Community Forum: Make your invisible shared water resources visible
This week’s writer is Bristol resident David Brynn, the Executive Director of Vermont Family Forests who for this piece described himself as “Commoner, Little Otter Creek Catchment, NW Addison County, Vermont, USA.”
Milton Friedman once wrote that “only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas lying around.” The rapidly changing climate is the most pressing crisis humanity has ever faced. The earth will be fine, but, if things continue unabated, it will not be fine for most of humanity. The evidence is mounting.
One of the most compelling ideas for addressing pressing ecological issues that is already “lying around” is The Commons. Our commonly-held wealth includes the air, water and wildlife and all three require additional respect, focus and valuation.
The Commons provides the foundation for a host of actions that will be effective if and when commoners step up to the plate. How? Peter Barnes argues that “We need to make invisible common wealth visible.”
Our water commons is ideally suited for the task Barnes has proposed for many reasons. Water is local. Sources of water pollution can be identified. We have proven methods available to us if we can muster the political will. Water is commonly-held in Vermont. The state of Vermont has been designated as the trustee of our water commons.
So how do we commoners make our water commons clearly visible as Barnes suggests? Measuring the health and quality of our streams, lakes and rivers is one way. Riverwatch collaboratives are already doing exceptional work in some catchments in that regard. This work needs to be expanded. Perhaps trading student debt for student data would help.
Most importantly, we need to do a much better job of assessing how well site-specific land use practices are conserving the quality of our water commons. We need to develop clear, simple and measurable methods for assessing the level of compliance with conservation practices that have been proven effective in conserving our water commons. These Optimal Conservation Practices (OCPs) will give us the insights we need to prioritize corrective actions.
Where do we start? Public lands, conserved private lands and lands enrolled in the Use Value Assessment Program are ideally suited. The public has already made significant investments in them, and evaluation of the level of OCP compliance is a logical way to examine the fruits of these public investments.
In the past we have left this work to the state. After all, the state of Vermont is the trustee of our water commons. For a variety of reasons this arrangement has left our water commons in need of help in spite of millions and millions of dollars invested.
Where should we commoners focus our attentions? Gary Snyder once suggested that we “find a place, call it home, take care of it and hope that others are doing the same elsewhere.” By evaluating OCP compliance in our home catchments — neighborhood by neighborhood, woodlot by woodlot and farm by farm — we can make our water commons clearly visible again.
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