What do we value about our natural resources? A survey of residents in a Mississippi gulf coast county in 2003 indicated strong incentives to maintain good water quality in rivers, bayous, and the waterways leading to the Gulf of Mexico. Last summer, the importance of this natural resource was reinforced following the devastating oil spill.
The Hancock County Greenways project undertook a survey of community conservation values in April 2003, with eight goals. These are listed in order, as respondents ranked them from highest to lowest importance:
1 protect water quality streams/wetlands
2 protect wildlife corridors and native habitats provide recreation areas
3 preserve scenic views
4 keep land in undeveloped natural state
5 protect floodplain areas
6 preserve agricultural or forestry land
7 preserve archaeological and cultural resources
We also recorded the reported use of recreational facilities in the county, with the beach walking/biking path identified as the most popular, a neighborhood bike path as the second most highly used, and playgrounds, hiking trails, and waterways in quick succession. Many people responded with recommendations for additional recreational uses, including more biking paths, tennis courts, and a community swimming pool.
One of the most popular requests was for restrooms along the beach. The county provides portable toilets at the beach parking areas. Restrooms with showers would provide a place for families with children to come from a neighboring community and spend the whole day, first on the beach, then walking through the shops downtown, and staying for dinner. Without a shower and a change of clothes, we found that people cut their visits short, and thus reduced the economic benefit to the county.
The lack of permanent facilities also impacts water quality. Many people shy away from portable restrooms, preferring to use the water for most (non-solid) necessities. The lack of a facility to wash hands after toilet use may also have impact on water quality. There were concerns about permanent restrooms too, that they would become havens for undesirable drug dealers, homeless, and others; and encourage camping on the beach. These are public safety issues with merit, but the solutions lie in enforcement of existing laws.
After the unnatural disaster of 2010, we need to reconsider the importance of what enters our waterways. Any opportunity to improve the quality of water, from reducing pesticide and fertilizer use upstream to ensuring dog owners clean up after their pets, may help keep the beaches open and recommended for human use. After the terrible impact on our coastline, we must do all that is within our power to maintain the natural systems, so that when the unexpected occurs, there remains some capacity in the system to counter new threats.