A World Water Day Challenge

Today is World Water Day. Its a day to celebrate the blessings this life giving substance brings to our lives and consider what we can do to protect it. So to mark the occasion, I have three challenges for you...

1. Make a difference in the global clean water crisis. One in eight people -- almost one billion -- on our planet do not have access to safe water. Illnesses resulting from a lack of safe water kill more young children than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined. Tragically, the United Nations has reported that even more people die from unsafe water than from all forms of violence, including war. This is one of the great tragedies and challenges of our time and it's something that our generation has the technology and resources to address. There are several outstanding and highly credible organizations that are making a measurable difference for communities throughout the world. I recommend NYC-based charity: water.

2. Manage your personal water footprint. Your water consumption goes far beyond the tap. You can find a simple and robust water footprint calculator HERE. It's amazing how easy and practical it is to cut your water footprint by 10 to 15-percent.

3. Get involved on your own waterfront. Every single one of us lives on the waterfront. Your waterfront may be the storm drain on your street, the creek in your backyard or the ocean that borders your town -- our relationship with water in all of its forms is critical to the health and well being of our families, our communities and our water planet. Taking care of this intergenerational community asset goes beyond what most think of as "environmentalism" and gets to the very heart of how we define healthy communities; how we manage the resources that create jobs and local economy; and how we build local capacity now for the challenges ahead.

My grandfather Jacques-Yves Cousteau was always baffled when people would ask him why he was such a vocal advocate for protecting water resources. He would usually begin his response with, "When you go and see..." and then paint the picture as only he could of the majesty and importance of the water place in question.

His advice still rings true today. I challenge you to explore your local waterfront. Take a walk along the creek or river in your city and ask yourself if it's the kind of place where you'd let your children swim. Stop for a moment the next time it rains and consider the water you see running off of your property or along a nearby street and ask yourself if you'd eat fish from the waters it drains to. Go and see the places where your drinking water is sourced.

Regardless of backgrounds or political philosophies, I believe we all want to live and raise our families in communities where our local water is safe enough for swimming, drinking and fishing. On this World Water Day, I challenge you to explore and get involved in your own waterfront.

What do we know anyway?

A couple years ago, the appearance of a little rat in Laos (southeastern Asia) made it clear that we don’t know nearly as much about the world as we think we do. Locals call it the kha-nyou and generally eat it for dinner. But, the scientists that observed them in the wild found them to be “a friendly, furry creature, about the size of a squirrel, that waddles a bit like a duck.” Are the experts surprised? Yes! They say that the kha-nyou can trace its line to a rodent family that initial studies suggested became extinct more than 11 million years ago.

Great! Marvelous!! How wonderful that, in an age when we think we know it all, a furry and friendly rat the size of a squirrel that waddles like a duck can come into our lives and reveal to us that mystery still exists on our extraordinary planet.

In fact, scientists believe that millions of species have yet to be discovered and documented in order to complete a comprehensive directory of all life on Earth. Of course, not all life resembles our little rat/squirrel/duck friend from Laos. Life exists high in the atmosphere, deep in the soil, in thermal vents on the ocean floor and within animals themselves. Who knew that over 200 species of yeast live in the guts of beetles?? No one did until recently.

In the animal kingdom alone, there are 15,000 to 20,000 new species identified annually. But though life is abundant, it is also fragile. As quickly as we discover these new species, we are also exterminating them. Scientists confirm that we are living in the age of greatest extinction since the dinosaurs. How many kha-nyous are we exterminating before we get a chance to discover them and marvel at the feat of evolutionary survival that kept them here for millions of years?

But we don't need to travel to Laos to find creatures worth protecting. In every yard, park, pond and river, there are species that are fascinating and worthwhile. Yet too often we run away from them, fumigate them, scatter poison around for them, put out traps to catch them or nets to keep them out. And as hard as we try to get rid of “pests,” we cannot live without them and the role they play in the web of life that surrounds us - all the more so because today everything from a bee to a white-tailed deer is considered a pest.

Modern understanding of biodiversity has taught us that life, in all its forms, is precious and intrinsically valuable. In the words of Wendell Berry, “to treat life as less than a miracle, is to give up on it.” It is a word of caution we would do well to heed, since to give up on life is to give up on ourselves as well.


