News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett B-Sides

April 19, 2014

MARK BENNETT: Living the dream

Demand for a clean environment has become a down-to-earth cause

TERRE HAUTE — Earth Day receives its share of under-your-breath criticism.

Cynics often mutter dismissive comments about the event, conducted every April 22 since 1970 to support protection of the environment worldwide. Some see Earth Day as tree-hugging do-gooders fixated on critters and plants, disrupting the economy and the American way. Of course, that stereotype defies truth. Real people of all walks of life have a stake in breathing clean air, drinking clean water and enjoying a healthy environment surrounding their homes and communities. It matters economically, too. States that neglect or abuse natural resources struggle to keep and attract contributing residents.

As fate would have it, some who scoff at Earth Day and “thinking green” initiatives often experience a conversion when an environmental problem shows up in their neighborhood. It gets real, suddenly.

The first Earth Day 44 years ago this week stirred big changes, well beyond that inaugural celebration April 22, 1970, involving 20 million Americans across the country. Later that year, President Nixon — using an executive order — created the Environmental Protection Agency. Nixon also signed a string of laws with enormous impact — the Clean Air Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1972), Endangered Species Act (1973) and Safe Drinking Act (1974).

Nixon, a Republican, and the Democratic-majority Congress were responding to public disgust over mind-boggling environmental messes, such as Ohio’s Cuyahoga River infamously catching fire in 1969. As the American Rivers organization puts it on their website, the Clean Water Act “was designed to protect all of our waters — from the smallest streams to the mightiest rivers — from pollution and destruction.” The act has kept billions of pounds of pollutants out of U.S. rivers, the group says.

Terre Haute and surrounding communities have grown more protective of its river, the Wabash, especially in the 21st century, from the creation of the visionary Riverscape group to the development of the Wabashiki wetlands preserve, the annual riverbank cleanups and the 2013 Year of the River observance. The Wabash holds immense potential to bring a better quality of life through greater accessibility for wildlife viewing and recreation. The resulting tourism will help the economy, too.

That’s a dramatic change from the pre-Clean Water Act era, when the Wabash — like other rivers — got treated like a sewer. Its recovery continues, though problems exist throughout its vast watershed, which encompasses 33,000 square miles and 4,366,000 residents in Indiana, Ohio and Illinois.

“The Wabash, overall, has seen improvements, but there’s still a long way to go,” said Brad Smith, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Lower Wabash and wetlands program. “I think there are a lot of positive things going on that will lead to improvements.” That momentum includes newly constructed wastewater treatment facilities in river cities, including Terre Haute.

The conservancy targets three prime ways to upgrade the Wabash’s water quality, said Larry Clemens, The Nature Conservancy’s assistant state director. Those strategies include “on-field” farming practices (no-till planting, using offseason cover crops like turnips, and crop rotation); “edge-of-field” (buffer strips of wooded or grassy ground between crops and waterways, two-stage drainage ditches with a flat “bench” on both sides of the trough); and “downstream” practices in which wetlands are restored and allowed to naturally recover trees and wildlife.

Those practices are becoming accepted as necessary, rather than mere good ideas.

“It seems to me, in the past 10 years, there’s been good attention paid to the Wabash,” Clemens said, “and people are taking action.”

The importance of a healthy Wabash watershed hit home locally this month. The Vigo County Soil and Water Conservation District announced that it is seeking a grant of up to $300,000 from the state of Indiana to address “nonpoint” sources of bacteria in the Otter Creek watershed. That stream flows through Clay, Vigo and Parke counties and is part of the larger Wabash watershed. The Otter Creek watershed affects 7,377 residents in urban areas and 16,354 rural residents.

High levels of E. coli bacteria were found in 17 of 19 sites studied by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management in 2009 — yes, five years ago. “Nonpoint” contamination comes from livestock, crop runoff, land application of manure as fertilizer and failing septic systems, though the study also cites sources of straight-pipe “point” contamination. (The grant sought by the conservation district won’t cover upgrades to home septic systems.) The soil conservation district will conduct a public meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Seelyville Town Hall.

Such issues aren’t uncommon along the Wabash and other rivers. Sediment through erosion, farm nitrates and E. coli comprise the biggest water-quality problems for the Wabash and its tributaries, such as Otter Creek. Those problems have been addressed elsewhere and can be here, too. “The first step is getting the stakeholders together,” Clemens said, referring to such situations in general.

That will happen on Tuesday — Earth Day.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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