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Troubled Waters

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WaterShapes LogotypeEric Herman

Back on March 17, the World Wildlife Fund released a report on the profound level of environmental damage that’s been done to some of the world’s most iconic rivers. The news about the Nile, Danube, Yangtze, Ganges, La Plata and Rio Grande rivers is indeed grim: All are so severely polluted that they’re in immediate danger of

losing most or all of their plant and animal species.

As a rule, I don’t bring up current events in this column, but I can’t help seeing the meticulous work watershapers do in managing artificial bodies of water and in restoring wetlands and watersheds and thinking there may yet be hope for these wild waterways.

The World Wildlife Fund reports that, overall, more 2,000 of the 10,000 most common freshwater species of fish are in danger of vanishing completely within the next 10 to 25 years. The environmental implications of extinctions at that level are so broad that they defy description: Even if the projections are dramatically out of whack, even if just a fraction of what the experts are predicting actually comes to pass, the blow to the environment – and perhaps humanity itself – is simply devastating.

The forces driving the deterioration of our world’s most renowned waterways are all-too-familiar: dramatic population growth, chemical/nutrient runoff from agriculture, the dumping of industrial waste, global warming, lack of environmental oversight and diversion of river flows. In that last case, the World Wildlife Fund reports that, of the world’s 177 longest rivers, only 21 now flow from source to sea unimpeded by dams or other diversions.

Leaving aside the ethical imperatives behind environmental preservation, the practical fact is that these massive bodies of fresh water are absolutely critical to local populations and economies. They are a source of food, potable water, recreation, transportation, energy and irrigation. If these rivers continue on their current downward spiral and/or die completely, it’s not hard to see that the disruptions to local, national and global economies and standards of living will be profound and enduring.

I’m not the sort who indulges every apocalyptic prediction that comes along; in fact, I’m the first to say that those who approach such reports with skepticism may have cause to question findings in some cases – but not here. What the World Wildlife Fund is reporting is an update on long-term, ongoing monitoring of deteriorating waterway conditions and is therefore hard to dispute.

The upside in all of this is that there are many cases in which sound environmental stewardship has brought dying waterways back from the brink – think Lake Michigan, Boston Harbor, the Cuyahoga River and lengthy portions of the Mississippi. With concerted action, there’s obvious hope.

As an industry dedicated to creating wonderful artificial bodies of water, I think it’s incumbent upon us who love water and make our livings from it to be aware of the bigger picture and, as they say, “think globally and act locally” when it is appropriate and possible.

The first step, as always, is simply being informed. The rest is up to each of us – and it seems to me that watershapers have just the sorts of skills and insights that might come in handy down by the river.

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