The health and protection of water quality in America has long been associated with the federal government. The landmark Clean Water Act of 1972 hastened the reversal of centuries of disregard and degradation of our nation’s rivers and streams. For most of U.S. history, waterways were used as sewers and dumping grounds, and the health of the rivers and the aquatic life they support suffered greatly. We need only look back 50 years, when the Delaware River was so polluted that its toxic waters corroded the paint on ships, fish could not migrate beyond Philadelphia, and people got sick from breathing noxious fumes coming from the river.
A renewed awareness of our relationship to water – and the fragility of freshwater ecosystems – is essential in a time when we can no longer take for granted that effective environmental safeguards are keeping our freshwater resources protected. Sadly, federal regulations protecting water quality are now under wholesale attack. Safeguards are being dismantled for the sake of financial and political gain. It seems that doing what’s best for the protection of the environment and public health is no longer a priority of the federal government.
In a dangerous trend, science is being strategically devalued by people in positions of power and influence. As a result, there has been a shift in public opinion about science that has helped pave the way for harmful policy changes that do not benefit the environment.
Conserving forests and wetlands is also an important part of protecting water quality. Plants naturally filter water, prevent erosion, and trap pollutants. Yet, destructive legislative actions such as allowing drilling in national parks and approving pipelines that fragment habitats and crisscross waterways put our resources, health, and ecosystems at risk through pollution and accelerated erosion.
So, what can we do?
We must search out opportunities for collaboration and secure additional funding (through public and private sources) to implement restoration and protection efforts. One example of this is the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, a privately funded partnership of 50 groups, including the Academy of Natural Sciences, in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New York. The goal is to protect the watershed for the 15 million residents who rely on the Delaware for their drinking water.
Local organizations like the William Penn Foundation and the Philadelphia Water Department have played a vital role in advancing stewardship of the Philadelphia region’s water resources and have helped make Philadelphia a national model for water stewardship. Their commendable efforts should serve as a call to action for other organizations to devote time and resources to the protection of water quality in our region.
What can we do in our own neighborhoods?
Learning how to grow, nurture, and maintain our own backyards and communities is the most powerful way we can help protect water quality in our daily lives. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society is committed to effecting positive change in our neighborhoods, protecting our environment, and improving our public spaces through the unifying power of horticulture, and through conservation of our waterways and providing access to clean water.
One of the goals of the “Wonders of Water” theme of the Philadelphia Flower Show is to provide visitors with actionable ideas and strategies they can use to begin simple water conservation projects in their own backyards and neighborhoods that will have a significant impact on clean water in our communities. From choosing native plants for your garden to obtaining a free rain barrel from the Philadelphia Water Department’s Rain Check program (managed by PHS and the Sustainable Business Network) visitors will learn that through simple, affordable actions, how we can each play a part in protecting clean water.
Scott Cooper is president and CEO of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Matt Rader is president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.