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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 11, 2009

Turn the tide on pollution

The earth would be a lifeless planet without water. It is not only essential to plant and animal life but it has defined human civilization.

Great civilizations once thrived in the valleys of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. They largely disappeared, though, when the climate changed and the land turned to desert.

In recent centuries, as societies have become industrialized, the quality of water has suffered. While most of us recognize this in a general sense, one Guilderland man grasps this in a specific and vivid way. Last year, Robert Mohr became president of Pure Water for the World, a not-for-profit organization that works to improve the quality of water in developing countries.

Three thousand children die each day from polluted water, Mohr says with urgency in his voice. In many overcrowded and poor cities, Mohr says, drinking water comes from surface water, which is easily contaminated by livestock, human defecation, and garbage.

Mohr has recently returned from travels in Honduras and Haiti. He shared with our reporter Anne Hayden some of the progress being made there. He tells the story of one little girl in Honduras whose family lives in a hut on top of a mountain. She was close to death, dehydrated from weeks of diarrhea. Getting a 300-pound water filter up the steep path to her family’s home seemed impossible but Pure Water for the World did it. Later, the staff hesitated to visit the family again, fearing the girl had died. But, when they made the climb, they found she had survived.

We commend Mohr for his dedication and urge support for Pure Water for the World. Mohr, a retired art publisher, says he and his wife feel fortunate and have resources to give back. “We want to leave the world a better place than when we came into it,” he said. Not a bad motto for any of us to live by.

“Providing clean water is the easiest, least expensive way to break the poverty cycle,” says Mohr.

But it is not only developing nations that have problems with water. Americans were made painfully aware of the issue 40 years ago — on June 22, 1969 — when an oil slick and debris in the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio caught fire. Fires had plagued the river since the late 1800s as manufacturing boomed without controls to protect the environment. A fire in 1952 had caused over a million dollars in damage. Time magazine reported on Aug. 1, 1969 that Cleveland’s citizens grimly joked, “Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown…He decays.”

The article also quoted the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration: “The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes.”

Nearly a third of our country’s drinking water at that time had unsafe amounts of chemicals. The Hudson River, close to home, had bacteria levels 170 times what authorities considered safe.

After the Cuyahoga fire, in the early 1970s, the federal Environmental Protection Agency was formed and Congress passed the Clean Water Act, prohibiting the discharge of pollutants from a point source into navigable waters without a permit. As awareness grew about the effects stormwater had on carrying pollutants, the act was amended. Municipalities were charged with raising public awareness and participation, regulating illicit discharge, and preventing soil runoff at construction sites.

This week, The Enterprise is detailing local efforts on the stormwater front. Village reporter Philippa Stasiuk plowed through a lengthy state-required annual report on municipal storm sewer systems put out by the Stormwater Coalition of Albany County. A dozen municipalities — Albany County; the towns of Bethlehem, Colonie, Guilderland, and New Scotland; the cities of Albany, Cohoes, and Watervliet; and the villages of Colonie, Green Island, Menands, and Voorheesville — have sensibly banded together to become better stewards of local water.

“We’re managing stormwater in which the drainage area rarely includes one unique municipality,” says coordinator Nancy Heinzen. “The flowing water picks up a set of pollutants that we’re collectively trying to get rid of. You have to know what’s upstream and what’s downstream. It makes sense to do it together.”

It does, indeed.

And greater public involvement is the key to success. How many people realize the fertilizer that keeps their perfectly manicured suburban lawns so flawless has nitrates that run off into storm sewers? The water in the sewer is untreated and flows, in Albany County, to the Hudson River. The nitrates deplete oxygen in the water, suffocating aquatic life.

Beyond public awareness is community action.

In New Scotland this spring, during the annual Town-wide Volunteer Day with help from the Kiwanis, the banks of the Vly Creek were cleared and have since been planted.

In Guilderland, Boy Scouts in Troop 149, led by Brendan Rock as he pursues the rank of Eagle Scout, posted stickers next to 200 storm drains in town. The stickers are to let people know that the storm drains empty directly into the Normanskill. “People think the storm drains are treated, and they’re not; they go directly into a local body of water,” said Rodger Stone, Guilderland’s zoning enforcement officer and stormwater management officer.

Stone and officers like him in municipalities across the state are now authorized to fine construction companies and individuals if they violate required stormwater laws. One law requires developers that will disturb more than an acre to submit plans detailing how they will prevent stormwater pollution. Another law is to prevent individuals from dumping pollutants like pet waste, gasoline, motor oil, or fertilizer into storm drains.

Both Stone and his counterpart in Voorheesville, Gerry Gordinier, say that they haven’t yet levied fines. Their job is more about promoting citizen awareness and educating offenders about what they shouldn’t be doing and why.

“The responsibility of enforcing legislation to protect potable water belongs to us all,” said Gordinier.

Each one of us can make a difference. We can refrain from tossing cigarette butts. We can pick up our pet’s poop. We can use fewer pesticides and less fertilizer or none at all.

Or we can do something as simple and satisfying as planting a rain garden. Stasiuk wrote in detail about these in our April 30 Spring Home & Garden Section this year.

Rain gardens, planted in saucer-like depressions, capture water runoff from roofs and roads, thereby stopping pollutants from reaching waterways. They are planted with easy-to-care-for native perennials. Rain gardens give water a chance to seep into the ground and recharge aquifers.

The state of Minnesota even has a slogan to promote these bioretention systems: “Saving the Great Lakes one rain garden at a time.”

Cornell Cooperative Extension worked with locals to plant four rain gardens in Albany County. In our April 30 issue, we pictured the one in Voorheesville on Martin Road at the cooperative extension. This week, Michael Koff has photographed the lush rain garden at the Elm Avenue Park in Bethlehem.

Take a look. Get inspired. Connect to the earth while helping to save it.

“People with kids also like rain gardens because it’s an educational experience for them to learn about local ecology,” said Susan Pezzolla, horticulturist at Cornell Cooperative Extension.

We should all learn about local ecology. Those in earlier generations may not have known the word “ecology” but many of them had a respectful relationship with the earth. We need to relearn our responsibility. And the lesson needs to be passed on to future generations if we are to flourish.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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