Elizabeth de la Vega, Those Hard Rains Are Gonna Fall

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Call it a bizarre water season or think of it as our future. In the Midwest, 500-year level floods. That means hydrologists believe that “a flood of this magnitude has a 0.2 percent chance (1 in 500) of happening in a given year in a specific location.” Of course, the last 500-year Midwestern floods happened only an uncomfortable 15 years ago in 1993. In the Southwest and Southeast, there have been droughts that, in the last year, have threatened to outrun recorded history, and then, of course, there’s California. That state has received a “record lack of rainfall” — state capital Sacramento got only 0.17 of an inch of rain this spring, thoroughly wiping out the previous record set in 1934. The result, of course, has left the state burning up well before its normal fire season officially begins about now.

You might think that Mother Nature, acting like some vengeful goddess, was sending a message to our legislators, but, as former federal prosecutor Elizabeth de la Vega points out below, don’t count on them paying much attention. We seem, in short, to be up a swollen creek without a paddle. (Or is it a dry gulch with lots of tinder and too many matches?) De la Vega “indicted” George W. Bush at this site back in November 2006 and wrote the popular book — a TomDispatch spinoff — United States v. George W. Bush et al.. She now returns focused on a remarkably crucial long-term problem — water — and a remarkably consistent, do-nothing Congress. Tom

Our National Water Policy
Oh, Wait, We Don’t Have One
By Elizabeth de la Vega

“Lisa, the whole reason we have elected officials is so we don’t have to think all the time. Just like that rainforest scare a few years back. Our officials saw there was a problem and they fixed it, didn’t they?” — Homer Simpson

On June 24, 2008, Louie and I curled up on the couch to watch seven of the nation’s foremost water resources experts testify before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.

This was a new experience for us. For my part, the issue to be addressed — “Comprehensive Watershed Management Planning” — was certainly a change of pace from the subjects I ordinarily follow in Judiciary and Intelligence Committee hearings. I wasn’t even entirely sure what a “watershed” was. I knew that, in a metaphorical sense, the word referred to a turning point, but I was a bit fuzzy about its meaning in the world of hydrology. (It’s the term used to describe “all land and water areas that drain toward a river or lake.”)

What was strange from Louie’s point of view was not the topic of the day, but that we were stuck in the house. Usually at that hour, we’d be working in the backyard, where he can better leverage his skill set, which includes chasing squirrels, digging up tomato plants, eating wicker patio chairs, etc. On this particular afternoon, however, the typically cornflower-blue San Jose sky was the color of wet cement, and thick soot was charging down from the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains. Sitting outside would have been about as pleasant as relaxing in a large ashtray.

It would have been difficult, on such a day, not to think about water.

June 24, 2008: Water on the Brain

In California, of course, it was the lack thereof. Thanks to the driest spring on record in many areas — including in San Jose, where recordkeeping began in 1875 — the whole state was parched. Far worse, large chunks of it were burning. To be precise, on June 24th, there were 842 wildfires blazing, the result of “dry lightning,” which — I’ve now learned — happens when conditions are so dry that the rain never makes it to the plain. It evaporates in mid-air.

In the Midwest, on the other hand, water was everywhere, cascading across the land and through towns; or, it was threatening to do so, as terrified homeowners and volunteers desperately hoisted sandbags onto levees that were failing, due to forces as powerful as the mighty Mississippi and as seemingly innocuous as burrowing muskrats. The flooding had been ongoing for weeks, killing dozens of people, displacing thousands, and causing billions of dollars of crop, building, and other damage. With California burning and Iowa underwater, the Red Cross national disaster relief fund for 2008 was already entirely depleted, although six months of potential weather devastation of various sorts still lie ahead. The balance, its finance director had announced, was “zero.”

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Weekly News was reporting that the deluge had swept record amounts of storm-water into lakes and rivers, “bringing along pollutants from urban streets, farm fields and construction sites.” To make matters worse, as of late June, Wisconsin communities had already identified 164 “overflow events” — a polite term for the release of untreated sewage into the state’s waters.

Where were all these chemicals and all that muck ultimately headed? Some of it would be spewed into the Great Lakes, already beset by a host of problems. To name a few: slimy Eurasian water milfoil that clogs boat propellers, fish viruses, chemicals that cause glandular disturbances (think: intersex fish), Asian carp that eat everything in sight, zebra mussels by the trillions, and — not to be forgotten — lots and lots of chicken manure. (This is a huge and serious issue, but I can’t resist mentioning that it was the topic of the recent Great Lakes Manure Handling Expo, which you may have missed.)

The quality of water in the Great Lakes was not the only challenge; there are also myriad ongoing conflicts about quantity — about the right to use the 6 quadrillion tons of water the five lakes contain. Ironically, on June 24th, Nestlé Corporation, a party to an infamous Great Lakes water dispute, was also facing a water quality problem. That very day, the Federal Drug Administration notified Northeasterners that Nestle’s Pure Life Purified Drinking Water was not as pure as might be imagined. After filling its bottles with Lake Michigan water, Nestle had managed to contaminate some of that very same bottled water with cleaning compound.

