Cause and Effect

        Over the last year or so there has been a spate of news stories dealing with water problems. Communities across New Brunswick are having supply problems. Wells are contaminated, sometimes so badly that boiling the water is not sufficient to make them safe for consumption; reservoirs are at, or near, all time lows even in the winter; and rivers are reaching their summer low periods much earlier in the year than previously.

        Consider this: we are experiencing serious water-related problems here In New Brunswick, a small territory with a supposedly abundant supply of the stuff. We should be very well-off in comparison to most other geographical locations and political jurisdictions, but the warnings have already been issued. Moncton is facing mandatory restrictions on water use unless we experience very heavy spring rains. Hillsborough is facing the reality of having to find an entirely new water source because, it seems, the current one is so badly contaminated that it is essentially useless. Closer to home, Campbellton and Balmoral both experienced water shortage problems last summer, and I think that we all realise that another long, dry summer will exacerbate those situations and introduce them to other communities. Yet, by and large, we continue on, doing things as we always have, seemingly trusting to blind faith to correct the situation.

        The greatest difficulty that we face as a society in dealing with issues such as this is that we still really do not understand cause and effect. I have used the following example on previous occasions, but I think that it remains instructive in trying to understand this fundamental principle of physics.

        Way back in the early 1970's I "discovered" a small brook back in the South East. I used to fish for trout in this brook, and we used to camp there two or three times a summer. It was a delightful place, but it was extremely rugged to fish; as a result I had it largely to myself. One spring I discovered that there had been an enormous runoff. Previously shaded little nooks and twists in the stream bed had been gouged and straightened; overhangs of willow and spruce had been destroyed; signs of the height of water were evident in branches of trees and along rocky shores. At the time, I didn't know any better, so I assumed that this had been a natural, although extremely aggressive, spring runoff.

        All summer I continued to discover consequences of that runoff. Previously prolific fiddlehead patches had been inundated or erased. Little runs and riffles, the favourite lurking place for trout, had disappeared. The trout themselves were no longer present either in number or in size. Each August I had been able to find a few very large fish that had come up from the Upsalquitch to spawn. But they did not this year, and, as it turned out, not for many years after. Still I persisted in visiting the brook throughout that summer and fall. It was only the following year that I became seriously concerned about what was happening to this brook.

        The winter that second year had not been a particularly heavy one, but when I returned to the brook in early June, I discovered a repeat of the previous year. Once again, the waterway had been devastated by the runoff. That summer I decided to investigate. I struggled up the river as far as I could to see what had been going on up at its source. And therein lay the answer to the puzzle and, I would guess, the beginning of my environmental education. The whole area had been clear-cut two years previously. In the process, the soil itself had lost its capacity to absorb and store water, which meant that what should have been a whole year's supply had flushed down the brook in a couple of weeks.

        I revisited this brook last summer, nearly thirty years after the devastation. It is once again beginning to look like a natural brook. I did not fish it, so I have no way of knowing if the descendants of those large fish I used to see up there were once again coming back. I hope that they are. However, I was reminded of two things: one of those is that nature will eventually repair nearly everything that happens to it, given enough time. The other, though, is a sobering one for a society that persists in blundering its way through the environment; we simply do not realise that when we do something in one place that the worst consequences of that action may show up weeks or years later, kilometres downstream or half a continent away. We cut a hillside and villagers' wells start to run dry; we clean out a cedar swamp, seemingly kilometres from nowhere, and brooks dry up in early summer. Cause and effect: how much longer can we afford to ignore it?

        This article appeared in the Campbellton Tribune, in Mike's "Grains of Sand" column. It is reproduced with Mike's permission.


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