Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Golden-Brown Rule

I sometimes suggest to my students that, if they want to be sure of jobs in these uncertain times, they should bet on poop.  Death and taxes aren’t the only inevitabilities in life; excrement, too, will always be with us.

I’m not sure that this sales pitch has ever made a convert. Effluent has an image problem that no marketer has been able to solve.

Except, perhaps, in Whatcom County.

Today’s Bellingham Herald featured an article on poop.  “Whatcom County Council Skeptical on Need for Tougher Septic Tank Rules,” says the headline. 

Tougher rules?  What rules?

It turns out that voluntary inspection leads to minimal inspection.  Outside of the Lake Whatcom and Drayton Harbor watersheds, there are no deadlines for septic tank inspection and no penalties for failure to inspect in Whatcom County.  The County does send reminder postcards. So does your dentist, probably.  If householders pitch the postcard, what happens to them?  The same thing that happens if you ignore your dentist's postcards:  nothing.  Your dentist doesn't come after you, and neither will Whatcom County.

This leads to a compliance rate for voluntary septic tank inspection of 22%.  And so, as the Herald notes, “some failing systems continue to operate.”

Read further into the article, and you’ll find this quote from a County employee:  "Quite routinely, we still do find failing systems with straight-line pipes that discharge into roadside ditches."

I don’t know how you react to that sentence.  “Yech” is one natural reaction .  “P.U.!” might be another.

Unless you’re on the Whatcom County Council, apparently.  The next sentence, the very next sentence, states: “Council member Sam Crawford said he has never been convinced that septic system problems are causing health or environmental problems serious enough to warrant the regulatory crackdown.”

Now, I grew up on a farm in upstate New York – and if you aren’t aware that New York exists outside of New York City, plug 2655 Depew Road, Stanley, New York into the satellite portion of Google Maps.  If it looks like any part of Whatcom County, it would be the part north of Badger Road - -not the sin-stained metropolis of Bellingham., much less Manhattan.

Anyway, I grew up in rural New York, and my father and men of his generation had a saying about uppity people that comes to mind.  In its sanitized version, it would go something like this:  “They think their excrement doesn’t stink.”

And perhaps that’s the problem with Whatcom County.  We know that we are special people who live in a special place.  We are people who are so special that, unlike anywhere else on earth, our excrement only makes our special water even more special.

Mr. Crawford did not, of course, make this claim.  He justified his skepticism by pointing out the absence of data demonstrating that rigorous enforcement around Lake Whatcom and Drayton Harbor has resulted in “measurable improvement” in water quality in those waterbodies. 

If you expect to see “measurable improvement” based on septic tank inspection, you would have to have very accurate measurement that excludes inputs of all other sources of, er, nutrients. 

Do we have that?  No.  And I think that the assumption that those data must exist before we take action reflects two problems.  

The first is a variation of the “CSI Effect.”  Prosecutors complain that juries are less likely to get convictions in criminal cases these days (here’s an article on this), because juries have unrealistic expectations about evidence.  Based on TV, they expect that a high-tech machine will match every fiber with a precise garment, every piece of soil with the garden across which the perp had scampered.  All you have to do is put the sample in a machine.  Neon lights glow, and voila!  A computer screen pinpoints the precise result.

Unfortunately, these high tech machines are – I hate to break the bad news – fabrications.  Or very expensive, or not as accurate as the shows would have you believe.  Real life is far messier and more uncertain than TV.  Evidence is far messier and more uncertain than on TV.

I saw a crime show once where two attractive young women with frowns on their faces gathered around a screen.  An adjacent contraption buzzed and whirred, lights flashed across a screen, and then a map appeared.  It showed the precise locations of all pollution sources in a harbor, with all of the pollutants listed.  Frowns gone!  The investigators found the exact location where a body had entered the water, because another of those infallible machines had identified pollutants on the clothing.

Why don't we just buy one of those machines and have it report on septic tanks!  Except that, well, if the machine actually existed, somebody would still have to get all of the data and input it into the machine, and it would have to be kept up to date.  How many tax dollars would that cost?

So problem number one is that, no, we don’t have a high-tech machine that perfectly pinpoints every source of pollution.  We have some monitoring data and we have the known fact that more poop in the water leads to worse water quality.  And we have the known-but-ignored facts that Whatcom County has a large aquifer with some of the worst nitrate pollution in the state, and 77 stream reaches that are impaired, and two harbors restricted for shellfish growing and gathering. . .

Problem number two is the cumulative impact problem.  There are many sources of pollution affecting our water bodies – and many sources of poop.  People, farm animals, deer and geese.  As the children’s book says, “Everybody Poops.”  And so, it’s easy to say “Well, a few leaking septic tanks won’t hurt anything.” 

