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.