Why Isn’t Our Water That Clean?

I recently returned from one of those magical summer vacations, this one catalyzed by the goal of reconnecting with Ingrid and Signe, our exchange student ‘daughters’, in their home countries of Norway and Denmark.  I’m embarrassed to say that, with our family’s hectic schedules, the only advance planning we did focused on fundamentals like plane tickets and passports. The rest of our research was done literally ‘on the fly’, hovering over the Atlantic Ocean.  Fortunately for us, it all worked wonderfully well.

Maybe if I had engaged in more thoughtful planning, I would have realized that I was walking into a phenomenal opportunity to see how these two nations have managed their water resources. From the first day until the last, I was astounded over and over again by the water. Streams, lakes, fjords, urban rivers, and international ports alike, they all seemed to be crystal clear.

Maybe it isn’t surprising to see 30-feet down in a lake in rural Norway, or to be able to swim in a fjord without concern for what might be lurking in the water. But to swim in the Akerselva River, the river that slices right through Oslo, was a norway_2011_084completely unexpected treat. In the U.S., most urbanites have long since given up on the dream of swimmable rivers, but in Oslo it is taken as an inalienable right.  The downtown waterfront is absolutely breathtaking – if the price tag of new condominiums is any indicator, clean water is clearly pumping value into Oslo.

Denmark was perhaps less dramatic, but equally impressive. Whether taking a morning run along rural streams coming off of agricultural fields, or kayaking the Copenhagen harbor at sunset and watching the swimmers that dotted the shoreline, I was struck by the comparison to the algae-filled streams of our U.S. landscapes, and the warnings against swimming or eating fish that are familiar postings along U.S. urban rivers. Why is their water so much cleaner than ours?

Last week I asked this of a U.S. colleague who has done business in Norway. His response was that in Norway, at least, it is a matter of intense national pride. According to him, residents pay higher utility rates (but then, everything was more expensive), and elected leaders are held accountable for clean water. When I asked how Denmark, with all of its agriculture, didn’t seem to suffer the same pollution challenges as the U.S., or even its nearby neighbor The Netherlands, I was told that again they value water quality over maximizing agricultural production.

It’s apparently not just the farmers, however, who are responsible for the cleaner streams. From what I could tell, urban landscapes are also managed with water quality in mind. Lawns are alive and well, but without the fertilizers and herbicides that are obsessions for U.S. suburbanites. In fact, in both countries I saw ‘weeding’ of public sidewalks being done with a torch, making me wonder whether there were regulations in place prohibiting the use of herbicides.

My host in the small town of Ganlose, Denmark worked in the IT industry, but was able to answer some of my questions about his town’s stormwater. In more recently developed areas, stormwater sewers are separated from sanitary sewers but where he lived the two were combined. However, according to him, in both separated and combined zones, everyone has a device to capture rainwater and slowly release it back into the ground. In other words, if he’s right they’ve been doing sustainable stormwater management for decades, simply as a matter of course. Maybe when we start making sustainable stormwater management a matter of course, Signe and Ingrid will be able to safely swim in the rivers and lakes here  when they come back to visit us.

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