Water pollution is like a virus

Wednesday, California became the first state to require all school staff to get vaccinated or agree to regular testing. President Biden has said maybe federal employees can avoid being vaccinated if they are willing to be tested regularly for Covid.

Unfortunately, although testing will provide valuable data about which version of the virus is infecting people, and how many of those are filling our hospitals and morgues, it does little to help those who provide the positive results. For them, it already will be too late to get the vaccine. And for many who have been near the positive person in the preceding week or so, it also will be too late.

When a test for Covid – or a test for water pollution – reveals a problem, the only thing to do is plan to spend tons of money “mitigating” the problem. “Mitigating” is a wonderful word bureaucrats and politicians use to imply its user is going to fix the problem. Unfortunately, what the word really means is “we hope to make the problem less severe.

I submit for consideration a proposed residential development in a western Adams County township. The developer has assured township leaders and the state Department of Environmental Protection that their residents’ sewage will be safely disposed of in the surrounding land.

A few yards downhill from the site lies Swamp Creek, one of three streams in the county with the Exceptional Value rating, a label reserved for the state’s highest quality waterways. Industries and homes may inadvertently cause pollution to degrade a lesser value stream or creek, but they are not allowed to pollute an Exceptional Value stream. No excuses.

Regular testing would ensure the stream quality is maintained. Until it isn’t.

In the sanitary world of lawmakers and regulation writers, the quality of Swamp Creek would be assured of safety by the promise of regular testing. After all, if testing at the local water treatment facility indicates a problem, all we need do is stop using the water while plant workers fix the problem. Turn a few valves and issue a boil-water order and the problem goes away in a few days.

The situation is different in the wild. By the time a test reveals pollution in the stream, it already has saturated its underground pathway to the water. There is no drain valve, as multiple families in the northern part of the state have learned when natural gas drillers “accidentally” spilled chemically-laced water onto the countryside and into nearby water wells.

The Watershed Alliance of Adams County, a not-for-profit volunteer organization which mission is to protect the waters of Adams County, has for more than two decades been testing samples of some of the county’s waterways for pollutants such as nitrates, phosphates and sedimentation. Members count macroinvertebrates – bugs – living in the water for indication of the streams’ health. Recently, the WAAC testing team has begun sampling for total coliform and e. coli on several streams.

The results provide data on quality trends in the county’s creeks – water which is used and reused by millions of people as it flows to the Chesapeake Bay, eventually to return to the county as rain.

For some reason, we humans seem to think any piece of our planet is wasted if it is not given to growing dwellings at great potential profit. Increasingly, news reports from around the world are pointing out shortages of clean drinking water for those dwellings.

We need to protect our water before it is poisoned, not wait until after a monthly sample reveals an “accident” has rendered the waterway unable to support life, human or other.

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