Rethinking What It Means to Be an Environmentalist

I’ve met a lot of people that distance themselves from the term “environmentalist”, probably because they don’t want to be perceived as a granola munching, tree hugging hippie.  And as much as I love granola and trees, I probably don’t qualify as a hippie.  But I am definitely an environmentalist. 

If you look “environmentalist” up in the dictionary, it is defined as “one who is concerned about environmental quality especially of the human environment with respect to the control of pollution.”  What part of that could anyone claim is unreasonable?  What part would anyone not subscribe to?  Who can claim to have no concern for the environment?  Who doesn’t care about clean water?  Or clean air that is free from pollution?  Or food to eat that is free of contaminants and pesticides and heavy metals?  We all want these things because we couldn’t survive without them.  Yet so many of us are unable to make the connection between our own survival and what it means today to be an environmentalist.

The preservationist John Muir said it best: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

The old adage used to be that to make a difference you had to do something.  But the truth is that everything that you do is making a difference. The challenge we all have to confront is this: Is the difference helping or hurting? In a world of finite resources, changing climates and growing populations, there is no such thing as an insignificant choice. 

I know that my grandfather Jacques-Yves Cousteau grew tired of answering questions about the environment in his later days. He said that he was weary of people ignoring the extraordinary miracles that exist in our world only to ask why we should protect it. He always wanted to know how we as a society got to the point that we could even ask that question.

Perhaps we have forgotten an essential lesson.  As my grandfather once said, "To touch life is to know it and to know of life is to love it.

What does "environmentalist" mean to you?

A Voice for the Appleton Wetland

"So this is the Appleton wetland," Mike O'Malley says to me as we kayak along the Drummond Creek, a side channel of the Mississippi River in Eastern Ontario on our River Mission expedition. Haggard maple trees have fallen or lay dead as far as the eye can see. I can tell that something is deeply wrong with this wetland. "What we're looking at are the dead and dying relics of the soft maple tree canopy that's been decimated by a very small rise in water levels of about 10 cm during their critical summer growing season," explains Mike, who heads up the local Mississippi RiverWatchers.

Mike, along with many others in his community of Almonte, Ontario believe that Enerdu Power System's dam is the culprit for the ecological destruction I see before us. In 2004 the company erected 40cm high flashboards on The Cascade of the Mississippi River to increase their power draw. That small rise in water levels downstream has drowned the upstream wetland, whose tree roots need to be dry during their summer growing season, explains Mike.

My expeditions always remind me that we all live connected to one another. Once we recognize this fact, and truly live by it, then watershed stewardship is no longer a choice but a necessity. In the case of the Appleton Wetland (a textbook example of the provincially significant hardwood maple wetland ecosystem) the dam is operating with little regard for the delicate ecological system upstream, and has thereby endangered what ecologists call the true lungs of the earth, a precious wetland.

Lucky for this dying forest wetland, people like Mike have mobilized to try and save it by trying to find a financially feasible operating model for the dam that also allows the wetland to thrive. "If we manage the water levels so that we have a healthy ecosystem and don't be greedy about how much power we get when, we could have a financially viable hydro operation downstream," he tells me. "We could have a healthy wetland that's accessible to both animals and humans for recreation. It could be very harmonious." Like so many situations where development seems to butt up against the needs of environment, there is a win-win solution to be found. The question is just whether all the people at the table are motivated to find it.

O'Malley first became the voice of his waterway in 2012, when a group of concerned citizens first joined together to become the Mississippi Riverwatchers, part of the Ontario Riverkeeper's River Watch program. Now, that voice has become a chorus of a dozen volunteers who advocate for a balanced approach to development (such as expansion plans for the dam that threatens the cascading waterfalls in the heart of Almonte) that ensures good stewardship of the river and its wetland.

Back on the water, Mike gestures to the landscape, which he has seen transformed from a lush and green canopy to a leafless skeleton of a forest in the span of nine years. As we glide along the river, the duck grass that floats at the surface of the water sounds like sand beneath my kayak. Mike's next words deeply resonate with me. I've heard them uttered over the years of water advocacy at Blue Legacy from the mouths of countless citizens and friends who have taken up the fight for their waterways; who give their rivers a voice; who ensure that governments are held accountable for environmental protection laws and that enforcement is upheld; who do what's right when those around them do not. Even in its denuded state, Mike sees a stretch of wilderness that is poised to take back what it has lost. And he's there to give it all the help he can muster: " This is accessible wilderness and it's worth fighting for."