"I think that because we look at a river and it seems to flow from one point to another we've gotten used to thinking of rivers as methods of transportation and they work really well for that. You can float a barge up and down a river and they carry things away on it. It's become a kind of, almost a trite thing to say in the ecological community, that there is no 'away' when it comes to a river.
"So the sewage, for example, that we may be discharging into the river here, goes downstream and becomes somebody else's drinking water. And that there are people who live literally upstream from us who are discharging things into the river or the tributaries of the river, or whose landfills leak into the groundwater which then discharges into the river and that all of that contamination literally upstream from us-the river will bring it to us.
"And [that] the river continues and brings things to the people that live downstream from us. So that we have a responsibility not only to take an upstream approach to think about the risks that we're assuming from the kind of discharges that are happening, whether they're agricultural or industrial upstream from us, but also to think about what we're putting out into the environment that's going to end up further downstream from us. And of course water evaporates from rivers and becomes clouds; rain falls down and percolates underground water and eventually discharges into rivers and so it's an interconnected system. So nothing that goes into a river is truly going away even though it appears to just sort of float out of view. It's a simple but important concept, I think, for people to grasp.
"So the now famous fable that is behind that phrase 'we all live downstream' essentially goes like this:
"There was once a village by a river and the very heroic villagers there noticed an increasing number of drowning people floating by. And they got better and better at pulling them out and resuscitating them, but they never thought to look upstream to see who was pushing the victims in. Which of course, I guess, is another way of saying what our grandmothers always told us, which is 'an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.' And if we can take an upstream approach to our environmental health, that means preventing environmental problems, and we may never know whose life we saved; we may not be able to pinpoint who will not get cancer because we no longer practice this form of agriculture on the floodplain of this river in a pesticide intensive way. We won't know what child it is among all the children born that won't be born with a hole in its heart, or undescended testicles, or cleft palate, because of an exposure at a certain critical moment in the formation of that child's body in the first trimester because of groundwater contamination. But we know with some degree of certainty now that were we to make changes in the way we protect our rivers and our creeks and our groundwater that our lives would be saved. I think that gives us a moral imperative to take those actions."