The Shape Of Things To Come

I doubt that the name Maude Barlow rings a bell with many of you. It didn’t with me until a recent conversation with Dr. Hal House, President of Chatham County-based Integrated Water Strategies (IWS). Barlow, in her book, The Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water, asserts that water will be the “oil of the 21st century.” Square that with the United Nation’s declaration that access to clean water is a basic human right. They are the irresistible force and the immovable object, and clash they soon will. Reconciliation of such a dilemma will mean a complete reevaluation of our relationship to water.

Water, in the U.S. anyway, is as cheap as dirt yet more valuable than gold. Our bodies are 70% water, but if you asked someone whether they’d like to have 70% of their weight in gold or water, they’d choose gold most likely. This is the perfect demonstration of inverted values. We have turned nature on its head and have based our entire economy on a false value whose expiration date draws near.

But here in Chatham County someone is beginning to work out the solution: the aforementioned Dr. Hal House. I want to recognize Dr. House and IWS as one of the gems of Chatham County.

As a graduate student, Hal House helped pioneer the science and construction of miniature wetlands, using plants and their resident bacterial populations to filter wastewater and make it reusable.

In the first major demonstration of his innate skill to solve thorny environmental problems, Hal designed the wastewater filtration system housed at his current office site in 1996. In a beautifully landscaped patio and adjacent green house, 1200 gallons of wastewater per day is cleansed by the system without noise, odor or any evidence that such a miracle is taking place. Since then, IWS has refined the process and has installed several systems here in Chatham. The implications of Dr. House’s process for our world-wide dilemma are profound!

Let’s start at the pocketbook. This low energy biological system will save enormous amounts of money. If a developer can incorporate wastewater treatment and recycling for non-potable uses into the landscaping of a new tract, he doesn’t have to pipe the water to a sewage treatment plant. Major savings! The residents realize substantial savings as well by using about 60% less water. The aesthetics of the community are enhanced by the cleansing gardens to boot.

Storm water and rainwater can also be directed into the system which relieves creeks, rivers and reservoirs from the pollution carried by that input. Pollution, instead of being diffused into our life support system would be localized and sanitized at its source. Rivers like the Rocky, Haw and Deep could be restored to their original, pristine conditions.

These mini-wetlands also serve as both sinks and delivery systems for excess fertilizers like nitrogen and phosphorous that damage local watersheds. These elements remain in a closed system and continue to feed the plants and bacteria that clean the water.

Municipalities could reduce the size of sewage treatment plants or perhaps forego them altogether and save on unnecessary infrastructure investment. Previously worthless land that won’t “perc” and thus not accommodate septic systems would regain value and usefulness.

Can you imagine what a beautiful place Chatham could be? Healthier streams and rivers would again teem with species that had all but disappeared. It would be like turning the environmental clock back a hundred years or more. Property values would soar and the concomitant benefits would be incalculable. Such success would surely spread to surrounding counties and states.

We are on the cusp of a revolution, and we have a County Commission that is right in step. Two Chatham schools, J.S. Waters and Chatham Central are already using systems built by IWS. The new Chatham library will also host its own IWS wastewater treatment system. But perhaps the most valuable component to this water recycling strategy is the design and building of a county-wide reprocessed water distribution system. As water savings accumulate, the surplus would be fed into circulation for nonpotable use elsewhere with credits assigned to the originator.

This is the conjunction of cost, value and each citizen’s right to clean water. Without such conservation the future challenges of population growth and global climate change may defeat belated efforts to deal with them. Remember, in the long geological time table of this epochal ball game nature bats last.

Now is the time not only for Chatham County to vigorously pursue this revolutionary course, but for Governor-elect Perdue to support this technology and protect North Carolina’s water resources. The wisdom inherent in mimicking processes that are billions of years old is a no-brainer.

As I recall my conversation with Dr. House, perhaps the most encouraging words he spoke were, as he referred to his work,

We’ve only just scratched the surface.” When you think of it like that, the future is exciting indeed.


