Source: FRONTLINE Poisoned Waters
FRONTLINE Poisoned Waters
For more resources from this report go to FRONTLINE Poisoned Waters.
More than three decades after the Clean Water Act, iconic American waterways like the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound are in perilous condition and facing new sources of contamination. In this special collection of educational resources from FRONTLINE Poisoned Waters, correspondent Hedrick Smith investigates the growing hazards to our waterways and emerging threats to human health.
Poisoned Waters Discussion Guide (Document)
In America, we’ve always felt we had enough space to use land any way we wanted. Homesteaders planted their stakes in the virgin heartland. Post-war America built Levitt towns. Developers made fortunes converting farmland into suburban tracts. Dallas, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, and other cities vied to create the nation’s biggest mall.
But lately, so many millions have crowded into areas along our coastlines, lakes and rivers that three-fourths of Americans now live within 50 miles of a major body of water. That trend focuses new attention on the loss of open land near our waterways and on how land use affects water quality. Scientists and regulators tell us, for example, that controlling land use is the key to reducing stormwater runoff and its harmful pollution.
States from Florida and Maryland to Oregon and California have passed growth management laws. The law passed in Washington State requires county governments to concentrate development in established urban areas, to impose strict zoning, and to protect environmentally critical areas such as forests, streams, shorelines, and wetlands.
King County (the Seattle area) has become a laboratory for testing the politics of land use. It’s an area bigger than Rhode Island - home not just to Seattle and 1.8 million people, but two-thirds of the county is still forest. It’s an area where the state seeks to control the pace of development.
Ron Sims, county chief executive from 1995-2009, has been on a mission to save Puget Sound by managing land use with a three-pronged strategy: “We’re encouraging active land use in urban areas,” he says. “We’re discouraging it in our agricultural areas, and we are now buying the land in our forest areas.”
With $22 million in taxpayer money, Sims bought development rights on 90,000 acres of timberland to block development in a huge area high above Seattle. He passed a zoning measure 20 years ago setting a minimum of five acres per home in rural areas, stopping most subdivisions. In 2004, with a Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO), Sims limited landowners on the amount of land they could clear - one-third of ten-acre plots, one-half of five acre plots; the rest had to remain in woods and natural growth.
That caused an uproar. Property owners said they were being stripped of their rights unfairly and without reason. Sims replied the limits were scientifically set. Studies showed that to control stormwater runoff, two-thirds of rural areas had to remain under vegetation. Some property owners complained the new CAO had cost them money because they couldn’t subdivide land. Sims replied that the zoning law had blocked subdividing much earlier and no one had lost use of their land.
The battle landed in the courts, with both Sims and Governor Chris Gregoire warning that if Washington’s supreme court struck down the ordinance, it would undermine the state’s whole environmental strategy. Said Sims: “It’ll be the abandonment of everything that this state has voted on consistently, which is they want environmental protection here.”
Background Essay Written by Hedrick Smith.
Poisoned Waters explores why American waterways like the Chesapeake Bay and the Puget Sound are in peril. After watching the video chapter on land use and water quality, discuss your answers to the following questions:
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