Opinion Piece by Stacy James, Watershed Scientist
Published in the News-Gazette on November 14, 2010
If fish were people, we would still be mourning the mysterious death of tens of thousands of our fellow citizens. We wouldn’t just be talking about it in the break room. We would be making phone calls and demanding the perpetrator be caught. We would declare the incident an atrocity that should never happen again.
But fish aren’t people. And the 40,000 fish that died north of Mahomet over Labor Day weekend seem to have lost our attention. Out of sight is out of mind. Few of us actually saw their pale bodies floating in the remote waters of Lone Tree Creek and the Sangamon River. Thus, we are neither haunted nor motivated by the memory of what we experienced directly. And we have not been reminded by the media, which has been quiet since the initial story broke. The fact that the government investigation continues may be a sign that the culprit will not be caught. Yet the fish still have a story to tell.
Chapter One reminds us of the power of individuals to make a difference. It was a member of the public who made the call resulting in the official investigation. If the call had not been placed, if people had wondered without acting, the incident may have silently passed us by with no chance of justice being served. The importance of acting quickly cannot be underscored enough because good evidence only lasts so long. Unfortunately, not knowing what to do or fear of retribution prevents so many of us from taking action. Some informants face legitimate threats, but anonymity is better than silence. The Illinois Emergency Management Agency has a 24-hour hotline (1-800-782-7860) that can be called in the event of an environmental emergency.
Chapter Two reminds us that we all live downstream. The fish formed a death streak some ten miles long. A trip upstream unveiled an agricultural drain tile discharging dark liquid. A trip even further upstream showed life again. The world beneath our feet contains millions of miles of buried pipe, and it is not all mapped. Often times, many pipes feed a main pipe, much like many capillaries feed a vein. Therefore, when pollution is discharged out of a pipe and into a river, we don’t necessarily know where it came from. Many pollutants are invisible or become diluted, so we cannot assume that a clear river is a safe river. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has determined that only about 19% of assessed streams get a “good” rating for being able to safely support water recreation activities such as swimming; the other 81% of streams are more polluted and therefore receive a “fair” or “poor” rating. Streams will probably always be conduits of pollution, but they should not be dumping grounds or treated like sewers. Unfortunately, fish kills happen regularly in Illinois, not only in rural streams but also in urban rivers and neighborhood lakes. If we want to be able to safely use these waterways for generations to come, we need to honor our water with the same sacredness that we honor the blood in our bodies.
Chapter Three reminds us that the government agencies responsible for upholding state and federal environmental laws are sorely underfunded and understaffed. When a fish kill occurs, significant time and resources are put into the investigation and other important work is postponed. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Natural Resources are victims of budget cuts and swept funds, leaving them unable to adequately protect and monitor the environment. Conservation organizations like the one I work for, Prairie Rivers Network, find it difficult to achieve positive policy changes when public officials cite the lack of resources as preventing such changes. Human civilization depends on a healthy environment, so we must find a way to safeguard our life support system.
Chapter Four reminds us of how lucky we are to have clean water. When we go to kitchens and restrooms, the water actually comes on and is drinkable. In other parts of the world, water is intermittent and may be so contaminated that people become sick. Fish and other wildlife cannot turn the water on and off. They cannot make the water cleaner. They live and die by what we give them. They depend on our compassion and ethics and how we treat our common, shared resources. They depend on our intelligence and ability to understand the repercussions of our actions.
The final chapter is for us to write. Only a cruel author would end this story with the silent descent of flesh into the river’s bottom. From death, new life can begin. By taking better care of our fish and water, we will take better care of ourselves.
Dr. Stacy James is a Water Resources Scientist with Prairie Rivers Network, Illinois’ statewide river conservation organization. Prairie Rivers Network is based in Champaign and can be found online at www.prairierivers.org.