Water is life. Without water, we die. Access to clean, plentiful water is a human necessity and right. But human activities are abusing this vital force and future public access to water is now in doubt. We are the abusers and the abused. We are being systematically dispossessed of this essential component of human life.
Drip by drop, we misuse, abuse, pollute, and waste water.
Arboretum Big Spring provides about 350 gallons per minute of pure spring water to Lake Wingra.
Recent Legislative Actions
The U.S. Congressional Republicans in February, 2017 rolled back an Obama era regulation called the Stream Protection Rule. The regulation was designed to prevent coal mining companies from dumping mining waste into streams. Repeal of the rule will now give mining companies free rein to pollute waters nationwide.
At best, society overlooks its water resources; at worst humans abuse water resources in countless ways, either through ignorance, carelessness, or greed. The misuse of water is so ubiquitous and such a part of day-to-day life that we don’t even notice what is going on. We have been conditioned by society to ignore the harm we cause.
So let’s remind ourselves of the ways in which society abuses water resources. And, by society, I mean our culture in general and each of us in particular.
Our infrastructure (highways, streets, roofs and parking lots) is designed to transform basic rainfall into a toxic substance. We tragically and automatically turn rain it into storm water, send it down the drain, add soil and contaminants on the way, and then send it into the local lake ( from which we often draw our drinking water.) And for snow, we do the same plus we add sand and road salt for good measure and plow the disgusting mess out of our way.
Leaves headed for the storm drain at Wingra Park.
Rainfall flows into:
- Storm drains
- Underground pipes
- Erosion channels
- Storm water channels, and ditches
- Storm water ponds
- Ground water in our basements is pumped into the street and down the storm drain.
- Divert storm water into streams, lakes, and wetlands.
These abusive habits have become so ingrained, and such an automatic way of daily life and doing business that we rarely notice or stop to think about what we are doing, let alone the implications of our actions.
City of Madison Storm water detention Pond #5 in the UW-Madison Arboretum.
As long as society gives its implicit permission to government and managers to continue these practices, we are complicit in the abuse of water, and by definition, abuse of life.
Eliminating Wetland Protections in Wisconsin
More recently, in September 2017 the Republicans who control both branches of the Wisconsin State Legislature, proposed legislation that would strip protections from Wisconsin’s non-federal wetlands so that developers could more easily drain and/or fill them. More than 1 million acres, or about 20% of the State’s wetlands, would be left unprotected from developers, who can do such things as:
- Construct pipelines and transmission lines through wetlands and other water bodies.
- Celebrate the Fourth of July by discharging fireworks (and their pollutants) over lakes and wetlands.
- Use herbicides in streams and wetland edges
- Let pollutants and chemicals run off of driveways, parking lots, and roads into waterways.
- Let sewage overflow and spill into waterways.
- Let manure run into streams, creeks, rivers, and wetlands.
Other Fundamental Abuses of Water
We use and abuse water when we alter a region’s hydrological regime (the timing, duration, and extent of water flow). Or when we contaminate water with chemicals and other pollutants (rendering it unsafe to drink, swim in, or use for bathing. Or when we exhaust ground water resources. Or when we disturb or destroy water bodies such as streams, river, lakes, and wetlands.
For example, society allows government and commercial exploiters of the environments (often incorrectly called “developers”) to:
- Cause chemical spills into water bodies, ground water and surface water.
- Let cows graze in sedge meadows.
- Destroy springs by over-pumping ground water or building on top of springs.
- Throw litter into water bodies.
- Fill in and build on top of wetlands.
In summer 2017 a City of Madison Streets Division reconstruction project in the Dudgeon-Monroe Neighborhood hit a vein of ground water (in an area known to contain many springs). The project temporarily shut down until workers could pump all the water out and down the nearby storm drain, where it headed to Lake Wingra.
Gold and Silver Mining
On Monday December 11, 2017 Gov. Scott Walker, Republican of Wisconsin signed legislation revoking a 20 year moratorium on gold and silver mining in northern Wisconsin. Gov. Walker scoffed at the concerns of conservationists that resuming mining will lead to massive and devastating pollution from sulfide drainage.
Gold, silver, copper, zinc and other metals are typically bonded to sulfur. Such compounds produce sulfuric acid when exposed to oxygen and water, creating the potential for polluted runoff nto wetlands and other water bodies.
In 1998, lawmakers from both parties (including Scott Walker himself) put the sulfide mining ban in place to prevent the kind of environmental damage that can result from sulfide mining.
Water is misused, abused, polluted, and wasted when we:
- Drain wetlands.
- Dam up streams, creeks, and rivers.
- Channelize streams, creeks, and rivers.
- Dump coal mining waste into streams.
- Dump sulfuric mine waste into streams, and wetlands.
- Use lead water pipes to transfer drinking water.
A storm water channel in Nakoma Park, Madison, WI. This is not a natural stream but one created by rushing storm water. Note the unfortunate oaks whose roots have been exposed as the soil has washed away (“downstream” to the Arboretum and Lake Wingra.)
The legislature’s opening of northern Wisconsin to sulfide mining is ill-informed, short-sighted, misguided, and a needless assault on the environment and common-sense environmental precautions and protections.
Society has (or had) laws and regulations to protect ourselves from soiling our own nest, and from degrading and exploiting the natural resources upon which we depend. But, these environmental regulations are being weakened, and in some cases, eliminated.
We may think we don’t have to power to stop the legislative assault or to halt the diminishment of the Earth. And, as long as we give our implicit consent to these practices we continue to abdicate our moral responsibility to the Earth, to our fellow citizens, and future generations.
A storm water detention pond in Curtis Prairie, UW-Madison Arboretum. Native soil eroded over the past 20 years has created a small wetland delta on the southern edge of the prairie.
Once we regain consciousness and begin to resist then we can start to regain our power to protect and heal the Earth.