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Two Great American Heroines

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Two Great American Heroines
for Ecological Health 

By Brenda Adelman

Theo Colborn died a month ago at the age of 87.  She was the Rachel Carson of our time, a tireless advocate in the field of endocrine disruption, also referred to euphemistically these days as contaminants of emerging concern (CEC’s).  But these concerns have been emerging for the last 50 years or more and it is our impression that not enough has been done in that time by elected representatives and governmental agency officials to address the issue, while humans beings, wildlife, and aquatic life, usually unknowingly, are paying the price for this neglect.

Rachel Carson - Great American Heroine

Rachel Carson taught us about the devastating effects of pesticides, especially DDT, on songbirds and other creatures, and was severely chastised for her views by some, while given hero status by others.  Carson challenged the belief that man could and should control nature with poisonous products, and she spoke extensively of the price to be paid for our assault upon the land in order to control the ‘pests’.  She tragically died from breast cancer in 1964 at the age of 57.  Many other pesticides have replaced DDT since then, but the problem of toxicity of our soils, waterways, food, fish and wildlife, etc. have remained.  

Theo called attention to reproductive, behavioral, and immune system anomalies, deformities, tumors, and species decline resulting from many chemical pollutants including pesticides, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and more.  In the early 1990’s she convened a major conference of scientists from around the world to share their discoveries with one another.  Up to that point, most had been operating in a vacuum.  

Colborn founds world scientific movement

This was Colborn’s greatest gift: she encouraged scientists to allow integration of their findings into a world movement that resulted in a burgeoning of endocrine disruption understanding, going far beyond what was known in the 1960’s. It encouraged scientists in the field to constantly expand the context of their knowledge, integrate their findings, and further unlock mysterious triggers for human disease, sexual anomalies of frogs, fish, and birds, and in some cases, increased extirpation of species.  

Exemplified by the burgeoning popularity of organic foods, thanks to Rachel and Theo, current generations are waking up to the risks of ingesting and being exposed to toxic chemicals, and even worse, exposing their children. We are slowly getting the toxins out of children’s toys and clothing and baby bottles as a result of their work and we are learning about the risks of taking hormones to stave off natural aging processes.

Yet use of dangerous products continues, often ending up in water, while legislators trusted to protect us often pretend they don’t have enough information to take regulatory action to control pollution, even when provided overwhelming evidence.  Stonewalling, lobbying, spinning, are all tactics used to avoid taking action.  They assure us they are studying the problem or, insist they need more information, even while some scientists place hormonal changes that result on same problematic scale as global warming. 

How drought and global warming contribute

In the meantime, the California drought has taken on a whole new context. For many parts of the State, the drought has gone on unabated. Most of California was in ‘extreme’ drought conditions all of last year. (U.S. Drought Monitor: http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/) As of January, 2015, 77.5% of the State is in ‘extreme’ or ‘exceptional’ drought.  One year ago (January, 2014), it was 62.7%. 

Sonoma and Marin Counties are considered to currently be in ‘severe’ drought (mid-level drought designation) even though the water supply pool at Lake Sonoma is at 77.6% as of January 22, 2015, and Lake Mendocino at 84%.  In the meantime, the Water Agency is gearing up to release the environmental document on low flow.  No doubt they will use these numbers to justify diminished summer releases for the lower river in order to save more water in the reservoirs (ostensibly for fish but actually for urban growth).

Based on their drought concerns, California citizens voted for $7.12 billion in general obligation bonds to be used for state water supply infrastructure projects. Most in the know believe the major sum will go towards the Bay Delta and Southern California’s need for new water infrastructure.  But we also know that Santa Rosa, the water contractors, and Sonoma County Water Agency are all lining up to apply for funds. 

Santa Rosa is currently paying over $100,000 a year to Washington DC lobbyists currently to find funding to expand their urban irrigation project. (compensation amount covering last five years and this coming year is $768,000.)  They have sights on an expanded urban irrigation project which in turn will offset their potable water use, so they can then use the water for expanded growth as noted in their General Plan.  (Current water use is about 19,298 Acre Feet, and projected to go to almost 35,000 Acre Feet by 2035.)  This data will come to the fore soon in the anticipated 2015 Urban Water Management Plan. 

Connection between drought and endocrine disruption

Many water quality experts believe there are remnant endocrine disrupting chemicals remaining in the wastewater even after the very highest treatment including micro filtration, ozonation, and reverse osmosis.  USGS studies have indicated the existence of some of these chemicals in drinking water and streams around the United States.  There is also vast information indicating that endocrine disruption can occur with exposures at the parts per billion and parts per trillion level.  In other words, extremely minute amounts can have major effects on wildlife and humans. 

Russian River Watershed Protection Committee has repeatedly photographed wastewater irrigation runoff into our creeks at a time when flow is minimal and we suspect it occurs with agricultural irrigation as well. The opportunities for exposure and bioaccumulation in wildlife is a given. Runoff also occurs at a time when recreation is at it’s height, and could be a serious health issue, but no agency is willing to adequately test the environment for these chemicals.  Instead, we keep hearing how Santa Rosa’s wastewater is perfectly clean and can do no harm, as the State Department of Health allows people to swim in it.

The State is formally encouraging large amounts of summer irrigation with wastewater as a way to preserve potable water, while the rules for assuring that runoff does not occur are very weak.  Runoff is common and we have written about this extensively, yet there has been very little enforcement of even modest rules from what we can tell, and many problems continue.

 

Brenda is long time chair of Russian River Watershed Protection Committee and can be reached at rrwpc@comcast.net. Also you can visit our website at www.rrwpc.org. Donations are always welcome. Checks can be made out to RRWPC and sent to P.O. Box 501, Guerneville, CA 95446, or you can access PayPal at our website.