SACRED WATERS

Those of you who’ve perused this column in the past know that I often focus on the challenges facing our water resources in the Upper Cape Fear River Basin. Lake Jordan, the Haw, Deep, and Rocky Rivers and their tributaries from counties around comprise this system. Many nationally significant natural areas and endangered species knit this wonder together. As my understanding of this complex marvel of creation grows, I am compelled to share it.

A few days ago, the North Carolina Rules Review Committee, in a 4-3 vote, approved the long-awaited draft regulations to begin cleaning up Jordan Lake and its branch contributors. Although this is a momentous milestone in the process, some heavy legislative lifting remains to implement the plan. As shameful and unbelievable as it may be, diluting the strength of the rules will be a priority of some state senators and representatives; and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Jordan Lake is chronically challenged by several sources of pollution. Tons of sediment from construction sites, farms and storm water drains wash into its network every year and smother fish and other aquatic organisms. Excess nitrogen and phosphorous feed algal blooms that suck up oxygen, pushing many species toward endangerment or extinction. Sewage sludge, masquerading as agricultural fertilizer, containing an unknown witch’s brew of toxic chemicals, also finds its way into Jordan. Other pollutants leaching into our water include pharmaceuticals, automotive waste, and pesticides, the quantities of which no one can venture even an educated guess.

Nearly a million people live in and around the watershed, and that number is predicted to increase by many thousands in the near future. A burgeoning population will only intensify current problems unless the Jordan Lake Draft Rules are implemented and strengthened.

In a recent interview with Haw River Assembly Executive Director, Elaine Chiosso, I could hear relief in her voice at the approval of the rules. I also heard weariness and apprehension. Ms. Chiosso and legions of committed citizens have worked for years against daunting adversaries for the integrity of our life-support systems. Who are these adversaries of clean water you might ask?

Powerful industrial and municipal players have fought against doing anything to clean up their pollution to ensure that neighbors downstream enjoy clean water, too. Resistance from Greensboro, Burlington and Durham has been a regular impediment to the process. Kudos to the Chatham Board of Commissioners for being a positive influence throughout the proceedings. But perhaps the intransigence of the resistant boggles your mind as it does mine.

Of course, it boils down to money. But it’s deeper than that. Petty pecuniary concerns are rooted in the radical separation of human beings from our god granted, nurturing earth. Long ago we divorced ourselves from the intimate connection to what sustains us in order to transform earth, air and water into mere commodities to be bartered. In the bargain we profane and disable the very processes that keep us alive.

Once upon a time, before our command of coal and petroleum, humans propagated and passed down a sacred relationship to the earth. Before Columbus the Iroquois Nation considered the welfare of their descendants seven generations into the future before making a decision. For us it’s the quarterly bottom line. Chief Seattle, the great Suquamish leader, proclaimed that “the earth does not belong us, we belong to the earth.” This world view might seem quaint, a vestige of a “primitive” people who succumbed to our more industrious attitudes. I would argue the exact opposite!

The survival of Chatham depends on our remarriage to these long-forsaken values. These values are: that the earth, water and air which sustain us are sacred, and that we can no longer jeopardize our future by betraying our heritage for a few coins. The rivers, dirt and air of Chatham County must once again be exalted above a market place that trades them to trash.

It’s hypocrisy for us to oooh and aaaah over pristine wilderness where it can still be found. Chatham was once pristine, and can be again as we elevate its wonders to a status of reverence.

Goals along that path in regards to our great river basin would be: reinventing our processes for dealing with sewage and waste. Treating waste to a minimal standard and then piping its filthy effluent back into our rivers is simply stupid. Alternatives exist. Transforming waste into energy is a good place to start. Creating stronger incentives to encourage organic farming would eliminate the need for fertilizers and chemicals that foul our waters. Direct all storm water into ponds and natural wetlands, allowing nature to clean it for free before it reaches our reservoirs. Ban the use of toxic sewage sludge as fertilizer.

You may call this extreme. I call it a manifesto for life; the life and future of Chatham County. Let’s not cripple ourselves by the corrosive compromises of low standards, but rather re-create the Eden we were meant to enjoy and protect. By such action, we will flourish in health, prosperity, and happiness.

