Source Water Protection Award Acceptance Speech

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Written by Suzanne P. Ruggles, May 4, 2009

While many forms of life can survive without oxygen, none can survive without water. And as hard as we try, with all of our intellect and scientific prowess, we cannot manufacture water.

Most people are shocked to know that 97% of the world’s water is salt water and that only 1% of the earth’s water is usable to us. Even more shocking is that most of that water is now unfit for human use. We are polluting and destroying our finite sources of water faster than it is being replenished. Simply put, the world is running out of water, and in 50 years, there will likely be a collapse of the world’s water systems.

Water is even being sold on the stock market and the water market is exploding because some of the biggest corporations in the world are realizing that water is the hottest commodity out there, and in the end, those who can afford water will have water, and those who cannot afford water will go without. If there is one thing that will finally wake us up to how abusive we have been to our environment, it will be that we are running out of water.

There are many who say that the third world war will be fought over water and indeed wars over water are already being fought around the globe. There are even maps charted out to explain where the hottest areas of conflict over water will take place in the future.

In Bolivia, people have been killed in the streets while fighting to maintain control over their water. The Colorado River dries up before it gets to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico because all of the water is being used upstream in the United States causing intense friction between the US and Mexico. In Malaysia, the water pollution is so severe that the government has issued the death penalty for those who pollute the water. Water-borne diseases are now killing more children than Malaria and Aids combined. And every 21 seconds a child dies from a water related illness.

In the United States, forty percent of our waters are classified as impaired, and a UN commissioned report found that 60% of the earth’s life-supporting functions, including water, are in decline. Here on Long Island, we have one of the few sole source aquifer designations in the country – a place from which comes at least 50% of our total water supply – our very own source of precious life giving water thanks in very large part to the hard working people at the Suffolk  County Water Authority, the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, The Nature Conservancy, and The Neighborhood Network, four organizations whom I thank profoundly for this award today.

And yet, we defile our water by killing our wetlands and streams, and replacing them with lawns and “landscaping”, with bulkheading, and with pavement – destroying the very ecological niches where our water can clean itself.

The first thing many of us do when we buy a property is kill everything on it, we rip out all of our native plants, plants that feed and shelter our native wildlife and insects. We even remove the roots that have been holding the soil in place, exposing the soil, sending it into our water supply where it gets into the gills of fish, covers fish eggs, and prevents plant life from photosynthesizing. Many of us replace our wetlands and streams – the very ecological niches where water can clean itself – with bulkheading, also in the process destroying feeding areas, and breeding and spawning areas not to mention the fact that deer and turtles and muskrats among others can drown looking for a place where they can make their way onto the land. And then we replace our natural heritage with pavements, and lawns, and with non-native plants that require life support to survive here – life support that includes the use of harmful pesticides and fertilizers, and exorbitant amounts of water.

These things are my nemesis, my crusade, and my passion: the fight against The Tyranny of Landscaping.

As for me, I don’t even have a lawn and here is why:

  • Lawn mowers, blowers and weed whackers have no emissions standards and are thus major polluters. One hour of power mowing emits the equivalent in air pollution as driving 350 miles by car. In addition to causing respiratory ailments in humans and other animals, emissions pollute our air and our clouds and fall back to us as acid rain, ultimately polluting our water supply.
  • More than 700 million gallons of gasoline are used annually to power lawn equipment and the EPA reports that 17 million gallons of fuel, mostly gasoline, are spilled each year while refueling lawn equipment. That is more than all of the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez in the Gulf of Alaska.
  • 3,000,000 tons of fertilizers are applied annually to American lawns and 60 % of the nitrogen from these fertilizers ends up in our groundwater. Nitrogen is toxic to humans! and has been implicated in many childhood afflictions including blue baby syndrome. And the nitrogen is killing aquatic life; in fact, there are black zones in our bays and oceans where nothing is alive because of fertilizer leaching and runoff. As a result, there are communities across the country that are banning the use of fertilizers and gas-powered lawn mowers in a last ditch effort to save their waterways.
  • Current lawn care practices are an enormous waste of water. On Long Island, fully 50% of the water used is devoted to lawn care. In the film “Blue Gold – Water Wars” a film which I believe every human being should watch, it is recommended that if your climate cannot support a lawn without artificial irrigation, then don’t have one!
  • The shorter we cut our grass, the shorter the root system the grass has, so short cut lawns require more, and more, and ever more water – while taller grass shades the soil which prevents soil water evaporation, and the longer roots make the grass much more resistant to drought. Furthermore, the more non-turf vegetation we have on our properties, the more shade we have, the cooler the soil, the less evaporation of water from the soil, and thus the less water necessary to maintain our landscape. In addition, the more non-turf vegetation, the less storm water runoff because the water drips slowly from the leaves and branches, rather than slaloming across the landscape and ending up in our waterways carrying with them a toxic load of chemicals.
  • Over 70 million pounds of pesticides are applied to lawns in the U.S. every year, pesticides to which our children and our pets are very vulnerable because we send them out to play in the grass, because they’re always putting their hands in their mouths, because of the highly absorptive nature of their skin and paws, and because they play on the floor indoors where pesticides have been tracked into the house and are not broken down by soil organisms and sunlight. And these pesticides are confirmed or suspected carcinogens, act as endocrine disruptors, and disrupt central nervous system function – all for the status of a perfect, emerald- green lawn – a monoculture where only one thing is allowed to survive at the expense of all others.
  • On Long Island, a study that tested ground water and well water found over ten different pesticides, some in levels exceeding the maximum allowable dose, and 51 % of private wells sampled in 2002 were contaminated with pesticides or pesticide related chemicals. These are just some of the facts, and I will be more than happy to provide more facts to anyone who cares — to anyone who will listen.

