Tuesday, November 27, 2012

When Explorers Grasped the Importance of Watersheds

Nearly a third of Americans (31%) don’t know where their water comes from, twice the proportion of places such as China and Singapore.  The proportion is apparently even higher among members of North Carolina General Assembly, in the state where I live, if you judge their flippant actions, subverting clean water for the benefit of out-of-state billboard companies.

Elected officials such as these who do not prioritize clean water fail to grasp or just don’t care that 83% of Americans are concerned about the availability of clear water for the future.

The study which indicates these facts and statistics isn’t part of any environmentalist plot.  It was conducted by the mega-corporation GE.

As illustrated in this blog, the source of our drinking water is found in the slogan for the now-150,000-member strong Trout Unlimited, formed in 1959 as I turned 11-years-old, which is “Protect – Reconnect – Restore.”

From his days as a river guide near the headwaters of the Snake River in the Yellowstone Ecosystem, where I was born and spent my early years, an elected office who is a friend of mine in Durham, North Carolina, where I have now lived for nearly 25 years, should have known better than to make the cynical comments recently attributed to him in public records and news accounts.

Administrators in Durham are wisely proposing to revert wetlands to filter 485 urban acres of urban run-off to protect water supplies for downstream communities and save the City millions of dollars in treatment.  To me this is a no-brainer and it should be to my friend too!

Early explorers always searched for the sources of mighty rivers.  The break-through that identified the ecosystem around Yellowstone as the “headwaters of the nation” came from observations by a U.S. Cavalry Trooper as he escorted and documented several survey teams there.

Then-Lt. “Gus” Doane, who had grown up in California and attended the University of the Pacific before enlisting to fight in the Civil War, learned that studying watersheds was a much quicker and more accurate way to identify the sources of waterways, according to George Black, author of a fascinating new book entitled Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone.

During one expedition, Doane found himself overlooking a plateau in the heart of Yellowstone, rimmed by a perimeter formed by four incredible mountain ranges, the Absaroka (pronounced ab-soar-kah,) Teton, Madison and Gallatin.

They were broken only by the rivers that flowed in every direction and emptying basins along the Columbia-Snake, Green-Colorado and Missouri-Mississippi river systems flowing into the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf of California.

Doane’s hydrological-breakthrough came from stepping back from the “trees to view the forest,” something he and others failed to do a few months earlier while conducting the Marias Massacre of an innocent band of Blackfeet Indians.

In part, federal elected officials in 1872 set aside Yellowstone Park as green infrastructure to protect water quality as New York state officials did Adirondack Park in 1892.  This took an incredible amount of foresight often found missing in elected officials today.

The several watersheds in Durham, like most places across America, are far more subtle but even more fragile.  Those who continue to dismiss the role of watersheds, wetlands, streams, and rivers as sources of clean water are what people along the Tetons in my native state of Idaho, describe as “all hat, no cattle.”

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