Nor will a straw break the camel’s back.  Except when it does.  (That’s the significance of the picture up top.)  

Conversely, it is undoubtedly true that inspecting and correcting leaking septic tanks won’t cure all of Whatcom County’s water problems.   To do that, all the various sources will need to be addressed.

So why pick on septic tank owners? 

Remember the Golden-Brown Rule. Do unto your own poop as you would have other do unto theirs.  

Now, bearing in mind the Golden Rule, I do think that we should ensure that low-income householders are not impoverished by having to inspect and, particularly, clean up their septic tanks.  

We need to make this subsidy mindfully, however, rather than simply subsidizing septic tank owners across the board.  That's what we are doing when we turn a blind eye to leaking septic tanks. 

It takes an ounce of inspection to avoid a pound of poop.  And sorry, but I am not, under any circumstances, going to search Google Image for an illustration of this saying.  It probably is vivid enough in your own mind's eye.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Wet and Wild Whatcom County

Summertime is game time. And so, as a summer brain-teaser, I’ve put together a Whatcom County Water Quality Quiz.  

That’s one wacky font, right?  It means that this is going to be fun!

What, you say that a test is not your idea of fun?  Aw, c’mon.  No need to worry about test anxiety! Whenever the answer isn’t entirely clear, I’ll build in some subliminal clues.

So let's play!

 1.  How many people in Whatcom County rely on the Sumas-Blaine aquifer for their drinking water?  (Hint:  it’s a lot.)

a.         27,000
b.         2,700
c.         Lake Whatcom
d.         Water comes from plastic bottles.

Admit it.  When you saw the term “drinking water,” most of you went straight to “Lake Whatcom.” 

Tsk, tsk, tsk.  Not everybody in Whatcom County is so fortunate as to have a protected watershed that provides for clean and delicious water without filtering.  Oh, wait, I’m thinking of New York City,  which has decided that “filtration and disinfection are insufficient without preemptive watershed protections.”  

Namby-pambies.  No wonder nobody wants to live in New York City, with its high rise housing, public transportation, and delicious drinking water.  Our major drinking water source, Lake Whatcom, has been on the state’s list of polluted waters for 14 years.   We have 6,839 houses in our watershed and the potential for almost 2,000 more.  

Don’t know about you, but I’m still alive!  The lake still looks good to me!  And as we all know, the best way to gauge threats is by whether or not you can see them

But I digress. The Sumas-Blaine aquifer is the sole readily available source of drinking water (other than plastic bottles) for around 27,000 people.  Some have wells, some get their water from community water systems.   

Lake Whatcom provides the drinking water for more than 95,000 people, so the aquifer isn’t as big a source.  But it’s pretty big – it provides water for between 10 and 15% of Whatcom County’s 200,000-or-so people.

Here’s the aquifer:

2.       What percentage of tested wells that rely on the Sumas-Blaine aquifer for drinking water have nitrate levels that don’t meet state drinking water standards?

(a)        Drinking water standards are for sissies.
(b)        Agenda 21 created drinking water standards because the United Nations wants to control American wells.
(c)        Almost a third. 
(d)       None, because we knew that this was a big problem in the late 1990s, so of course it’s been addressed over the past fifteen years.

The correct answer, of course, is (b).  You want proof?  Here are just two of the goals of the sinister, socialist Agenda 21

·         “Development of agricultural practices that do not degrade groundwaters;” and
·         “Sanitary disposal of excreta and sewage, using appropriate systems to treat waste waters in urban and rural areas”.

Are you outraged?  No, I mean:  how outraged are you?  The very essence of freedom is the right to drink excrement.  The United Nations wants to take away our liberty!

Now, some of you may be thinking “who wants to drink poo?”  Skeptics, just ask yourselves this:

Did the Founding Fathers have drinking water treatment?  Don’t think so!

Oh, and (c) is right, too.  Twenty-nine percent of tested wells did not meet state standards for nitrate.  One private domestic well had seven times the nitrate concentration allowed by state standards.

As for (d) – Scroll down to “Government Response to Declining Water Quality is Too Little, Too Late” by Dr. Frank James.  It was published in Whatcom Watch in 1998.   

3.       Is Whatcom County using this information in its rural planning, in order to divert residential development away from areas where well water is likely to violate health standards?

a.         No.
b.         Of course not.
c.         Drinking water standards are for sissies.
d.         Property rights.

These are all good answers.  But anyone who has played the game in Whatcom County knows that “Property Rights” isn’t just the right answer.  It’s the only answer. 

