Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 12.2.10

Our Degrading Watersheds
Protests against water restrictions miss the point
By Robert Emmons

The October hearing to consider protections for Lane County’s floodplains and drinking water attracted a mob. Like any mob, its majority were irrational, unruly, dictatorial — and largely, perhaps purposely, uninformed or misinformed. When this mass overwhelmed the proceedings with a forced Pledge of Allegiance — not a part of the Commissioners’ protocol — there was no doubt who was in charge of the hearing, or about their politics.

How many of the estimated 400 in attendance own riverfront property? Hard to tell, but I’m willing to bet that it was a very small percentage. Backed by Oregonians in Action and Americans For Prosperity, an East Coast right-wing front group formed by oil billionaire David Koch, the crowd arrived — many of them bused in — to take the bully pulpit and demand their property rights over all.

Lost in the crude behavior were data confirming real threats to public health and safety that supersede, ethically and legally, the so-called rights of a relatively few individuals. By withdrawing their support and canceling a rehearing, EWEB and three county commissioners foreclosed an opportunity for an official taskforce to present the informed reasoning behind their proposals and to clear up widespread misinformation and misunderstanding. And, by denying critical information an airing the issues, these public agencies legitimized mob rule, thereby denying supporters and opponents alike the chance to express a better-educated opinion.

Had that forum been provided, concerned citizens would have learned that widespread and cumulative development — much of it in the floodway on less than one-acre parcels — has resulted in severe and unacceptable impacts to the quality of water in the McKenzie River and, by extension, to all the county’s rivers. These include: high levels of E. coli and coliform bacteria in well and surface water from misplaced, faulty and failed septic systems; high levels of nitrates; runoff of toxic chemicals, including pesticides, fertilizers and pharmaceuticals; and extensive removal for views of streamside vegetation serving as natural filters and maintaining water temperatures essential to aquatic creatures.

Further, increased development has resulted in threats to water quality from loss of floodplain function, extensive use of revetments to protect houses permitted too close to the river, higher density clusters of septic systems and increased traffic density. 

Development in the floodplain also requires costly flood insurance. Adding insult to injury, all of these impacts have been allowed and exacerbated by a porous existing riparian ordinance further weakened by Lane County policy and practice, including lack of code enforcement.

Relief is long overdue.

Numerous scientific studies have determined one tree length, or 200 feet, to be the minimal setback necessary for waterway and drinking water protection. However, contrary to common misconception, the proposed drinking water overlay zone allows exceptions or variances for buildings or additions within the setback and the removal of hazardous and non-native vegetation. Any property owner may store up to 110 gallons of hazardous materials. Farm and forest operations are exempt from the ban on vegetation removal, as well as the storage and use of hazardous materials. And no one has even suggested a ban on clearcut logging, a major contributor to the degradation of county watersheds.

Nonetheless, Register-Guard letter writers and a recent guest editorial insist there’s no problem, that property owners are good stewards and that, anyway, “The McKenzie River is one of the cleanest in North America” (op-ed, R-G, 11/15 ). As many, if not most, of the nation’s rivers have been fouled by the sort of “good stewardship” that inspired the proposed ordinances, the writer’s assertion is tantamount to saying that someone is better off because she has a only a little cancer.

It’s unfortunate that EWEB’s PowerPoint, compiled from three years of studies graphically depicting the consequences of human impacts on the McKenzie watershed, was not available. But, frankly, I doubt it would have made any difference.

Despite claims of anti-regulatory stewardship to the contrary — or likely because of them — our watersheds will continue to degrade ecologically and economically, endangering public health and safety and reducing property values. If taking a clear-eyed look at human impacts in Lane County is not compelling, we need only look to Wall Street and the banking industry for the consequences of self-regulation. Protecting our waterways — and ourselves — requires clear, equitable, scientifically articulated regulation backed by enforcement that assures the common good a place above narrow self-interest.

Although unable, or unwilling, to address farm and forest practices, the floodplain and drinking water ordinances were a good beginning and testimony to a conscientious taskforce representing diverse interests.


Robert Emmons of Fall Creek is president of the board of directors of LandWatch Lane County. See