“Rivers and streams are nature’s sewer systems”

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Dec. 4, 2009. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

Below you’ll find the text of an interesting Letter to the Editor from John Beau in response to the Oregonian article “Evolve or die? It’s crunch time for the Willamette” (that I posted an entry about a few days ago), and a response to Mr. Beau by “dtroutma.”

Considering this Letter to the Editor and the comment to it, I want to discuss four points:

First, Beau’s letter is a knee-jerk reaction against taking steps to address Willamette River water quality based predominately on considerations of finances: “as a taxpayer, I can’t support the program,” Beau writes. To support this position, Beau creates a “straw-man” by misrepresenting Whitworth’s position as advocating for restoration to some kind of pastoral, pre-human (or pre-Euroamerican settlement) ideal: “Restoration to what condition?” Beau asks, “A condition that existed at the end of the last ice age or in 1858?” In setting up this inaccurate false comparison that, by definition, would be impossible to achieve, Beau is then able to support implicitly his finance-centered point of view — because, based on his logic, of course it would be foolish to expend millions of dollars in taxpayer money in an attempt to achieve something impossible!

Second, Beau does raise a good point when he states that it might be wise not to move forward “without a clear written statement of the problem(s).” However, the ideological filter[1] through which he is viewing the topic keeps him from comprehending Whitworth’s article fully: Whitworth identifies specific ways in which accurate information is being gathered and actionable plans developed through the use of an open-source software solution and collaborative efforts among government and citizens.

Third, Beau writes that “rivers and streams are nature’s sewer systems” because they “carry everything that is swept into them.” Through this fallacious appeal to natural law, Beau then wants us to take no action so as to “not try to undo what nature does best.” However, as Whitworth writes regarding this supposed “natural” state of affairs, “we have dramatically altered how the Willamette River functions. We removed streamside vegetation . . . built dams and dikes to drain fields and change flood patterns . . . cut roads and cut slope-stabilizing trees to build houses.” Commenter “dtroutma” (also copied below) echoes this point, and there have been hundreds of books and thousands of academic articles written on various aspects of such changes and the impacts they have had on watersheds.[2]

Finally, to return again to the notion that “rivers and streams are nature’s sewer systems,” Beau articulates here an idea that has roots well into the hazy mists of time immemorial. The scholars I cite in note 2 below have written on this idea extensively. Jamie Benidickson, in particular, has written an aptly-named book on the subject, The Culture of Flushing. This is precisely the mentality that clean waters advocates have been struggling against since at least the 19th century.

—-

[1] Which I would characterize as conservative or libertarian.

[2] My goodness, there are so many that I’ll give just a few names of scholars working in this area: Adam Rome, Joel Tarr, Martin V. Melosi, Philip Scarpino, Linda Nash, Arn Keeling, Jamie Benidickson, Gregory Summers, Terence Kehoe.

================================

December 04, 2009, 4:00AM

Don’t undo nature’s sewers

The Joe Whitworth columns regarding the Willamette River were informative, but as a taxpayer, I can’t support the program (most recently, “Evolve or die? It’s crunch time for the Willamette,” Nov. 29).

Specifically, what is the problem that requires restoration of the river? Silting, toxins, trash fish, invasive species, etc.? Restoration to what condition? A condition that existed at the end of the last ice age or in 1858?

I am not enamored with the expenditure of “tens of millions of dollars” by a number of “watershed councils and conservation districts” — all well meaning folks, I’m sure, but without a clear written statement of the problem(s), it is all for naught as the column admits.

Rivers and streams are nature’s sewer systems. They carry everything that is swept into them. Let’s not try to undo what nature does best.

JOHN BEAU
Lake Oswego

“dtroutma” posted the following in reply:

We HAVE treated our rivers and waterways as sewers, for centuries around the world. But it is important to realize that riparian zones and wetlands are not “sewers” they are the SEPTIC SYSTEMS natural process uses, and millions of acres of these valuable resource lands have been eliminated, just since 1900. These areas once purified and cleansed water systems for us, (though our population growth has overtaxed even these “natural” systems alone) now the “effluent” is channelled to run straight through to our over-polluted oceans, and threaten existence of many species, including us.

Restoring these acres to functioning systems is not only essential, but “cheap” when considering the long term penalty if we do not.

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  1. Healing Portland Harbor after the clean-up | Speaking for the River

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