Using the Genesee River as a backdrop, New York State Environmental Conservation Commissioner (NYSDEC) Pete Grannis recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. Grannis listed many of the accomplishment of the Genesee River clean up (see State Environmental Commissioner Celebrates Progress along the Genesee River - NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation):
• More than $1 billion in federal, state and local funds has been invested to help replace outdated sewer systems with modern wastewater controls.
• An extensive combined-sewer-overflow abatement system, featuring deep tunnel storage and cutting-edge instrumentation, has worked to intercept and treat stormwater that previously poured straight into the river.
• Tighter regulations on industry have reduced improper discharges and better controls on construction and agricultural activities have reduced erosion and runoff.
• The formation of the Monroe County Stormwater Coalition has worked regionally to reduce stormwater pollution from various sources.
• An experiment to stock lake sturgeon in the river has thrived and grown. Trout and salmon stocking have helped make the river a popular fishing spot.
One has to be impressed that in 40 years this cash-strapped regulatory agency has done so much in so short a time. (Although one could say that it’s a sad commentary on our own character that we got the Genesee River in such a sorry polluted state in the first place.) But is it enough? Do we have we a clean river now? The commissioner admits that much remains to be done. But the larger question is whether the measure of the river’s health can even be determined by fish count and ‘normal’ oxygen levels, as the commissioner infers.
Fish can be stocked thereby masking a fish population that is not sustainable. Oxygen levels please scientists, but it must be that there is a lot more to a healthy river than what can be quantified and measured. At the end of the day, a healthy river is one that we can swim in, drink from, and where the bottom is not incubating dangerous manmade toxins in an experiment not even possible in the lab. The Genesee River may be “recovering”, but at what level? Have we made any progress in returning the river to true sustainability? To some semblance of the health it enjoyed five hundred years ago (brimming with fish, free of manmade concoctions)?
The Genesee River “clean-up” may also make us over-confident: If we can clean up our rivers after so much abuse, will it only make us more complacent towards our river in the future? In other words, do these high tech fixes for our environment (like “an extensive combined-sewer-overflow abatement system, featuring deep tunnel storage and cutting-edge instrumentation”) only encourage us to continue our wasteful ways? Food for thought around Earth Day: The real gauge of environmental success may not be our best rescue efforts, but how well we can sustain a long-term relationship with our environment so that rescue efforts are not needed.