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Our polluted waterways don’t have to be a lost cause

May 26, 2015

Last week an Illinois man provided an outsider’s perspective on the Cape Region.

In a letter to the Cape Gazette, he said he enjoyed his visit to the Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton. It even convinced him he might want to move here. And then there was Route 1.

“Seldom have I encountered such an appalling example of suburban sprawl,” he wrote. “It is one of the ugliest 10-mile stretches in America, an inhumane and alienating spew of fast-food, big-box, outlet mall excess.”

It stings to read this about the region we love. It stings because it rings true and because we know something even sadder: This battle has been lost.

The best we can do for Route 1 is to try to keep it from getting worse. Even that’s a stretch. The proliferating electronic signs, individually, might not appear that ugly, but all together they add another gaudy layer of visual clutter.

Imagine if the Route 1 mess could be ameliorated for a few bucks a month. Wouldn’t it be worth the investment?

But while Route 1 might be a lost cause, there’s another threat to our reputation as a top tourist destination that we can do something about - our water quality.

The Cape Region is blessed with clean beaches and large tracts of unspoiled land protected from development by state ownership.

Unfortunately, the Cape Region - and the state - is burdened with polluted streams and Inland Bays. Even our ground water is affected.

In January 2014, Gov. Jack Markell, speaking before the General Assembly, threw down the gauntlet.

“Water is the foundation of our tourism industry,” Markell said in his state of the state speech. “It’s vital to agriculture, manufacturing and everything that we do. Yet a century of pollution has impaired nearly every waterway in our state.”

“We can’t eat our fish from the St. Jones,” he said. “We can’t swim in too many parts of the Inland Bays.”

“This is embarrassing. This is unacceptable,” the governor said. “We must change it.”

In response, legislators do what they always do when the governor throws down the gauntlet: nothing.

Markell’s proposed gas tax increase to pay for fixing our infrastructure was roadblocked. His plan to restore our streams was dead in the water.

It’s easy to fault the governor’s leadership or the legislators’ lack of concern, but the problem begins with us.

That was the idea behind a recent Progressive Community Dinner at Fish On near Lewes. The panel included Chris Bason, executive director of the Center for the Inland Bays; Roy Miller, a former state fisheries administrator now working with the CIB; and Brenna Goggin of the Delaware Nature Society.

“Here we are tonight, 16 months after that announcement, and nothing has happened,” moderator and local activist Joanne Cabry began. “If anything is going to happen, it’s going to take a grassroots effort.”

People have to show they care before legislators will consider a water cleanup in their interest.

According to Bason, upwards of 90 percent of the streams and creeks in the Inland Bays area do not meet requirements of the Clean Water Act, which was passed in 1972.

Federal funding to address the problem has come down, he said; state funding has not made up the difference. The good news, according to Bason, is that “We know exactly how to deal with the problem.”

The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control has produced a list of steps that would help us clean our waterways.

More cover crops, for example, would help prevent nutrients, a major source of pollution, from leaching into the Inland Bays. A relatively small amount of money, $600,000, would help that program reach its goal.

Bason also noted that Maryland’s coastal bays are cleaner than Delaware’s.

Miller said that our waterways contain many fish, such as bluefish. But don’t let that mislead you.

Public health guidelines recommend no more than one meal of bluefish a year, for women of child-bearing age and children, none. Stripers, he said, are almost as bad.

(The problem goes beyond recreational uses. Also that evening, Loretta Benson of the Ellendale area talked about how their residential water is unsuitable for drinking or washing. I’ll revisit the issue in a later column.)

Goggin said that a recent survey showed that Delawareans gave a grade of C-/D+ to the water quality of the Inland Bays.

The survey also showed that more than 50 percent said they would be willing to pay an average of $45 a year to help pay for a cleanup.

Whether people would really put their money where their mouths are remains to be seen.

A Clean Water Rally will be held 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Tuesday, June 2, at Legislative Mall in Dover. The event will include food, T-shirts, music, photo booths and games. To learn more, go to www.cleanwaterdelaware.org.

If clean water is important to you, let your legislators know. It’s not just an environmental issue; our economy depends on clean water.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.