THE GLOBAL CITIZEN: Citizens Can Save Ponds
The good news is that our Clean Water Act, plus billions of dollars in municipal treatment plants and industrial wastewater processing, has rescued many of our streams and lakes from sewerhood.The bad news is that, with the nastiest waste pipes cleaned up, we still insult our waterbodies with filled-in wetlands, runoff from lawns and farms, here a dam, there a dam, everywhere a little acid rain or toxic fallout. Ponds cloud up with strange weeds. Almost all the oysters are gone from Chesapeake Bay. Only one percent of the natural wetlands of Iowa remain. Warnings about contaminated local fish or shellfish are posted in 45 states.Water quality and water creatures continue to decline not because we lack protective laws, but because the laws are tepidly enforced. A recent report from the Environmental Defense Fund blames "inadequate authority, funding limitations, and bureaucratic timidity."Within that bad news, however, there is a bit of good news. Where government fails, caring citizens are stepping in. In just a day of calling around New England, I uncovered a wealth of citizen efforts to monitor, protect, and restore local lakes and rivers. They're scattered, they're vastly underfunded, but they demonstrate how public and private efforts could join to clean up our water.Watershed Watch at the University of Rhode Island, for example, keeps 250 volunteers busy at 90 locations taking weekly water samples from April through November. The university trains the volunteers, gives them the equipment, does the lab tests, and collates the information (which is passed back to the volunteers and on to the state Department of Environmental Management). Not only do students, auto mechanics, police officers, teachers and retired folks provide free labor, they also raise much of the amazingly low cost of the program, through their local conservation commissions or lake associations.No one has to beat the bushes to find these volunteers. As word spreads, more communities ask to join. Says Elizabeth Herron of Watershed Watch, "It's great to have to go out on your favorite lake once a week. Hey, I'm not going fishing, I'm going monitoring!"Her job is to check on the quality of the information coming in. She's delighted to report that well-trained citizens collect data as reliably as professionals. "You don't have to be a scientist. You just have to love a stream and be willing to follow directions."Jody Conner at the Lakes Program of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services works with 500 volunteers to monitor 125 lakes (out of 800 in the state) "I can't say enough for the volunteers," he says. "They're my ears and eyes. If there's problem on the lake, they call me."As in Rhode Island the New Hampshire program started with just one group asking for help in understanding just one lake. The next year there were ten lakes, and things exploded from there. Now Conner's program helps people form lake associations, puts out videos and books and kids' programs, and trains monitors to take water samples and, in advanced courses, to keep track of water plants, bugs and fish.Each group gets an annual report with time graphs of how its lake is changing. The ones who've been in the program longest are beginning to trace water quality up tributaries. The New Hampshire volunteers also turn out information of professional quality. It goes into the state report on which waters are swimmable and fishable. It is helping a study of mercury accumulation in fish. Above all, it tells local governments and citizens when there is trouble in their water, so they can do something about it first hand and right away.One of the most active and enthusiastic coordinators of citizen efforts on behalf of water is Dr.Paul Godfrey of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He started in 1983 helping citizens monitor acid rain throughout the state. "One year we surveyed 200 lakes and streams for $100 each. The same year EPA did 2000 waterbodies and spent $8000 each." Now Godfrey holds together the Massachusetts Waterwatch Partnership, a coalition of state agencies, universities and citizens' groups on 50 lakes and 10 rivers.Pressed for funds ("I spend 20-30 percent of my time looking for money"), Godfrey has turned his garage into a workshop where he turns out low-cost monitoring equipment. He makes samplers for bottom water out of Mason jars, cement, epoxy, rope and tubes from Bic pens. He turned out 100 Secchi disks at half the cost of buying them. (Secchi disks look like dinner plates painted black and white in opposite quadrants. To measure clarity you lower them in the water to see how far down they are visible.)These programs -- and there are many others -- live hand-to-mouth. They don't have the budgets to cover all the waterbodies that need to be watched. They depend too much on a few dedicated experts who maintain quality and enthusiasm. And they focus on monitoring, which is not fixing.But without monitoring, you don't know what needs fixing. And these citizen programs do much more than provide free information to governments too chintzy to fund the implementation of their own laws. They educate people about how water works, how important it is, and precisely how it gets messed up. They give folks the information and power to insist that government do what needs to be done. And they depolarize discussions, as more and more citizens know and understand the facts. Paul Godfrey saw this happen with his acid rain monitoring program, as the discussion changed from angry ideological stand-offs to "more like a conversation over the back fence."You'd think state and federal agencies would know a good deal when they see it and fund these monitoring efforts properly.Maybe sometime soon they will.