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January 13, 1998

RiverKeepers' Lament
(or "Love That Dirty Water")

by Neil S. Milligan

"The river's dying, bro'." This sad report came from Leaf Myczack, half of the activist arm of the Office of the RiverKeeper and captain of its primary vessel, the Broadened Horizons. With his life-partner, Cielo, these environmentalists devote their entire existence in service to Mother Earth, working full-time to help preserve the natural functions of the riverine ecosystem. As counterpoint to the loud voices of business and development lobbies, they speak for the river and the creatures dependent on it for survival. The RiverKeeper project relies on a small group of members that supplies funds via subscription fees and regular donations, and a support network of friends and extended family that provides safe harbor and other special requirements. (For more background, see Harbinger issues 1/20 - 2/2, 1992; 10/1 - 1/14/96; 1/21 - 2/3/97; 4/22 - 5/12/97.)

The Tennessee River remains "a septic tank on overload. At the same time they are removing the river's natural ability to absorb our excesses, they are increasing the burden," Leaf testifies. "And it's a cycle that builds on itself." The original channels have been flooded into reservoirs, the ancient currents drowned and mute; oxygen levels plummet in these stagnant pools compared to that of the previously free-flowing waters. Shoreline municipalities and residences discharge nutrient-rich wastes, increasing the demand on dissolved oxygen. This eliminates many species of gill-breathers and increases algae-blooms, which uses up even more of the oxygen when they die off and decompose. Denuded hillsides and increased flood-peaks from human development erode topsoil and dump it in the waterway, smothering filter-feeding bottom-dwellers that used to clean the water by scavenging excess organic material. Sediment accumulation also increases the need for chronic dredging of the navigation channel.

Mismanagement is attributable to the federal Tennessee Valley Authority and its protective political backers, and the Office of the RiverKeeper is the nemesis of these policy makers. TVa (the RiverKeepers deny them the uppercase "A" because of their abuse of authority) was granted the role of directing various projects in the Tennessee Valley, among them flood control, cheap rural electrification, recreation, and economic development.

Damming of the river provides some hydro-power (11 percent), but TVa remains competitive with other regional power companies only because it carries a huge debt ($28 billion) that it doesn't have to retire as a private company would; it relies on coal-fired and nuclear systems to furnish electricity at expensive rates for residents, while fighting utility deregulation and open competition. The impoundments create reservoirs -- artificial lakes -- that are incapable of serving to protect against flooding: seasonally adjusted water levels provide little reserve for containing floodwaters; and in the case of a catastrophic deluge, panic-procedures would sacrifice downstream settlements to protect aging dams against inevitable failure. Subsidized streamside industrial development is detrimental to water-quality; and promoting rampant recreational use allows motorized watercraft intrusion into the last refuges of wildlife.

TVa is facing a funding crisis as Congress reduces the annual endowment for non-power programs such as dam safety(!), economic development, recreation and flood control. Some creative income-raising plans include more private development, nuclear-weapons production, and task elimination. Land that was condemned for the creation of the waterway was acquired through eminent domain when the original settlers were bought out cheaply and forced to move; now, that public land is being offered for sale -- cheaply -- to recreational developers for resorts and golf courses. In a scheme approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the problem-plagued nuclear reactor at Watts Bar is conducting tests for the Department of Energy to produce tritium: this civilian facility is being upgraded to create weapons-grade material. Besides the immediate fees from DOE, TVa's long- term hope is that they will get funding to finish the mothballed Bellefont reactor (Scottsboro, AL) for continued tritium production. As a cost-saving measure, TVa's chairman decided to abolish any environmentally-related programs, absolving the agency from any requirement to reduce pollution and implement conservation measures.

"These are all activities that will allow the abuse of power to continue. TVa is a good-old-boy bureaucracy, and the political appointees and their upper-level lackeys run their pet projects without oversight. They pay huge bonuses to executives while laying-off dissenting employees and closing programs that actually provide some benefit to the public. And the Corps [US Army Corps of Engineers] is just as bad: Their system of locks and dams merely serves as an aquatic superhighway, furnishing a cheap method for draining the mineral and timber resources out of the region -- much of it exported out of the country. They spend 20 million dollars every year just for dredging the $2 billion Tenn-Tom Waterway between the Tennessee River and the port of Mobile."

A recently evolved blight on the bioregion is the proliferation of chipmills, automated facilities that grind trees into three-inch chips of wood. These mechanized monsters will take all sizes and whole mixed hardwood forests are clearcut to feed their voracious appetites. Sometimes the natural forest is replaced with pine monoculture plantations; often it is not replanted at all. Even industry journals report that cutting exceeds the growth-rate.

"This overharvesting affects the whole food-chain: Habitats are destroyed, diversity diminishes, ecological benefits lost, and community health suffers, as well," says Leaf. A visual tool is the RiverKeepers' map showing locations of chipmills and log-export facilities in the region and each one's sourcing radius (the area required to provide enough trees to keep the mill in operation). The pattern is coincident with an expanse of closed sawmills, local concerns that formerly provided jobs for area workers. These small family business served employment needs for multiple generations, provided stock for durable-goods manufacturers (employing even more people) and returned benefits to the community from the natural resources consumed.

A necessary part of the battle for conservation, though a costly and tedious one, is conducted in lawyers' offices and the courtroom. Besides the expense (enormous compared to the tiny annual budget for the entire project), the frustration of endless paperwork and obscurities (seemingly designed to hamper the process) wear away at the balance that Leaf and Cielo try to maintain. Both of them would rather be on the river gaining more wisdom from the ancient and sacred waters, but they give their energies in an attempt to enforce environmental compliance and to prevail over non-sustainable policies. Two important lawsuits are in progress. In both cases the defendants are challenging the RiverKeepers' standing, their merit for bringing suit and providing evidence.

No one who merely studies theories and statistical abstractions from behind a desk can know the river as does someone who lives in tune with it. Everyday exposure to the natural environment -- its weather and the seasonal variations, its inhabitants and their behavioral strategies, the obvious effects from human-made disturbances -- lend Leaf and Cielo a unique perspective from which to speak. They are unique only by modern standards; both of them are quick to point out that such knowledge was commonplace before we "advanced" to the point where we believe ourselves removed from natural laws and the consequences of breaking them.


The Harbinger, Mobile, AL