In last week’s water news, we ended on a sort of kind of happy note, raising a moderately-filled glass that Capetown’s Day Zero was pushed back until next year. It was nice to have a sort of kind of happy note! Water is good, and we should be happy when there is happy news!
This week will not have it. This week will end with Scott Pruitt, if that’s any indication.
Let’s get at it!
Drugs in the Water: Not The Good Kind
Last year, I wrote a long piece about antidepressants in the Niagara River. It is one of my favorite posts on this blog, and won praise from a cousin who said “Brian, I love you, but you are pretty depressing.” It’s like a Pulitzer!
Anyway, the point was that antidepressants leeching into our waters were causing fish to not eat, not reproduce and to stop caring about avoiding predators. Really, it made them stop doing the only thing they were good at, which was: continue being fish. I thought the symbolism of it was a little on-the-nose.
There is is something deeply wrong here. Our society drives people to medications, which can do good or ill, and the waste of our addictions and needs ultimately ends up pissing itself into the water, where it infects other species and drives them toward involuntary suicide.
Well, obviously, an enormous supply of antidepressants isn’t centered entirely around Buffalo, though you’d be forgiven for imagining that to be the case. As The Guardian reported this week, it is a global epidemic.
River systems around the world are coursing with over-the-counter and prescription drugs waste which harms the environment, researchers have found.
If trends persist, the amount of pharmaceutical effluence leaching into waterways could increase by two-thirds before 2050, scientists told the European Geosciences Union conference in Vienna on Tuesday.
“A large part of the freshwater ecosystems is potentially endangered by the high concentration of pharmaceuticals,” said Francesco Bregoli, a researcher at the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands, and leader of an international team that developed a method for tracking drug pollution “hotspots”.
Here’s the thing: we honestly have no idea the long-term (or even really the short-term) ramifications of this. But beside the symptoms from antidepressants we talked about above, the sheer variety of pharma waste has incredible effects. One drug causes spontaneous gender change, which can lead to reproductive chaos, and is also a hell of a goddamn thing to wake to. Another is driving vultures to extinction.
The thing is, the ecosystem isn’t fragile, per se, but it can be disrupted and change and mutate. And we’re part of that ecosystem. What we put in the water will make its way back up to us, either in the food we eat or the sudden lack of stability around us. The drugs we put in ourselves eventually poison everything.
Endangered Illinois Rivers
(h/t Diamond Mark Perrone)
Illinois, like most states, was built on rivers. Chicago became a city because there marshland at the fulcrum between the Great Lakes Basin and the Mississippi Basin connected the lakes to the Des Plaines river, which flowed into the Illinois, which took you down to the Mississippi, and thence the world.
But despite being lousy with rivers, we only have one national scenic river. Which makes sense. The Des Plaines is not terribly scenic, for the most part, and the Illinois is choked with Asian Carp. But we have one! That’s good, right?
Oh right: nothing is good.
Alarmed by toxic coal ash seeping into Illinois’ only national scenic river, a conservation group Tuesday declared it one of the nation’s most threatened waterways.
Orange- and purple-hued muck often can be seen leaching from the banks of the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River as it meanders past a shuttered Dynegy coal plant near Oakwood, about 25 miles east of Urbana. The pollution problems led the nonprofit group American Rivers to list the stream as one of America’s most endangered rivers, adding another voice to local and national efforts intended to pressure Dynegy’s new owners to clean up the site.
Yes- more voices! We should all support American Rivers, who do great and good work. And we should all add to the pressure, as coal ash is a terrible thing. The problem is, well…
Because the power plant has been closed for so long, the ash pits are exempt from federal regulations enacted by the Obama administration in 2015. Opposition from Dynegy and other energy companies prompted the Trump administration last year to reconsider the safeguards; a separate proposal in Illinois also has been sidetracked.
