the city had to abandon 40% of its wells there.

Next, the city discovered that, although water leaving its treatment plants seemed safe because it met standards, dangerous bromates were showing up in the tap water. It turned out that sunlight, shining on the storage reservoirs, was converting relatively harmless chemicals into dangerous ones.

So the city dumped two million dollars of black balls onto the surface of a reservoir, to block the sun’s rays. That set off howls of rage from nearby affluent homeowners, who liked the view of blue waters more than they liked the scum of black balls on the surface.

The point--as the world grows more crowded, attempts to save one area can lead to problems in another. And in Madison--attempts to save Lake Mendota from erosion are leading to the destruction of wildlie and trees in our ravine. The solution isn’t easy. It requires us to raise our standards, be more thoughtful, and take a wider view--a watershed approach.  That way, everyone can be a winner.

We’re doing this for our children, so it makes sense… to get them involved.

More bells and whistles
Mono Lake Committee--a fabulous website!
Slide show on Mono Lake
Slide show of riprap mentioned above
New York Times slide show on water quality

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