Mother Nature's handiwork undermined | Guest Column

Mike Kail. - Scott Rasmussen
Mike Kail.
— image credit: Scott Rasmussen

By Mike Kail

It is ironic that we are still arguing about global climate change, when a recent issue of the Economist (6/16/12) —by the way, not a liberal magazine— did a special supplement on the cost of climate changes happening right now.

They include melting Arctic ice to allow a northern sea route (the famous Northwest Passage) and acidification and warming of northern seas sufficient to detrimentally alter the marine food chain.

Other changes are also happening, such as sea level increase, and warming/cooling (depending on where you are). These don’t have an obvious price tag, yet.

Hopefully, by now, we can see the error of not dealing with global change. Can we see the similar error of not dealing with stormwater? Both are natural systems, both are being tinkered with.

In the case of stormwater, we are considering cutting back a natural cleaning/filtration system, by reducing setbacks or buffers from the sea shore. This reduces the time that the natural system has to do its “work.”

Unlike climate change, these are early times. Most of our stormwater runs through ground and is treated by natural microbial populations. Where it is not naturally treated (such as busy streets) it often enters marine waters while highly toxic.

Stormwater carries toxic products from cars leaking on the ground. Stormwater commonly contains chemicals to kill weeds, to kill insects, to kill moss (the label on a product for sale in Friday Harbor says “this product is toxic to fish”). Even the detergent (surfactant) that these chemicals are dissolved in is toxic.

The presence of these chemicals in stormwater is well documented. Claiming that stormwater is harmless is to practice what I call selective sampling. Toxic chemicals do not steadily drip into the system. They come in pulses: hard rain washes toxins from the streets into stormwater; treating the lawn with herbicide sends a pulse of poison; treating the roses with pesticide sends a pulse; putting rat poison in the shed sends a pulse.

But if we just allow the stormwater to percolate through the ground, almost all of this is processed, by soil microbes. This is good, because stormwater is not treated by the sewer system.

We have a significant issue before us.  Do it right, and we’ll hold back erosion of nearshore marine water quality. Do it wrong, and we will be responsible for dead zones, loss of fish and even species (which is already happening) and production of pest species.

Most people want to do the right thing. But often, we let things slide. I think it’s called benign neglect.

Common sense would tell us that when we make a mess, we should make sure that we clean up after ourselves.

An San Juan resident of 20-plus years, Mike Kaill has a Ph.D. from Cornell University, is a retired Alaska Fish & Game researcher, and has been involved with the county Marine Resources Committee and planning commission


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