Draft Rules/Storm Water


As those of you who’ve perused this column in the past know, I often focus on the challenges facing our water resources in the Upper Cape Fear River Basin . Lake Jordan, the Haw River, Deep River, Rocky River and all their tributaries from counties around make up this system. Many nationally significant natural areas and endangered species knit this wonder together. As my understanding of this complex marvel of creation grows, I am compelled to share it.

A few days ago, the North Carolina Rules Review Committee, in a 4-3 vote, narrowly approved the long-awaited draft rules to begin cleaning up Jordan Lake and its tributaries. Although this is a momentous milestone in the process, some heavy legislative lifting remains to implement the rules. As shameful and unbelievable as it may be, diluting the strength of the rules will be a priority of some state senators and representatives, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Jordan Lake is chronically challenged by several different sources of pollution. Tons of sediment from construction sites, farms and storm water drains wash into the river every year and smother fish and other aquatic organisms. Excess nitrogen and phosphorous feed algal blooms that suck up oxygen, again pushing many species toward endangerment or extinction. Sewage sludge, containing an unknown witches brew of toxic chemicals , masquerades as agricultural fertilizer also finds its way into our drinking water source. In the “other” category of pollutants leaching into our water are pharmaceuticals, automotive waste, and pesticides, the quantities of which no one could venture even an educated guess.

Nearly a million people live in and around the watershed; and that number is predicted to increase by many more thousands in the near future. Increased population will only intensify current problems unless the Jordan Lake Draft Rules are implemented and strengthened.

In a recent interview with Haw River Assembly Executive Director, Elaine Chiosso, I could hear relief in her voice at the approval of the rules. I also heard weariness and apprehension. Ms. Chiosso and legions of committed citizens have worked for years against daunting adversaries for the integrity of our life-support systems. Who could be against clean water you might ask?

As you might imagine, powerful industrial and municipal players have fought against doing anything to clean up their pollution to ensure that neighbors downstream have clean water as well. Resistance from Greensboro, Burlington and Durham has been a regular impediment to the process. Kudos to the current Chatham Board of Commissioners for being a positive influence throughout the proceedings. But perhaps this intransigence of the resistant boggles your mind as it does mine.

Of course, it boils down to money. But it’s deeper than that. Petty pecuniary concerns are rooted in the radical separation of human beings from our god granted, nurturing earth. Long ago we divorced ourselves from the intimate connection to what sustains us in order to transform earth, air and water into mere commodities to be bartered. In the bargain we profane and disable the very processes that keep us alive.

Once upon time, before our command of coal, steam and petroleum, humans propagated and passed down a sacred relationship to the earth. Before Columbus the Iroquois Nation considered the welfare of their descendants seven generations into the future before making a decision. For us it’s the quarterly bottom line. Chief Seattle, the great Suquamish chief, believed that “the earth does not belong us, we belong to the earth.” This world view might seem quaint, a vestige of a primitive people who succumbed to our more industrious attitudes. I would argue the exact opposite!

The survival of Chatham depends on our remarriage to these long-forsaken values. These values are that the earth, water and air that sustain us are sacred, and that no longer can we jeopardize our future by betraying our heritage for a few coins. The rivers, dirt and air of Chatham County must once again be afforded a place above a market place that trades them to trash.

It’s easy for us to oooh and aaaah over scenes of pristine wilderness where they can still be found. Chatham was once pristine, and can be again as we elevate its wonders to a status of reverence.

Goals along that path in regards to our great river basin would be: reinventing our processes for dealing with sewage and waste. Treating them to a minimal standard and then poisoning our drinking water with their effluent is simply stupid. Alternatives already exist. Turning waste into energy is a good one to consider. Creating stronger incentives to encourage organic farming would eliminate the need for fertilizers and chemicals that foul our waters. Direct all storm water into ponds and natural wetlands, allowing nature to clean it for free before it reaches our reservoirs. Ban the use of toxic sewage sludge as fertilizer.

You may call this radical. I call it a manifesto for life, the life and future of Chatham County. Let’s not cripple ourselves by the corrosive compromises of low expectations, but rather re-create the Eden we were meant to enjoy and protect. In so doing we will guarantee our health, prosperity, happiness and longevity.