In the U.S., acid precipitation falls almost continuously on the ecologically vulnerable lands and waters of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine; in short, the 182,496-square-mile northeast quadrant of the U.S. Acid precipitation has destroyed trout streams, trout ponds and bass lakes, which is unsettling if not disastrous; it is also very close to rendering the Quabbin Reservoir, which serves more than two million people in the metropolitan Boston area, an economic disaster. The cost to keep the water potable in years to come promises to be enormous. As Alan VanArsdale of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Quality Engineering explains, "Our charge is to provide good water and, of course, we'll do that. But as the reservoir gets worse, the cost goes way up. Who wants to treat a 39-square-mile lake?"
This is a point often overlooked by the Reagan Administration: Environmental consciousness often makes good economic sense. In the classic pay-me-now-or-pay-me-later scenario, the costs the environment is not exacting today from the industries contributing to the acid rain problem, it will claim tomorrow from the public sector to clean up the resultant mess.
An official of the Environmental Protection Agency recently told Senator George Mitchell of Maine that the Administration isn't going to take any action as long as acid precipitation was confined to the Northeast. But that part of the U.S. isn't the only affected area. Southeastern states, from Florida to Kentucky, are being hit by the same mess. Some rain that falls on Raleigh, N.C. is more acid than white vinegar; The Charlotte Observer routinely reports on rain acidity on its weather page; and the Blue Ridge Parkway has become known as the Gray Ridge Parkway because of air-polluting ammonium sulfate, a form of acid precipitation.
Acid precipitation, often at levels that have been associated with the beginning of lake acidification in Scandinavia, is now falling on sensitive lands and waters in Michigan and Minnesota. It is also falling in New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, California and Washington (see box on page 78).
That the barn door is still wide open after several prize horses have escaped seems irrelevant to the very people who are charged with guarding the door. No portion of the U.S. has been harder hit than the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. The Adirondacks lie in an area affected by polluted air masses coming from the Ohio River Valley, southern Canada and the Middle West. What has happened in the Adirondacks is a preview of what might occur elsewhere.
"It's insidious," says C.V. Bowes Jr., the owner of Covewood Lodge, a resort on Big Moose Lake in the western Adirondacks. Bowes is standing in the living room of his house looking out at the acid waters of Big Moose, one of 212 Adirondack lakes and ponds that have so far been documented as acidified. It was on Big Moose, in 1906, that Chester Gillette drowned his lover, Grace Brown, thereby providing Theodore Dreiser with the basis for An American Tragedy, an ironically prophetic title in view of what has happened in recent years. The still pristine-appearing lake is now so acid that swimmers sometimes emerge with bloodshot eyes. Except for the few odd fish that hover about spring holes in the bottom, the trout are gone.
"I can remember how good the fishing was," Bowes says. "Then, 30 years ago, it slowly started to tail off. First the state blamed it on the big blowdown of 1950, when we lost 75% of our coniferous trees in the aftermath of a hurricane. The state said that the downed trees made the water poorer for fish. No one suspected what was wrong, but we should have known something was crazy when the trout the state stocked would run out of the lake down the outlet to the Moose River. The state next blamed the beaver. The conservation department said the beaver were warming up the water by damming tributary streams, and the department began dynamiting dam after dam, dozens of them. Acid rain was never mentioned. We never even heard about acid rain until five years ago, when we started reading about the trouble in Sweden and Canada."
By his own account, Bowes should have known better. Before he bought Covewood Lodge, a rustic hotel, in 1951, he was a professional naturalist on the staff of the National Audubon Society. Even after Bowes left Audubon, he ran field trips to Central and South America, the Caribbean and Africa. But for all of his expertise in the workings of the world around him, he admits he didn't have a glimmer about acid precipitation until it was too late.
The incident that opened Bowes's eyes occurred only a year ago, at the start of the tourist season. In July and August, when business is hectic at the Lodge, Bowes, his wife, Diane, and their two young daughters, Kimberly and Rebecca, move out of their house and live in an apartment on the third floor of the hotel. They are downstairs running the hotel all day and use the apartment only at night. One evening in July 1980, Kimberly and Rebecca turned on the faucet in the apartment to get a drink of water. They complained that it tasted "funny." Indeed it did, and analysis disclosed that it contained five times the State Health Department's permissible amount of lead and three times the permissible amount of copper. It was determined that acid precipitates entering the spring that supplied the water for Bowes's hotel had leached the metals from the building's plumbing in poisonous amounts.
The lead and copper could be tasted in the water from the apartment faucet because the water had been sitting in the pipe all day. Bowes checked all the water pipes on his property. All but one—a pipe in Bowes's own house—had highly acidic water. Bowes was puzzled by this until he learned that the contractor who had built the well serving only the family's house had used limestone around its tiling. The limestone neutralized the acid in the water. By constructing limestone filter beds for the Lodge's water supply, Bowes was able to correct the problem. Which only begs the question: How many people dependent on wells in the Adirondacks, and other places where acid precipitation comes into contact with metals, know what's in their water? And what's the consumption of that water doing to those who drink it?