Sunday, October 05, 2014

To regain a river

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, teaching novels, ecology, watersheds, citizen science

The Brandywine River Watershed encompasses 324 square miles (840 square km) and is home to a quarter million people. I am not one of them; I live just outside the watershed, though I am in the larger composite watershed of the Delaware River. (This image is from the Delaware Watersheds site maintained by the University of Delaware)

On a few occasions my family and I have joined with other families to take a canoe trip down a few miles of the river, from the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, PA to Thompson's Bridge in northern DE. We were advised to avoid ingesting any of the water, and to "do" this trip only once or twice yearly, because the river is polluted. South of Thompson's Bridge, I have seen signs warning anglers not to eat any fish they catch.

Some tributaries upstream of the lower main stem of the river are in even worse shape. How can this be? Another map, from the Red Streams Blue Program, gives a clue (the main stem quality is not shown). The tributaries with fair or good water quality presently outnumber those in the worst shape. It illustrates the adage, "The solution to pollution is dilution." But that can only go so far.

The lovely book Sweet Water Hunt by Connie Nye is the first novel I have seen with a Dewey Decimal number (577.64). Ms Nye used an adventure/detective narrative to create a text in water quality monitoring that is pitched at middle school students and their teachers and parents. Young Wyatt Nystrom, his cousin and some friends, and their parents, get involved with the colorful "Dr, Flo", a UD professor, to solve a mystery found in an old tennis ball Wyatt's dog finds in the Brandywine River.

The lesson of the book is clear. Every substance that falls to the ground within a watershed eventually flows into the river, unless it is diverted or converted to something else along the way. There is much in the book about the water treatment plants in various cities and towns, particularly Wilmington, DE, where Wyatt's father works. A few times there is mention that the treatment plants expel the treated water downstream of their host cities. I wonder what would result if they were required to expel it upstream? Would they invest in even better cleansing methods? (Some European countries have such laws.)

By the time Brandywine River water reaches Wilmington, it has a history, the history of everything that has happened upstream in the watershed. It sends this "experienced" water into the Christina River, and thence into the Delaware River. This is the story of every watershed, everywhere on Earth. If the people living in a watershed do nothing to treat their wastes, the river becomes an open sewer.

I recall living in Cleveland, OH in 1961, when the Cuyahoga River was capped with 4" (100mm) of oily sludge. A few years later the sludge caught on fire and destroyed a number of bridges. At the time, Cleveland's sewer system simply fed pipes that took the waste 5 miles out into Lake Erie. The west end of the lake was effectively dead, and it wasn't safe to swim if the wind was from the north. A great deal of cleaning up has happened since!

The Red Streams Blue Program aims to continue cleanup and treatment efforts in this one small watershed. The book shows how even young children can assess the water quality in a stream, using a census of macroinvertebrates. These are insect larvae, worms and mollusks big enough to identify without magnification. They vary in sensitivity to pollution, so a simple scoring method yields a numerical result. I had an enjoyable read, and I sorta wished our son was 12 again, so we could go try out the methods.

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