The costs of ignoring water pollution creates Bad Rivers

28 February 2013

Any South African who claims to be informed about our Water Crisis, yet is unaware of  the central issue of pollution in our dams and the singular failure to address it, has a skewed perception of reality.  Such individuals exist, more than you might realize – and many of them in positions of influence.  Some have been in positions of influence for a very long time – which might explain the position the country is in.  Ignoring the problem – and the associated costs – is an issue that I have addressed in numerous posts, for example here and here (otherwise just search this blog for the term ‘eutrophication’).

At the time when we read about reaching Peak Oil and Peak Phosphorus, we should also be reading about the dangers of Peak Inattention (read wilful ignorance because it will cost a lot) to obvious problems.  Water pollution, and centrally eutrophication, is a classic example.  It’s a well-known problem, easy to manage (but will cost a lot because it has been ignored for so long) and is usually fobbed off with high profile attention to cosmetic, “end-of-pipe” interventions that achieve nothing of any real value.

Lake Whatcom (I kid you not, this is its name) in Washington, USA, is one of thousands of lakes at risk of inattention to nutrient-attenuating catchment management.

Lake Whatcom, the main source of drinking water for the city of Bellingham and other communities around the lake, is suffering from low levels of oxygen. The root cause of the problem: increased levels of phosphorous and fecal bacteria entering the lake.

In an article entitled “The Costs of Doing Nothing” , there is reference to a recent report by their Department of Ecology to the effect that:

…the watershed is substantially overbuilt. Approximately 12 percent of the watershed is developed. According to the report, two things need to happen for the lake to meet water quality standards: [1] approximately 87 percent of the current development around the lake needs to be able to store and filter stormwater like a forest; and [2] bacteria levels in the most contaminated streams need to be reduced up to 96 percent. It will be the city’s and county’s ongoing responsibility to achieve these goals.

These are sober targets that will, no doubt, be treated with derision by the developers – given that 87% of the developed area needs to be “reformatted”.

Moving to a much larger lake canvas, Lake Erie – in effect an inland sea – has fluctuated from high to low levels of pollution and back again.  Once hailed as a success story, it quickly decayed back to its former problematical condition.  The findings emanating from a recent workshop held in Ontario concluded, inter alia, that

Phosphorus runoff from farms is widely considered the leading culprit, while sewage-treatment plants and septic tanks are sources as well.

Many farmers have planted buffer strips to separate their fields from streams. The report will suggest additional steps, perhaps including better application of fertilizers and methods of removing phosphorus from effluent flowing from underground drain tiles.

Similar issues are being considered in Palmerston North  and Hawkes Bay in (New Zealand) and for Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota, USA.

Luckily, in this profession, there are times when facts are extremely amusing.  In Wisconsin, there is a native American tribe (hope I got this politically-correct…) whose wastewater treatment plant is not up to spec.  This has somewhat diluted the groups complaints about a mining application.  Need to have your house in order if your name is the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa!



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *