Ecology and economics: Protecting water resources is good business

provided by The Nature School

he humorous observation that “A million here, a million there, and pretty soon you're talking real money” aptly describes big-ticket fines charged to developers, industry and city agencies for violating state environmental laws.

    Ecological protection may be inconvenient to economic progress. But ignoring clean water regulations may result in expenses that cost-conscious builders and cash-strapped cities can avoid by following common sense erosion control techniques and simple rules for protecting sensitive wetlands and wildlife habitat. The rush to provide a comfortable life to greater numbers of people has resulted in all San Diego's creeks and rivers being targeted for stepped-up protection, restoration, or state-financed studies to combat reckless land development, sewer failure and daily urban runoff. Costs to remediate environmental abuse are tacked on to consumer prices and drain tax dollars badly needed elsewhere.

    Judgments of more than $1,000,000 per offense for polluting wetlands, creeks and bays are commonplace, now that the State Water Quality Control Board's regional staffs have more than doubled. But just when more attention is being paid to violators and more money is being paid for violating clean water laws, a sagging state economy has forced a freeze on hiring the next wave of water-quality enforcement professionals.

    Elected officials, wary of citizen ire for decades of lax environmental protection, are asking residents to be the “eyes and nose” in combating runaway pollution and chronic sewage spills. Asking ordinary citizens to be vigilant resonates well, now that America is on terrorist alert, but providing telephone message lines for San Diegans to report the sight of icky stuff and sniff of suspicious odor is more political strategy than a real solution to pollution.

    Having environmentally-minded persons as advisors to demonstrate practical, preventive measures - on site - before scenic hillsides and canyons, Mission Bay or endangered species are harmed would save economically valuable resources and avert millions in fines and mandated mitigation for homebuilders, municipalities and industry. Akin to national community service workers, but trained in fish and wildlife biology, soils geology, plant ecology and aquatic science, these specialists would serve as “Clean Water Ambassadors.”

    Preserving water purification function of natural wetland systems is the most efficient and least costly alternative to controlling polluted runoff and reducing the effects of sewage spills. Instead of paying fines to the state for senseless violation of clean water laws, or hiring lawyers to evade court-ordered remediation, business-savvy leaders will use some of these savings to train and employ Clean Water Ambassadors. Their on-site diplomacy would be a flagship demonstration of environmental responsibility, providing vigilant stewardship and timely, helpful information for preserving a legacy of ecological treasures vital to San Diego's economic health.

    The Nature School, San Diego's first environmental education and restoration ecology academy, has been working to improve Rose Creek and protect Mission Bay since 1995. Project STAR (Simple Technology Against Runoff) is The Nature School's demonstration of “do-it-yourself” techniques for protecting water resources through erosion control methods and treating polluted runoff with naturally enhanced wetland systems. Project STAR will be publicly dedicated November 16, 2001 at the Rose Creek Cottage, 2 pm.