Don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air

As smoke from drought-driven Canadian wildfires flows into Minnesota skies and lungs, Tom Lehrer’s “Pollution” reminds me of the work we’ve done and the work we have to do.

If you visit American city,
You will find it very pretty.
Just two things of which you must beware:
Don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air!

Lehrer sang about pollution back in the 1960s, when rivers still burned and air-polluting, smog-generating particles poured out of every industrial smokestack and auto exhaust pipe. We cleaned up the rivers and air then. We can and must do it again.

This week’s hazy, smoky air is dangerous for everybody to breathe, walk and work in. Still, according to the American Lung Association, we have made major progress:

“Thanks to stronger standards for pollutants and for the sources of pollution, the United States has seen continued reduction in ozone and particle pollution as well as other pollutants for decades.”

Today’s challenges?The ALA reports that, even with the improvement in air quality, “Nearly 138.5 million people—almost 44 percent of the nation—live where pollution levels are too often dangerous to breathe.” Inner city neighborhoods see higher pollution, and racial and economic disparities determine who gets cleaner air and who gets more childhood asthma.  In short, we still have a long way to go.

And then there’s water.

By the 1960s, rivers clogged by sewage and oil had been burning for decades. A Michigan Environmental Report review of Burning Rivers says:

“Fires on the Chicago River were so frequent they were community events. Spectators gathered on bridges like it was a Fourth of July celebration.
“In Michigan the fires were not as numerous or popular, but the thick oily sludges and rafts of human feces that obscured the Rouge River were no less contemptible violations of Michigan’s stewardship covenant with the greatest freshwater system on earth.”

Today our rivers do not have “thick oily sludges and rafts of human feces.” Cities and states took action to clean up rivers. By the time of the last major river fire on the Cuyahoga in June 1969, the entire country was on the cusp of a giant environmental movement. The first Earth Day in 1970 was followed by the 1972 Clean Water Act. Finally, the power of the federal government moved to back the ongoing local and state efforts.

Today our rivers and waters face new threats. These threats come less from industrial sludges and uncontrolled sewage discharges than from industrial agribusiness, unchecked draw-downs of aquifers, chemical contamination, fracking, and oil spills during transport.

California’s drought highlights the issue of water supply. California (and more of the southwest) simply does not have enough water to support current farming, irrigation and urban uses.

Even here in the land of ten thousand lakes, water is at risk. Unsustainable farming practices put nitrates and sediment into waterways. Both irrigation and fracking draw water from underground aquifers faster than it can be replenished.

Once again, local and state governments struggle to deal with the threats, trying to regulate mega-dairies, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), and fracking. Sometimes they succeed. More often, local organizing and local tools come up against big money interests that defeat or outlast them. We need state and federal action to fight polluters and water grabbers who cross state and national boundaries.

Let that Canadian smoke be a wake-up call: we all need to drink the water and breathe the air.

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Filed under environment, food and farming

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