Laurel’s environmental activism was instrumental in placing two stories about Marion county groundwater problems on the front page of the Statesman-Journal yesterday and today. Laurel talked a lot with the reporter who wrote both stories, the first being “Problems with wells run deep in the mid-Valley” and the second, “Groundwater-zone ruling not far away.”
Laurel stimulated the Statesman-Journal’s interest in this issue by mailing the newspaper a copy of a critical letter she had sent to the Marion County Planning Commission, in which she berated the Commission for ignoring the advice of professional land use planners and hydrologists who recognize that the county ordinance that protects areas at risk of groundwater depletion (like where we live) needs to be strengthened.
One county. One environmental problem. This may not seem like a big deal. And in a sense, it isn’t. But in another sense, it is. Because when you plumb the depths of this local groundwater protection issue, you find that here in our Marion county microcosm are all the macrocosm dynamics of state, national, and global environmental problems.
On the most basic level it comes down to balancing private and public interests. Denny and Laurie Nielsen, the people who wanted to partition their lot here in Spring Lake Estates—and who we successfully stopped from doing so by appealing an initial approval of their application to the county—have every right to pursue their private financial interest. But they don’t have a right to make money in a manner that harms the broader public interest of the people who already live around the lot they wanted to partition into two lots.
With the help of our hydrologists, Malia and Greg Kupillas, we proved that allowing the Nielsens to put another house (and well) on their property likely would over-tax an already depleted groundwater aquifer. In this case, the public interest won out, as it should. But our observations of the Marion County Board of Commissioners and the Planning Commission make plain that some members on each board don’t understand that private property rights have to be balanced against the rights of the overall public.
This isn’t an abstraction. If you dig a well that causes my well to go dry, we have a problem. Yet at Board of Commissioners and Planning Commission meetings Laurel and I hear talk about people like the Nielsens being “victimized” when they can’t do just what they want with their property—regardless of how it harms the environment and other landowners. It’s hard to believe that people still can hold such attitudes, after all the evidence that our one and only planet Earth is suffering mightily from all the destructive waste we pour into it, and all the irreplaceable resources we wastefully suck out of it.
A big reason why so little progress is made in solving these problems is that the environmental chicken house ends up being guarded by the self-interest foxes. This was one of the points in Laurel’s letter that went to the Statesman-Journal. Why is a realtor, George Grabenhorst, chairman of the Marion County Planning Commission? Why is a well-driller, Gary Monders, another member of the Commission?
By what stretch of the imagination are these guys qualified to be making decisions about protecting groundwater? Realtors want more houses built and sold. Well-drillers want more wells dug and deepened. Why isn’t the Planning Commission made up of people who have a balanced view, who understand that protecting natural resources has to go hand-in-hand with developing private property?
Laurel is still asking these questions, which echo those being asked of decision-makers on state and national levels. She, along with me, started our protect-the-groundwater crusade with a naïve belief that government was transparent, fair, and dedicated to enhancing the broad public interest. But the more we come to learn of how environmental policies are made, the more we realize that all too often those with money, influence, and political power do their best to make decisions to feather their own nest, and leave the rest of us with the droppings.