Here’s the thing about coal ash: it’s actually really valuable. It can be recycled. It can be shipped overseas. There are actually a lot of ways to make jobs out of the safe and clean(ish) disposal and care of coal ash. But Scott Pruitt, as detailed in this New Yorker article, loves letting coal ash go unregulated. It’s one of his big things. He’s personally intervened to let polluters off the hook, because for all his talk of jobs, allowing coal companies to do whatever they want to the common good is more important.
You know what’s fucked up? This isn’t even the Scott Pruitt entry.
Man Messes With Mississippi! Fearsome Flooding Follows!
One thing I think we fail to adequately appreciate is how much we’ve altered the course of our rivers, even the mighty Mississippi. They used to meander a lot more, following natural elevations and dips, and sometimes sprawl out into huge wetlands and floodplains before straightening back into a river. As powerful as water is, it is also pretty lazy.
But all those marshes and mudlands and bends and shoals were pretty bad for navigation. So, we straightened them. The process involved incredible feats of engineering and human sweat, and in many ways made the country. (There’s a new book out about this which I am about to read, excitedly.) But it was also, ultimately, an experiment. Everything we’ve done to alter the pattern of water is still a very, very new experiment.
Sometimes those backfire. Some studies say that straightening the Mississippi has backfired catastrophically.
A new scientific study stoked a long-standing controversy Wednesday with the claim that human interventions, in the form of levees and other engineered structures, have made the Lower Mississippi River more likely to flood, as it has to damaging effect several times in the past decade.
The research centers on the Mississippi below the Ohio River confluence, in Cairo, Ill. It uses river sediment records and tree rings from once-drowned oaks to infer past flow patterns and floods, and finds that the past 150 years stand out from the past 500 in terms of the volume and frequency of recent flooding events.
In some ways this is obvious: narrowing the river makes it flow faster, and taking away wetlands means it has nowhere to spread. Indeed, the flooded areas basically take the place of wetlands, except now there are houses and cows and people. And this is also potentially reductive: natural or unnatural climate fluctuations might account for more flooding.
But really, what do we expect? These rivers carved their way through continents by sheer force of erosion. They flow regardless of our ideas and dreams. Altering them may be needed for human civilization, at least the way we’ve organized it, but it is an incredibly unnatural experiment, and we have no idea what the effects will really be.
Here’s the Scott Pruitt Entry
Ever since Pruitt took over the EPA, they’ve been working to overturn the Clean Water Act, or Waters of the USA bill. They’ve used sloppy science and scare tactics to attempt to defang what some (with some cause) saw as government oversight. But it is harder to roll back regulations than it seems.
Pruitt, a grandiose and delusional idiot either assumed that regulations would disappear with a wave of his hand, or didn’t care and thought just standing up to the deep state and the envirowackos would help his ambitions. But regardless, he’s no decided to circumvent all that, and take all power into his own hands.
From the invaluable Circle of Blue.
Scott Pruitt, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, took control of final decisions about which water bodies are subjected to a section of the Clean Water Act involving dredging and filling wetlands. Authority had rested with the heads of regional offices.
Read the bloodless memo; it somehow captures everything rotten about these dangerous creeps. Just remember this next time Pruitt talks about government overreach or bureaucrats in DC deciding what happens on faraway land. It’s basically Scott Pruitt saying that he won’t let any regional pencildicks decide a waterway should be protected. He’ll take that power out of their hands.
Dammit, let’s end on something fun about this horrible man. He’s even more comically terrible than you can imagine, and a truly ridiculous pampered clown.
The living arrangement caused headaches in real time as well. Pruitt was described by numerous sources as a disastrous tenant, with one comparing him to Owen Wilson’s character in You, Me and Dupree. According to three people familiar with events, Pruitt would not take out the trash during his time staying at the townhouse believing that a cleaning service would do it for him. There was no cleaning service that came with the apartment, however. And the garbage bags piled up to the point that Vicki Hart was forced to tell him to put them in the canister and to take that canister out to the street the next time he left the building.
I feel that’s pretty much everything you need to know about Scott Pruitt, right?