Decades ago, the saying was that “the solution to pollution is dilution.” Billions of people and tons of pollution fouling our water, air, and lands later, it is not so simple. The planet used to seem so vast and empty that we believed the raw waste we dumped, flushed or sent out a pipe could not hurt anyone or anything. We just wanted it somewhere else so it did not affect us and we did not have to think about it.
In the 1960s, we began to realize that the world did not have endless capacity to receive our wastes without reflecting back negative consequences. Our thinking and practices began to change. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio actually catching fire showed all too graphically what could result from dumping industrial wastes into waterways. A public service television ad depicting a Native American shedding a tear at seeing litter strewn over the landscape seemingly overnight stopped people from tossing their rubbish wherever it suited them.
Over fifty years later, many countries have a much better handle on dealing with pollution of lands and solid waste disposal. And while non-point source air pollution remains a major problem, a positive development has been that point-source air pollution has, at least in the West, significantly abated.
Pollution and degradation of waters has on the whole steadily worsened, with new and staggering realities in the headlines frequently: the impending death of the Great Barrier Reef, decimation of global fish stocks, the choking of seas and marine life with plastic waste. As technology has massively increased the ability of nations and private actors to use and misuse waterways, especially oceans, we see the adage that water does not obey jurisdictional boundaries made frighteningly manifest.
Those working in the water supply, wastewater and stormwater sectors have this adage front of mind every day. They deal with federal, state and local regulations that seek to keep water quality and quantity to standards that prevent harm to humans, wildlife and resources. They cooperate with other jurisdictions to understand and try to address common problems and challenges in shared watersheds. While local and state regulations may differ, they must all at the end nest under the same national regulations, creating a structure that embodies clear authority.
Where national boundaries meet, water pollution problems have no unilateral authority to fit under. The U.S. has two international boundaries – one with Mexico, the other with Canada. In the last 50 or so years, with populations and resulting sewage disposal problems increasing, and industries along shared waterways creating new and insidious means of polluting, the problem of international water pollution has gotten worse while the bandwith for dealing with it has gotten smaller and smaller in the face of more pressing local, national and global problems.
The means for the U.S. and Canada to resolve shared water issues is the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. Since most regulations governing current situations and problems with water use and quality in the U.S. were enacted and revised since the late 1960s, it feels unnervingly quaint to envision our relationship with Canada on water issues folding up into a construct created when words like “today” and “toothpaste” had hyphens. The first of the series of treaties that address water issues between the U.S. and Mexico goes back significantly further – to 1848.
A joint U.S.-Mexico body, the International Boundary and Water Commission, is charged with finding and recommending solutions to cross-border water issues. An analogous body, the International Joint Committee, addresses American-Canadian water issues. These entities add another complex layer to the already complicated local-state-federal structure that has developed to address water problems, and neither has binding authority – they are intended only to identify, gather, analyze and make recommendations on international water issues.
Positive steps and binding decisions are still up to the federal government of one or both countries, depending on the problem. And with the vast spectrum of social, economic and political challenges on governments’ plates, that can mean a problem originating in one country but negatively affecting only the other takes us back to the days of address the problem by just sending it somewhere else – a kind of environmental tribalism that encourages endless finger-pointing at the other side rather than action to address the problem.
Both Mexico and Canada discharge untreated sewage into ocean waters just adjacent to their respective U.S. borders. In 1990 Mexico signed an agreement with the U.S. known as Minute 283 in which it promised that no untreated wastewater from domestic or industrial sources would be discharged to the Tijuana River and enter U.S. waters. Almost three decades later, the problem is worse than ever, leading to amongst other consequences beach closures in tourism-dependent Southern California.
In Canada, the City of Victoria on Vancouver Island treats none of its sewage, discharging it directly into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This will change though in 2020 when Victoria is due to open its first wastewater treatment plant. Although owing to a unique set of factors, there is some valid question as to whether the current discharge method is actually harming humans or the environment. The lack of a treatment plant has been a source of embarrassment for locals and used as a shaming tool by outsiders wanting leverage on some issue. Eventually, shame led to enough political pressure to force Victoria’s hand.
In the international context, without clear regulatory structures that carry specific and meaningful penalties, adequate political pressure both within and outside the polluting country – along with the availability of funding – are critical to spurring action on water pollution that crosses national boundaries – and overcoming environmental tribalism.
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