So thank you, all of you, for giving me this award which is wonderful and validating, but honestly, I already have the reward.

I have it since the first day I traded in my lawnmower to provide a sanctuary for endangered box turtles and sprightly cottontail rabbits. I have had the ultimate peace of mind since I traded in the dangers and costs of pesticides for iridescent and bejeweled beneficial insects, for the enchantment of the songbirds, for the silliness of the toads, and for the sacred delights of the butterflies and the chipmunks. I have been rewarded daily since I gave up the toil of leaf removal and realized that in the process I am not only holding my soil in place and thus keeping it out of the waterways, but I am also nourishing the multitude of organisms from small animals to insects and microbes that live just below the surface, and who in living out their place in the natural cycle of things, give custom made fertilizer to my plants in exchange for what the plants give them.

I have been experiencing the ultimate reward since I traded tree pruning and tree removal to provide habitat to those who depend on them from our magnificent owls, woodpeckers and hawks, to salamanders, possums, squirrels, and insects. And I don’t have to deadhead my flowers because I know that before the advent of commercial, pesticide-laden bird seed, birds simply ate the seeds directly from the native plants. I have been living with my reward since I gave up the excess nitrogen in fertilizers and began instead to use compost which nourishes without harming the herons and the egrets, the otters and the trout, and the vast torrent of aquatic life from the plants to the seals, dolphins, and whales. .. And the humans. My reward is the pure air, pure soil, and pure food from my organic vegetable garden, and the irresistible, magic of whimsical, glorious, enchanting nature. You see, I already have the reward – for I live in paradise.

As wonderful as are all of these rewards, my truest and most meaningful rewards will be when I see the end of the baresoiled construction site, less thirsty lawns and non native plants, and more sensitivity to the symbiotic co-evolutionary relationship between our native plants, insects, and animals. When common sense prevails – when I see the reversal of the laws that perpetuate a bad idea by upholding the lawn as the law of the land – when that law is repealed that now criminalizes those who do not buy into the idea that the lawn is king but who rather see it for the environmental blight that it is – when those laws are reversed – I will be rewarded beyond measure and beyond my wildest dreams. For you cannot force a people by law to harm their own land, their own children, and their own water.

For those of you who tend lawns for living, there is no need to fear. Lawn alternatives still require the expertise of those in the field of landscaping and gardening. The work is not gone, but a new phase of “landscaping” must begin – lawn reclamation and revegetation with native plants will provide plenty of work because every yard in America needs this: every square inch of lawn is a place where we can rehabilitate our earth by revegetating with native plants – plants that require no fertilizer, no pruning, no pesticides, and no irrigation once established.

And here is the best part: everyone can do this. If you have a yard you can do this! There are over 54 million acres of residential turf grass in the United States. If everyone gave back 1/54th of their lawn, – just stopped mowing – we could save 1 million acres… Just like that. And this is not something that you have to lobby for or write to the paper about or attend meetings for or send in money for – this is something you can just do, and believe me, if you try this, you will love it. You will LOVE the results; you and your children will experience nature in all of its beauty, surprise, delight and magic right in your own backyard. You will hear the birds singing in the morning, butterflies will float and dance and sip nectar from the wildflowers, hummingbirds will dart and weave, and the native plants will fill the air with sweet perfume. You and your children will be safe.. and enchanted with the magic and delight that is nature itself … And you will be saving not only our water and our earth, but in the process, you will be saving all of the life that depends on it.

Thank You.
Suzanne P. Ruggles, Owner
Board of Directors, The Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons
Instructor, The Nature Lyceum for Organics

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The Original Barefoot Gardener of the Hamptons