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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Is it really an "either-or" choice?

By TIM FAULKNER/ News staff

PROVIDENCE — During its annual presentation to the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, the Watershed Counts environmental coalition talked about climate change and the damage it is already causing to Rhode Island’s natural habitat and the economy.

But some members of this House committee were thinking about other matters, such as medications in the water and billionaire philanthropists.

After a 45-minute report from 10 environmental experts, Rep. Larry Valencia, D-Charlestown, abruptly brought up concerns about trace pharmaceuticals in the water supply. Several of the Watershed Counts panelists noted that the issue was being studied at the federal level, and, as of yet, there was no verified public health threat.

Reps. John J.  Lombardi, D-Providence, and Teresa Tanzi, D-Narragansett, still pressed for details. “When will an assessment begin?” Tanzi asked.

The issue of pharmaceuticals wasn't mentioned in Watershed Counts’ presentation on the health of the Narragansett Bay estuary, as well as the state’s lakes, streams and rivers. The major points of concern were two interrelated issues: climate change and nutrient overload.

EPA is not so dismissive of the problem of pharmaceutical drugs
in the water supply and environment. Click to enlarge
James Boyd, of the University of Rhode Island's Coastal Institute, noted that sea-level rise and water temperature in the bay was accelerating faster than global averages. “Climate change is already happening in the Narragansett Bay region and will intensify in the years to come,” he said.

Susan Kiernan, deputy chief of the Surface Water Protection Program at the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), said nitrogen, principally from wastewater treatment plants, is draining oxygen from a third of the bay during the summer. But thanks to $200 million in upgrades to sewage runoff systems, the level of nitrogen has decreased 40 percent and a 50 percent reduction is expected by 2017, she said.

John Torgan of The Nature Conservancy called for the protection of open space from development. Since 1995 a third of the state's developable open space is gone, and only a quarter of Rhode Island's farmland is protected, he said. Undeveloped land protects the state during floods and super storms such as Sandy, he explained.

“This is not a barrier to progress, rather (preserving open space) will contribute to the quality of life in Rhode Island and support a vibrant economy," Torgan said.

Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Coventry, said he wanted a list of priority issues from Watershed Counts in order to preserve environmental regulations that could be eliminated by upcoming reform efforts. “We are overregulated, redundantly regulated, and some (regulations) are going away,” he said after the meeting.

Lombardi said the state's environmental groups should seek more private funding to “dovetail” on President Obama’s recent call for environmental initiatives. “We need to find our Bill Gates,” he said.

Rep. Eileen Naughton, D-Warwick, downplayed the risks of climate change, comparing it to the gypsy moth outbreak in the early 1980s. The gypsy moths, which threatened massive tree destruction, were ultimately curtailed by new predators, Naughton said.

"This committee, they don't doubt climate change, (but) climate change will bring species that are adaptable to climate and water," she said.

Watershed Counts is a coalition of 48 agencies, universities and environmental organizations that review and report on the condition of the Narragansett Bay watershed. Its annual assessment will be presented to the entire legislature and governor April 23 at the Statehouse.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I was on the board of Ecology Action for RI in the early 1970s when it underwent a serious internal split in its debate over priorities for action to protect Narragansett Bay. 

The split was between the conservation wing of the group that wanted a focus on organic, non-point source pollution versus the more militant environmentalists who wanted to go after the dozens of industrial polluters who at that time were dumping tons of toxic waste into the Bay. 

Reading Tim’s account of this House Committee meeting reminded me that the ideological gap over priorities between conservationists and other environmentalists still exists and divides the movement. - WC