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Clean Water: Restoring a Basic Civil Right

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By James Ehlers

Rivers weave the fabric for our lives as Vermonters, people who live in and celebrate the outdoors. Lakes — the places we swim, boat, paddle, and fish — buoy our quality of life.

As a former naval officer, charter sailing captain, professional fishing and hunting guide, and now leader of a conservation organization, water runs through my entire life here in Vermont. It now does so for my children and, I expect, for many reading this.

At Lake Champlain International (LCI), the organization I am fortunate to lead, I witness first-hand, both the economic value and social value of our waters. For the last 34 years, LCI has drawn tens of thousands of anglers from all over the country to celebrate family, friends, and fishing over the Father’s Day Derby we put on each June on Lake Champlain and her tributaries. Nearly 5,000 participated in this year’s Derby weekend, a tradition for many families and our marquee fundraiser in support of swimmable, drinkable, fishable waters. Fishing is a ritual for many of these families. Some have exchanged wedding vows at the event. Others have literally taken their LCI hats and t-shirts to the grave with them.

Anglers also fuel our economy, bringing a $200 million infusion each year. Most of these dollars are spent in our rural communities where these revenues are not just icing on the cake, but the cake itself. This is money that comes in regardless of whether there are leaves on the trees or snow on the slopes, but it is money that depends on clean water and a healthy fishery, showing once again how our economy and our ecology are integrally linked. It is with this perspective, and a great sense of responsibility, that I approach our year-round efforts addressing the threats now posed to our water quality.

Improving Clean Water Efforts

However in the past few years, pernicious nutrient and pathogen pollution from industrial agriculture and the developed landscape have wreaked havoc on our waters and on communities such as St. Albans, Lake Carmi, Vergennes, Panton, Burlington, Newport, Shelburne, and many others. Formal beach closures now occur with greater frequency.

Some Lake Champlain communities go without municipal water for weeks, relying on tankers trucking water in or turning to commercial bottled water. Rotting fish pile up on shorelines necessitating community-wide clean-up efforts. Blue-green algae blooms choke Mississquoi Bay and southern parts of the Lake, sending up sulfurous odors and essentially closing off waters. In Georgia, where the problem has been particularly bad, lake-front properties have lost value, causing the grand list to decrease by $1.8 million.

During this wet May and June, we saw more than 34 sewage spills send everything from phosphorous to fecal matter into Lake Champlain. Over 25 days, five spills in Vergennes alone dumped 700,000 gallons into the Otter Creek—the equivalent of what 116 milk trucks can carry. These spills are legal, unavoidable, say some, due to aging sewer and water treatment plants. Hard to fathom in a state revered for its environmental ethic.

Vermont’s Clean Water Bill

Vermont’s Clean Water Bill that was signed into law this past June and other recent legislative attempts to improve the state of our waters, may have been a political success. They propose steps to improve agricultural practices and limit farm and road run-off. But we are still left with an ecological mess. If we rely on the same sort of thinking that created the problem to solve it — the false premise that dilution is the solution to pollution — we should expect more beach closures, more drinking water issues, more lost tourism and recreation revenue. This will have implications on property tax and education funding implications, and frankly, it will just lead to more misery.

With great challenges come great opportunities, however. When enough of us pull together to demand 21st century solutions from our local, state, and federal officials, from our business leaders, and from ourselves we can and will affect a clean water economy. By working with the basic laws of physics and chemistry, instead of ignoring them as we have attempted to do with now-obvious horrendous repercussions, we can transform what we currently identify as waste polluting our environment into a commodity, protect our water supplies, and remediate our recreational waters.

The solutions are multi-faceted, but they do exist. Nutrient-fueled reactors powered by algae capture and convert — recycle — the innate energy in our current “waste” streams into bioplastics, natural colorants, feedstock, and stable fertilizer products.

Around the world, biogas plants are converting human and animal excrement into usable fuel and electricity. Ecological, composting toilets can relieve us of our dependence on expensive, unsustainable centralized wastewater facilities in rural communities.

Centrifuge systems can transform liquid waste into solid phosphorous negating the dependence on overseas mines for the valuable element critical to all human life. “Floating islands” seeded with valuable crops can remediate nutrient-plagued lakes and bays, intelligently removing the “pollutants” from the water column.

With a new vision for an economy that is in harmony with our ecology, we can create jobs and protect and remediate our critical freshwater supplies.

The Right to Clean Water

What has not existed to date is the same public outcry for what we now consider to be a basic civil rights issue: the right to clean water. When did we accept the notion that is acceptable for those upstream to exploit those downstream? I don’t think we ever actually did, and that is why I have enormous hope. This is not simply an environmental issue—it is a fundamental issue of right and wrong. Institutionalized exploitation of our neighbors is not in the lexicon of any Vermonters I know.

A clean water economy, one built on protecting our quality of life rather than poisoning it, would account for how we manage our energy supplies, to include food (our most basic form of energy) production; how we manage our commercial, agricultural, and personal “waste,” and how we manage lands presently and into future.

It is not that foreign a concept when you consider that the root “eco” is derived from the Greek word oikos or “home.” It is absurd, in my view, that we expect to responsibly manage our home — our economy — while disregarding the study of our home, our ecology.

Those of us who re-create outdoors need not be told we depend on clean water for our enjoyment. We know we do. Water is the most basic element of our quality of life. Having taken clean water for granted for generations now, the reckoning has come due and the responsibility to correct past mistakes and wrongs rests with us.

Who’s with me?

James Ehlers is the executive director of Lake Champlain International, a Colchester-based conservation organization working to ensure swimmable, drinkable, fishable waters.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

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