Sunday, June 12, 2011
Who Speaks For The Water?
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge
You live in China. Why should you care about a wetland in New Jersey? How about if you live in Idaho? Or even Philadelphia? Why should it matter that one living wetland is now one dead wetland? Its just one wetland. And its in New Jersey, and you probably don't even live in New Jersey.
In the town of Oradell on the Hackensack River there's a dam.
The population near the upper Hackensack River grew as people were drawn to an accumulation of wealth created by banks and corporations. The dam was built to create a reservoir to supply water to an area where the water demand was exceeding the capacity of the local portion of the river. The water in the upper river was captured by the reservoir for the use of the locals. A water company was formed, and they sold the water to the people for a profit. Below the dam was deprived of a living river.
The effect on the river system below the dam was profound. It changed the salinity and tidal flow of the lower Hackensack, transforming what was once a pristine inland estuary into a brackish swamp. Creating this dam was a transformative event on the wildlife, fish and plant life and human life in the area. People familiar with the Meadowlands today know that they are dominated by the infamous foxtail reeds. This is considerably different than the spartina grass, wild rice and cattails that used to blanket the region.
The Oradell Dam created two Hackensack Rivers. One above the dam and one below. Above the dam the more important areas kept the water for themselves. Below the dam the wetland died. But its just one wetland.
Prior to the construction of the dam, the living wetland known as the Jersey Meadows or the Meadowlands was determined to have no monetary value as a living wetland. It was decided that it was nothing more than a wasteland. Many people desired to drain it and fill it in and use the new land to build factories and cities. Factories and cities have monetary value. It was decided that one of the simplest ways to create commercially valuable land out of a wetland was to fill it in with garbage. New Jersey had lots of that.
New Jersey also had lots of toxic waste from the factories and power plants. And plenty of toxic street runoff from the all of the cities and towns. This stuff found its way into the living wetland. And once the dam was in place and the river was divided in two, the upper river was clean, fresh water surrounded by big homes and golf courses and the lower river had become a sewer.
But its just a wetland. Why do you care, especially if you don't even live near it?
Whether you live in New Jersey, China, Idaho, Philadelphia or anywhere else, your culture does this to every living wetland. Just like in Oradell, the local inhabitants in a civilized culture denude the land base of resources, in this case water. They then must take that water from somewhere else. If that somewhere else is just a wetland, or a wasteland, why not use it to dispose all of the by-products of the culture there as well. After all, its just a wasteland. Just a wetland.
But its living. Or was living. So what?
The tidal flow of the Hackensack River is a strong one. During a rising tide the river many miles from its terminus in the Newark Bay is seen to flow backwards. The outgoing tide is a force to be reckoned with, as can be testified by boaters, especially those with oars and paddles. The poisoned water of the river and the surrounding Meadowlands has created numerous problems for over the years. These problems are, of course, economic.
Various engineering projects have been hampered by cost overruns or simply have been damaged by the relentless tides on the Hackensack. So instead of fighting greed, corruption and destruction, people fight the river, with dikes and dams and landfills and bulkheads. These things are put up to prevent the river from doing what rivers do.
But what about wetlands? What do they do?
Think of your spinal cord as a river, and all of your arms and legs and organs and blood vessels as tributaries that flow into that river and marshes that flank it. Imagine if someone came along and started removing your limbs and vital organs. That's what has happened and is still happening along the Hackensack River. Important pieces are missing.
Signs along the banks of the Newark Bay warn people to not eat the fish they catch. The water is no longer drinkable and barely supports life. It wasn't always this way. But really, what's so important about a wetland? Why does it need to be a living wetland?
If you want to know why, go to the Meadowlands. Get out of your car. Look around, find some water. Would you swim in it? Would you eat anything that lives in it? There was once a time when you could have done those things. But not anymore. The water is poisoned. One living wetland is no more.
The story of the Meadowlands begins with the water. Its the same story with any other wetland. It gets filled in and the water diverted, but the land becomes real estate. This may seem like a good idea at the time, and may look good on someone's balance sheet. But once its gone its gone. The land dies and the air smells like Jersey City, and some town on top of a hill somewhere gets nice fresh water to drink. And a water company gets rich selling the one thing thats needed the most by every living thing.
We may not all understand the importance of wetlands, but we understand the importance of water. If we can't drink it or cook with it or bathe in it, what good is it? How to we keep it flowing freely? Who will speak for the water?