A weekly newsletter by Ry Rivard
The Explorer is the first place I’ve worked where Earth Day is a full holiday, a day off.
I’m still deciding what to do with it.
To spend it outside, if I can go somewhere safely?
Or to spend it inside, reading some more of the old reports and essays that often get referenced when we talk about the Adirondacks? Perhaps Gov. Nelson Rockefeller or Gov. Mario Cuomo’s studies of the park 50 and 30 some years ago. Maybe some of the works of botanist Charles Sprague Sargent who said, way back in the 1880s, that protecting the forests is crucial to protecting the water and the economy. Or I might just end up watching The Last of the Mohicans, which I’ve somehow never seen.
So much of what has happened to the park and the region in recent centuries is documented, from the early accounts of the French and English’s entry into the region to our own work here today.
But so much also still goes unnoticed – or, if not unnoticed, under-reported.
One of the things I’ve been working to piece together is data on the thousands of lakes and ponds in the park.
I’ve been asking researchers a question that doesn’t make a lot of sense: Can you help me look for water quality problems that we don’t know about using the data we do have? In some ways, what I’m asking is that they help me take obscure records about our lakes and ponds and make them easy for the public to see and understand.
One of the earliest bits of trouble I’ve come across is how many lakes and ponds that even is. I’ve seen numbers as specific as 2,877 lakes and as large as “more than 10,000“.
The most common number ends up being about 3,000, and it’s based in part on water bodies of a certain size, but there’s something appealing to me in the fact that we’re not quite certain.
This has forever been our relationship to the planet: Here, trying to figure it all out and then finding something we never expected, then starting to figure that out, and repeating forever.
To go back to Earth Day: In an essay for The Nation, Bill McKibben, one of the writers who have taken up the pen about the Adirondacks over the years, talks about how the first Earth Day in 1970 was about visible enemies – smog, rivers on fire, trash thrown about – but now it’s the invisible threats that endanger us most, like the accumulation of carbon dioxide now blanketing an ever-warming planet. That’s happening, he writes, “slowly enough that most of the time, we don’t quite see it.”
It’s a good point, but we need to change how we think about the threats and look for them not just as they come out of a drain pipe or tailpipe but how they end up in our world, sometimes gradually rather than suddenly as green industrial ooze, brown city air or eroding cliffs, rising seas and migrations away from warmer climates.
Our waterways are so much cleaner, thanks to the Clean Water Act, but the act’s goal of making every waterway fishable and swimmable in the 1980s went obviously unmet. We can still see our lakes turn green because of bad runoff.
Our air is clearer, thanks to the Clean Air Act, but the decline in driving right now and the unburned barrels of oil show how much cleaner our air can be. We can still measure, see and even hear lifelong breathing problems caused by bad air.
Our tap water is so much safer, thanks to the Safe Drinking Water Act, another product of 1970s environmental consciousness, but regulators have done a poor job of keeping up with many emerging threats, including carcinogens, that remain in American drinking water. We can still see people and animals getting sick from bad water.
While climate change remains perhaps the largest of the threats, it’s not the only one — and very few of them are truly invisible.
In other news:
- Some wastewater treatment plants depend on continuous sewage to work. My colleague Gwendolyn Craig looks at what happens at a facility where the sewage isn’t flowing.
- The Adirondack Almanack’s Melissa Hart writes about how the state is easing up on restrictions meant to keep invasive species out of the region’s waters. Paul Smith’s College said in an email that it is still preparing run this summer’s watershed steward season as scheduled, starting before Memorial Day, but “boat wash stations may be opening at a later date than scheduled due to delays under the Gov. Cuomo’s guidelines for nonessential staff. Opening dates are yet to be determined, and we will update you with this information as soon as we can.”
Amazon, the company, plans to help the Nature Conservancy, the American Forest Foundation and the Vermont Land Trust buy up forestland in the northeast as part of its climate change goals.
While there were significant advances in fresh water cleanup brought about by the Clean Water Act, we need to make sure those protections are not relaxed by federal and state administrations willing to de-regulate in exchange for big money provided by polluters. Additionally, much of the fresh water pollution has shifted to the oceans – in particular the state-sized floating plastic trash islands (big oil) that are conveniently out of sight. And microplastics (big oil) are one of the many new dangers to freshwater and saltwater alike. Clean water and air are not options, and certainly should not be political footballs.