It is cheaper to keep our water clean than to clean it up after it has been polluted. It’s also better for our fish to keep our brooks, streams, and rivers flowing freely, even when they pass through culverts. And the alarming changes in our climate demand smarter water management.
These are three prime reasons for Gov. Paul LePage and Maine legislators to support L.D. 1455, a General Fund bond issue to “Ensure Clean Water and Safe Communities,” sponsored by Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan.
I initially submitted a version of this column that recognized a small miracle when the governor and Democratic legislative leaders got together to talk about a bond package for the November ballot. The governor was pressing for a $100 million transportation bond issue, while Democratic legislators wanted a broader package that encompasses transportation needs and other high priorities, focused on clean water and university and community college needs.
Alas, a day after I emailed in the column, these folks agreed on a bond package that did not include the clean water bond. This is a major mistake.
While L.D. 1455 calls for a $50 million bond issue “to allow investment in natural and built infrastructure that provides water-related benefits for communities across Maine,” I certainly expected to get less money than that. What I didn’t expect was to get shutout. I am flabbergasted that the State Armory is seen as a more important investment that clean water. Nothing delivers a bigger payback than conservation.
So, what’s this clean water initiative all about? Two things:
• Natural infrastructure: Includes the conservation or restoration of drinking water aquifers, headwater forests, freshwater and coastal wetlands, lakes and ponds, rivers, streams and their floodplains, clam flats, and eelgrass beds.
• Built infrastructure: Includes stream crossing (culvert) upgrades, small (non-hydro) dam removals, storm water management projects, and irrigation system enhancements.
There are lots of benefits here, including high-quality drinking water, preparation for the extreme storms we’re seeing more of these days, conservation of habitat for fisheries, waterfowl, and other key species, strengthening of our economic base, and — of course — jobs in construction, tourism, fisheries, and other areas of our struggling economy.
Perhaps most compelling, spending our money proactively saves much more money in the future that would be required to clean up our messes and deal with major storm damage.
I am particularly excited about the possibility of funding to help Maine cities and towns replace failing culverts with better ones. Some of the bond money will be available for grants to towns that will allow them step up to better culverts when they need to replace them.
Tens of thousands of culverts now prevent fish passage — keeping fish from getting to their spawning grounds — and we’ve been struggling for years to require — when those culverts are replaced — better culverts that allow fish passage. But it costs more money to do the right thing for our fisheries, and municipalities have strongly — and successfully — opposed our efforts to require better culvert installations. The bond will give towns the extra money needed so they can upgrade their culverts — when replacing them — to allow fish passage.
Many of my favorite organizations are supporting this bond, including the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, The Nature Conservancy, Maine Audubon, GrowSmart Maine, and the Congress of Lakes Association. But if those aren’t enough to win your support, how about the Maine Municipal Association, The Maine Water Utilities Association, and Sargent Corp.? If you need more convincing, a hot-off-the-press assessment by Charles Colgan, former state economist, and two other smart people will be required reading. You will find it here: muskie.usm.maine.edu/Publications/AssessmentWaterResourcesMaine.pdf.
Colgan and company point out that the “changing climate is producing increasingly frequent and extreme precipitation.” And they make the case that “promoting the use of natural systems ability to keep water clean, to diffuse the effects of flooding, and to dispose of wastes (within limits) is now accepted as an effective and economically viable alternative to building large new structural solutions to water problems.”
Bottom line: Wise investments that keep our water clean, save huge sums of money down the road. And the assessment gives us some great and compelling examples. This is not a new road we’re taking. Others are well ahead of us. This bond issue is critically important. We can only hope that when the Legislature convenes to consider the bond package, that don’t forget this.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon, 04352, or [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.