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Black Roses Grow in a Golden River

PotomacRiverChesapeakeBayProgramIt looked like a field of black roses on the bottom of the river.

It was a peculiar sight over the side of my canoe as I glided down the Potomac River about 15 miles north of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, on Saturday. The water was crystal clear, allowing the sun to slice all the way to the bottom, which glittered gold.

Swarms of tiny fish darted in and out of lush stands of ribbony aquatic grass with star-shaped white blossoms (wild celery, or Vallisneria americana).   Smallmouth bass cruised through the forests, as did a fat, whiskered catfish.

The scene was so beautiful it was almost hard to believe: sunshine, silver-topped clouds, forested river banks, and a river swimming with life. I tied my canoe to the knuckle of a tree root, and swam through the grasses and white flowers.

Then I saw the alien-looking plants.  Goopy blobs of neon green and black algae clung to the tops of wild celery stalks, making the the plants look like black roses.  Elsewhere, wads of this algae tumbled down the river.

The common name for this plant is blue green algae, but it is technically not a plant or algae at all. It is a bacteria called cyanobacteria, and it is one of the most primitive forms of life on Earth.Cyanobacteria frequently multiply on the Potomac and other waterways in the hot summer months, fed by excessive amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen from fertilizers, sewage treatment plants, and polluted runoff from developments.

Some cyanobacteria produce a toxin that can kill fish, and can cause skin rashes and vomiting in people who touch it or let it get into their mouths.

I climbed back into my canoe and paddled further down the river, reflecting on what I had seen. I reached two conclusions:

First: There is still a lot of life and beauty left in the Potomac River and other Chesapeake Bay tributaries. We need to fight for them.  These rivers are not lost causes. They are not dead.  In fact, many –- including the Potomac –- have improved substantially since the 1972 Federal Clean Water Act.  It would be a tragedy if we let them slip backwards and die because we did not notice the beauty that remains; and because we did not notice, we did not care, and we did not act. 

Second: Rivers like the Potomac are classic examples of why we need government action to improve our world. No matter how well intended, no one person or business -- working voluntarily and individually -- could possibly clean up the Potomac River. If one landowner stopped using fertilizer on his or her lawn, for example, but a golf course nearby added more, the river would not improve.  If Maryland upgraded its sewage plants, but West Virginia did not -- the status quo would remain. 

Some people are hostile to the federal government and the need for regulation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  But there are so many different individual sources of pollution, spread out over so many states.  If EPA did not set pollution limits for the whole Potomac River watershed and Chesapeake Bay region, and then enforce these limits, self interest would poison our waters. 

In a purely free-market system, everyone would pursue whatever is cheapest or easiest for him or herself.  And, as a result, the places we share would suffer.  Individual homes and lawns might be gorgeous.  Our private lives might be rich with gadgets and luxury. But outside, the landscape that belongs to all of us would be a dump for all of us.  Our children would be unable to enjoy a lazy paddle down a forested river on an August afternoon. 

That beauty would be gone forever.

This is the whole point of government: to bring together the chaotic, clashing interests of different people, and get them all flowing in the same direction, like a river.

To those who rail against government, and complain bitterly about the costs of reducing pollution into the Chesapeake Bay, I offer you a golden river... and a bouquet of black roses.

By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

(Photo of the Potomac River from Chesapeake Bay Program)


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Say you’re designing a bridge or skyscraper. It’s customary to build in, to demand, a tolerance to catastrophic failure far beyond what the likely stresses will be. Why? Because the consequences of the collapse would be so serious, you must be sure. You need very reliable guarantees. The same approach must be adopted for local, regional and global environmental problems. And here as we have seen, there is great resistance, in part because large amounts of money are involved from government and industry. For this reason we will increasingly see attempts to discredit global warming. But money is also needed to truss up bridges and to reinforce skyscrapers. This is considered a normal part of the cost of building big. Designers and builders who cut corners and take no such precautions are not considered prudent capitalists because they don’t waste money on implausible contingencies. They are considered criminals. There are laws to make sure bridges and skyscrapers don’t fall down. Shouldn’t we also have laws and moral proscriptions treating the potentially far more serious environmental issues?

An excellent point, Hank. Perhaps a carbon tax, for example, could be seen as a required investment in the infrastructure of the Earth (in this case, in our atmosphere and climate system.) A lot of people complain about the new runoff pollution control fees in Maryland. But these can be seen as required investment in our stormwater systems, streams and rivers.

To maintain the places we share -- like the Potomac River -- we need to jointly bear the cost of keeping them healthy.

Your piece is evocatively written and makes a strong point. Bravo!

Thanks very much for taking the time to read it, Jon! I really enjoyed the canoe trip down the Potomac, and it occurred to me that we really have a lot still to fight for -- a beautiful river with a lot of life left in it, but an ominous threat growing.

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