Monday, February 10, 2020

Wins for Sewage

My GEOG 431 course -- Environmental Regulations -- will be a bit complicated when I teach it in the fall 2020, but I'm determined to do my best. The gap between hard-won environmental laws and their responsible enforcement is growing.

Congress passes laws, presidents sign them, and then executive departments implement the laws through regulations. I teach a course that helps future environmental professionals (and citizens who simply want to know how their government works) navigate the complexities of those regulations. We explore what happens when people find the enforcement either too strict or too lax -- this is where courts get involved.

But the current approach to "implementing" established environmental law is to operate the enforcing agencies in such a way as to essentially shred the original laws. The changes are so widespread and rapid as to preclude meaningful appeal to the courts, and courts are being unraveled at the same time.

The result? Those who favor dumping more raw sewage into rivers are winning. And YES, some agencies -- and elected officials -- really prefer more sewage in the water if it makes their budgets easier to balance. And oddly, it always does, because sewage flows downhill.
A new tunnel to store raw sewage below Congress and the White House.
Photo: Ting Shen for NY Times.
In my reading of the history of municipal sewage systems (yes, I have a glamorous job), it turns out that local officials will almost always favor sending more sewage to the next town. Even when the Federal government pays 90 percent of the cost of treatment, many officials will resist spending the remaining 10 percent. This is why Federal regulations are needed, why deregulation zealots should be kept away from our public water supplies.

Special Organic Period

Cuba's meandering Rio Cauto in the photo accompanying the Morning Star article.
You can explore the river further on Google Maps; the city in the center of the image
is Guamo Embarcadero; east is up in the view above.
The title of a recent article in Morning Star is a good summary of the results of what might be called an accidental experiment: "Cuban rivers free from pollution thanks to green farming."

The article is correct: several decades of organic farming have led to much cleaner soil and water in Cuba. For what one must presume are ideological reasons, however, author Steve Sweeney neglects to mention the reason Cuba embarked on this experiment. The greening of Cuban agriculture was not a choice; it was simply the only option during Cuba's Special Period.

For several decades, the Soviet Union subsidized Cuba in two ways: it sold petroleum and its derivatives to Cuba very cheaply, and it paid Cuba well above market prices for its sugar and other crops.

When the USSR collapsed, the Special Period began, and Cuba -- to its credit -- got VERY creative and thrifty. There was a lot of suffering but also a lot of innovation. One example was the gathering of citizen work crews to convert freight vehicles into public buses.
My favorite example of collaboration during the Special Period:
citizen brigades turned lowboy trailers into public buses,
known as camels.
In agriculture, Cuban farmers had to learn quickly how to grow crops without chemical pesticides or fertilizers. My visit to Cuba was in the very early days of my interest in coffee, but I was already aware that the seedling nursery we visited on the outskirts of Havana was not at a high enough elevation for coffee production. It was, however, a suitable site for giving organic coffee plants a healthy start.
This might be my first #coffeemaven photo!
It is, of course, not permitted for U.S. citizens, residents, or visitors to buy Cuban coffee (our claims of being the freest nation on earth notwithstanding), unless one gets a Treasury Department waiver under the Trading with the Enemies Act (I am not making this up). We had such a permit for our 2003 visit. One can, however, order Cuban style coffee from Paul Katzeff ("God's Gift to Coffee") at Thanksgiving Coffee.

Lagniappe

Readers may explore a region just to the east of what is show above in my 2013 Hoguín Son post, which I wrote a decade after my only (so far) visit to the island.

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