Sonoma County Gazette, June 2007

Search for Environmental Truth

by Brenda Adelman

Many people claim to be environmentalists who care about nature and then do little to protect it. They want clean water, but oppose riparian setbacks. They want clean air, but they drive SUVs. They mean well, as long as it is convenient.  They don’t intentionally mess up, but fail to realize that, nature is part of us, and ultimately has the last word.  It is complex and resilient, but can be irrevocably altered so that our future and our way of life may be at stake.  We can’t live without clean water and clean air.  That is the truth!

The food and water we eat and drink is a reflection of the respect, or lack of it, that we show to the natural world.  If we put pesticides in our gardens, and if those poisons leach into our water and fly through the air, we are exposing ourselves, our neighbors, our community, and the world to potentially harmful toxins. Theo Colburn documented in “Our Stolen Future” that pesticides used in the United States have been found in the remote Arctic wilderness in areas totally unexposed to human activity. These toxins have been found to disrupt the endocrine system, causing many life-altering problems for humans and wildlife. That is the truth!

The causes of environmental harm are very complex.  Some things people think are environmentally sound, are not.  There are many environmental “solutions” that result in worst pollution.  For instance, many people are talking about cleaning up wastewater with reverse osmosis so as to get rid of the pollutants and be able to put the wastewater anywhere.  But that method is energy intensive and produces a nasty sludge that creates its own pollution.

The better answer is source reduction and conservation.  Fixing leaky pipes would save water, energy, limit the need for sewer infrastructure, reduce exposure to fines and penalties for spills, etc. Decision makers know this but then refuse to go there.  They end up building big new pipeline projects because that is what they are used to doing.  We can do better;  a paradigm shift is needed.

At first, I was not welcomed to the Technical Advisory Group established this year by the City of Santa Rosa, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Laguna Foundation.  Their goal was to begin the process of developing a model to identify contributions to Laguna impairment. Santa Rosa’s consultant actively and vociferously tried to keep public representatives out of the process.  Regional Board staff insisted otherwise.  I was grateful to ultimately be included.  Here was a project to develop the environmental truth I had sought; clearly a truth that some didn’t want the public to know.

The big question: What do we know about contributing factors to high temperature, low dissolved oxygen, high nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), and sediments?  What contributing role is played by skimpy riparian vegetation, wastewater discharges, dairy operations, urban runoff, agricultural irrigation runoff, low flows, high flows, stream geomorphology, and much more? (What are the flows?  Why so few gauges?)  What is natural to the environment and what has been altered by human activity?  Can we ever fully know what was here before?  These are some of the questions being asked; real questions forming the basis for a comprehensive analysis of the problem.  If we find the answers for this water body, we may discover the answers for others as well.

At this gathering, consultants and agency representatives revealed how little they know about Laguna impairment. The list of what we don’t know and the complexity of the interacting factors is mind-boggling.  Unsubstantiated claims formerly found in project EIRs cannot suffice here.  These are the real questions, begging for real answers and providing the true path to Laguna cleanup and restoration.

There was talk of restoring “function” of the wetlands, the riparian, and the stream channel.  This is a euphemism for settling for less than what we had.  Perhaps it is the best we can get, but is it the best we can hope for?  Who will determine when “function” has been accomplished?  Who will set the standards? Can it be achieved with integrity or will it be compromised by someone’s political agenda?

Unfortunately it happens that sometimes people whose job it is to fix problems are actually encouraged NOT to solve them.  Case in point is the Sonoma County Water Agency. Many of their staff possess high energy and good intentions, but without speaking the company line, i.e. support for big expensive pipeline projects, they won’t go far.  The enormous Agency staff has expanded to about 200 employees, all needing projects to work on.

The public must keep demanding a clean environment along with truthful assessments from our leaders about how to get there.  We need to find a healthy balance between human endeavors and protecting natural systems.  It is for the sustainability of our lives and those of future generations.