But back to the June floods. Where else will the pollution from them be heading? For one thing, down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. When it gets there, the nitrogen and phosphorus swept into the current from upriver farmers’ fields will do what those farmers intended it to do: make things grow. Unfortunately, it will be fertilizing algae, which sucks oxygen out of its surrounding waters as it decomposes, adding to an already existing “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico where marine life can no longer live.

Even before the relentless late spring rains, scientists had predicted that, in the summer of 2008, this barren area off the Louisiana coast would grow to be a Massachusetts-sized 10,000 square miles. Post-flood, with even more fertilizer and freshwater pouring into the Gulf, that estimate was increased to 12,000 square miles or more, the equivalent of the state of Maryland.

Now, I’m neither a scientist, nor an engineer, nor anything remotely similar to either of the above. Once we got past the planaria in Biology 101, I could never find whatever it was we were supposed to be analyzing on that microscope slide. (I’m not proud of this: it’s simply the stark, unvarnished truth.) But even to a layperson, these Viewmaster shots of the extreme water issues facing the United States in the summer of 2008 — random as they may seem — suggest a panoramic picture of the state of water resources management in this country. In four words, it is sheer chaos.

Still Floundering After All These Years

It would be easy, even tempting, to blame the turbulent state of the nation’s water affairs on the Bush administration. Certainly, they’ve provided ample cause: gutting, and failing to enforce, the Clean Water Act, for instance, and, at best, simply ignoring the obvious problems of floods, droughts, and hurricanes, of shifting weather patterns, of contaminants old and new, and a myriad of other water disasters through eight long years.

The truth is, though, that scientists, engineers, and environmental planners have been advising Congress for years that holistic watershed management is the only rational and practical way to address complex water quality and quantity issues. Why that persistent recommendation? As Delaware River Basin Commission Executive Director Carol Collier told the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment on June 24th, bodies of water don’t respect political boundaries; we have to manage them “on the rivers’ terms.” And the stakeholders from both riverbanks — as well as from up and downstream — all need to be at the table. Notwithstanding this long-term chorus of expert advice, our elected officials have merrily continued to legislate piecemeal, funding billions of dollars of local water-related projects without regard to their overall value or impact.

Tragically, as it turns out, faced with the urgent need to change our management of U.S. waters, Congress has, for decades, been standing “up on the watershed” — just as in the Indigo Girls song — and they’ve been floundering. But you can’t say it hasn’t been a bipartisan effort.

Although the witnesses at the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee hearing were decidedly nonpartisan, the testimony of each and every one made this fact abundantly, even painfully, clear. They were all measured and polite, of course, but you didn’t have to be Karnac the Magnificent to sense the frustration.

Consider, for example, the testimony of Larry Larson, the Executive Director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. He began: “Once again we are seeing devastating floods in the Midwest — likely billions in losses to farms, homes, businesses and infrastructure.” Then, he ticked off some causes: population growth, migration, climate changes, degradation of water-based resources, deteriorating infrastructures, encouraging wetlands-draining and crop growth on marginal land, addressing water quality but not quantity, over-reliance on dams and levees to prevent floods.

His conclusion?

“Without dramatic shifts in our approaches and actions, by 2050 flood losses are likely to be far greater, ecosystems may well collapse, the nation’s quality of life will be diminished, and all hope of sustainable communities will be lost.”

Not long after that cheery forecast, there was Paul Freedman, Vice President of the Water Environment Federation and President of LimnoTech, an Ann Arbor-based water consulting firm. While preparing his presentation, he said, he had recognized some irony:

“Twelve years ago this month, I co-chaired one of the earliest and largest watershed conferences ever to occur. [The Water Environment Federation] organized it jointly with fifteen federal agencies. Well over a thousand experts participated and more than five thousand participated through videoconference At the time it was kind of this aha moment, you know, we’d made enormous progress since the Clean Water Act of 1972, but further progress toward restoring the physical, chemical and biologic health of our water resources, and protecting public health and well-being was stalled.

“Everyone agreed there, watershed management was the only answer to take us into the twenty-first century.”

Of course, that particular aha moment occurred in 1996. But University of Maryland Professor of Engineering Gerald Galloway — a retired U.S. Army Brigadier General who was the 2007 President of the American Water Resources Association — had a similar one in 1994.

After floods in 1993 had devastated many of the same Mississippi River towns that were once again inundated on June 24, 2008, he led an interagency team to study the complex problem of floodplain management. And, unsurprisingly, his team concluded that the United States should abandon its project-by-project approach to water resources. Not only, they pointed out, does such fragmented funding lead to ineffective, sometimes conflicting results, it actually forecloses possibilities for cooperation by, and among, federal agencies. As Galloway noted, “If you don’t have the money, it’s awfully hard to come to the party.”