4.       What county in Washington has the most polluted shellfish growing area?

(a)        Wasn’t Whatcom County the winner last year?
(b)        Drayton Harbor might have something to do with this.
(c)        I think that it’s some county that isn’t Whatcom County.
(d)       All of the above.

(Here’s your subliminal clue:  The first three answers don’t contradict each other. . ..) 

You guessed (d)?  You get an A++++!

Drayton Harbor was the most polluted shellfish growing area in Washington in 2010, but it only came in second in 2011.  We’re Number Two! 

Speaking of Number Two (how’s that for a subliminal clue?):

5.       What do the Sumas-Blaine Aquifer and Drayton Harbor have in common?

(a) It’s all the Canadians’ fault.
(b) Poop.
(c) They both look OK, so there’s no problem.
(d) They’d both be good names for a rock band.

There’s only one right answer to this one. 

“Sumas-Blaine Aquifer” would be the worst name ever for a rock band, so (d) goes away immediately.

And we know that (c) can’t be right, because you can’t see the aquifer.  That’s part of the problem – out of sight, out of mind.

How about (a)?  Well, that’s a bit of a trick answer.  The key is the word “all.” 

Canada is the source of some of the pollution in the Sumas-Blaine aquifer, which is known as the Abbotsford-Sumas aquifer when we take away the dividing line at the 49th parallel.  The aquifer flows in our direction from Canada.  On the Canadian side, there are big poultry and raspberry operations that contribute to the nitrate problem. 

There used to be an “International Task Force” to bring government officials together to work on solutions, but in times of shrinking budgets, that’s not a high priority.  Folks from both sides of the border still get together to talk about issues from time to time.  

As for Drayton Harbor –well, if your views on science are based on the comments section in the Bellingham Herald, you would “know” that untreated sewage from Victoria causes the pollution problems in Drayton Harbor. 

Canada sends us many things – cross-border shoppers, oil from the tar sands, comedians – but the truth is that we manufacture plenty of our own fecal matter right here on this side of the border.  And there are plenty of Made in the U.S.A. delivery systems that deposit our home-grown fecal matter into the Harbor.  Check out the Drayton Harbor Fecal Coliform Total Maximum Daily Load report, below, if you have any doubts. 

So the answer is (b).  Poop. 


Sumas-Blaine Aquifer Nitrate Contamination Summary, Washington State Dept. of Ecology, June 2012 (see pages 9 and 19-20).

Drayton Harbor Watershed Fecal Coliform Total Maximum Daily Load: Phase 1, Washington State Dept. of Ecology, March 2008, p.22 

6.       Only two state legislative districts in Washington can boast that their elected officials – all three of them (two State Representatives and one State Senator) – received scores of ZERO on Washington Conservation Voters’ 2011-2012 legislative scorecard.  One of these districts is the 39th – mostly eastern Skagit and Snohomish counties.  What county was in the other legislative district with a ZERO score?

a.         Whatcom County (42nd District)
b.         Ferry County (7th District)
c.         Skamania County (15th District)
d.         Garfield County (9th District)

Congratulations to Whatcom County!  42nd District Representatives Vincent Buys and Jason Overstreet joined Senator Doug Ericksen to vote against the environment every time, achieving a score of zero!    Take that, Ferry, Skamania, Garfield, and all you other counties in conservative areas of the state!  The 42nd has taken over the basement!

That’s a lot of exclamation points.  For an achievement of this magnitude, though, I’m not sure that it’s enough exclamation points.


7.       Wait, what does Question 6 have to do with water quality?

 (a)       Nitrates have been proven to cause people to vote for anti-environmental legislators. 
(b)        Absolutely nothing.  Government needs to stay away from our drinking water.  There’s a market solution for everything.  Anyone who wants fresh, clean, delicious water that doesn’t come out of a bottle can always vote with their feet.  If you’re the kind of person who likes that sort of thing, go ahead!  Go live in New York City!  We don’t need your type around here.
(c)        The point is that, if we want to get Whatcom County back to its place as the most-polluted shellfish growing area, and keep its position as the County with the worst nitrate pollution problem, we have to keep electing the guys who are on the job.
(d)       As the old saying goes, “Voters get the water quality that they deserve.” There’s a real choice in this November’s 42nd District election for the two state representative positions.

The theory set forth in (a) hasn’t been proven, although it’s an interesting hypothesis.

The problem with (b) is that, if everybody fouls their own nest and moves to New York City, the continent will tip over. 

So I guess it comes down to (c) or (d).  If the voters of the 42nd choose (c), maybe we’d better start looking seriously into (a).

Now that you've finished the quiz, reward yourself with a refreshing summer drink.  Cheers!