We could rewind to even earlier aha moments. On February 17, 1952, for example, a New York Times headline reads, “Bill Asks Policy for River Basins: President’s Commission Files Draft that Sums Up its Plan for Water Resources.” The President in question was Harry Truman and the plan was, according to the article, “based solidly on the commission’s original and far-reaching premise that entire river basins must be considered in one broad and uniform policy.” In 1933, of course, the United States formed the Tennesee Valley Authority to execute a model comprehensive, collaborative approach to the water and power issues in that region. It has been, in Galloway’s words, a “shining example” — albeit one rarely followed.

Words of the Day

In the end, when it came to an assessment of the current state of our national water policy, there were precious few positive sentiments voiced at the hearing. Instead, the most often-used descriptions were alarmingly negative.

As applied to programs and projects, the words of the day included fractured, ad hoc, isolated, random, haphazard, inconsistent, stovepiped, and mish-mash. Relative to congressional committees and federal agencies, the term was hodge-podge. Larry Larson testified that there are a grand total of 36 congressional subcommittees that oversee water-related issues in some fashion or another — with few clearly-delineated divisions of authority.

And just how many federal offices are there in this mix? Well, last week, I spent a really enjoyable day calling U.S. Government offices and doing on-line research. In the end, I determined — conclusively — that it is not possible to actually know how many federal agencies engage in freshwater-related research, administration, projects, oversight, disaster relief, and/or reconstruction.

There appear, however, to be at least two dozen: The Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Council on Environmental Quality, the Food & Drug Administration, the Department of Transportation, the National Park Service, the Agricultural Research Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of the Census, the Office of Housing and Urban Development, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Science Foundation, the Small Business Administration, the Bureau of Reclamation, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the Economic Development Administration, the State Department’s International Boundary and Water Commission, the Rural Utilities Service, and several Department of Homeland Security offices that are probably too secret for us to be talking about.

Finally, with regard to laws, the operative terms were outdated and inadequate. The Clean Water Act of 1972 has made a dramatic difference in water quality and is justifiably considered to be a big success. As Freedman explained, however, the problems that exist in today’s environmental landscape are “dramatically different in scale and in nature” than they were thirty-some years ago.

In the 1970s, he said, the main environmental driver was “point source pollution” — that is, harmful substances spilled directly into water. Now, however, concerns include contaminants from indirect, but ever more ubiquitous, “nonpoint sources” — remember the chicken manure? — as well as “land use, ecosystem restoration, water scarcity, flooding, invasive species, endocrine disruptors, climate change, etc. — the list goes on.”

Consequently, Freedman told the Committee:

“Trying to solve these problems with the 1972 Clean Water Act is like trying to use a 1972 auto repair manual to repair a 2008 electric hybrid. It just doesn’t work. So it is with other independent and dated federal programs that don’t reflect the large scale and complexity of the problems we’re dealing with today.”

Too Many Uh-oh Moments

As I write this in mid-July, Louie is munching on a trellis. The smoke in our neighborhood has mostly cleared, leaving behind a stonewashed denim-blue sky. Safe and dry and happily back in the yard, it would be relatively easy to follow Homer Simpson’s advice. The disasters that dominated the headlines on June 24, 2008 have now been relegated to interior news pages and after all, there are three dozen congressional committees working on our national water issues.

But the reality is, of course, nothing has changed. The lives of approximately 11 million people in ten Midwestern states have been upended and — in far too many instances — devastated by this year’s wave of Mississippi River floods. The damage and the pain are immediate and ongoing. In California, too, the nightmare continues for the thousands of people who lost their homes and loved ones. Since May, there have been 1,700 wildfires sparked by lightning here; more than 300 are still raging, and 752,000 acres have been scorched. The fire “season” in the West is now year-round; reservoirs in the southeast are still depleted; fish are dying in the Great Lakes; our water is medicated with pharmaceuticals; the lost wetlands have not miraculously reappeared; and the hurricane season looms for at least three months to come.

One could argue that a fractured, ad hoc, haphazard mish-mash of random, inconsistent, and stove-piped projects, administered by a hodge-podge of 36 congressional committees and more than 20 agencies in accordance with outdated and inadequate laws constitutes a national water policy. A de facto one. But with so many ignored aha moments followed by ever-more-frequent and disastrous uh-oh moments, it seems we could use a policy that’s not quite so dependent upon sandbags and firehoses.

Elizabeth de la Vega is a former federal prosecutor with over twenty years experience. A contributor to TomDispatch since 2005, her pieces have appeared in various publications including the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times,, Truthout, Common Dreams and the Public Record. The author of United States v. George W. Bush et al., she may be contacted at [email protected] or through Speakers Clearinghouse.

Copyright 2008 Elizabeth de la Vega

Elizabeth de la Vega is a former federal prosecutor with more than 20 years of experience. During her tenure, she was a member of the Organized Crime Strike Force and Chief of the San Jose Branch of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California. Her pieces have appeared in The Nation magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and Salon. She writes regularly for She is the author of United States v. George W. Bush et al, a Tomdispatch book project.