The Fortune of the Commons

Rediscovery in this city on three rivers

Great value is sometimes found in unexpected places. When a miner unearths a gemstone, it is dirty and unsightly and seems to be worthless. But with skilled hands, hard work and tenacity, the ordinary rock becomes a beautiful diamond. It is a diamond in the rough.

Has Fort Wayne found its “diamond in the rough”?

In 1968, economist Garrett Hardin wrote a paper titled “The Tragedy of the Commons.” In it, he argued that individuals, acting according to their self-interest, sometimes behave contrary to the benefit of their community. The argument became the framework that was used to evaluate a variety of social ills, including river pollution. It’s cheap for me to throw my trash in the river, and watch it float away. My space is cleaner, but the community – particularly downriver – suffers.

Our three rivers have come, over the past 200 years, to reflect the common use that leads to tragedy, despite the reality that before this recent history the rivers were the asset that brought people here and made this area worth fighting for, worth dying for, worth living in, generation after generation. Under our watch, all along the Western Lake Erie Basin Watershed, the rivers had become the dumping ground for industrial waste, combined sewer overflow and agricultural runoff. Where the St. Joseph and St. Marys rivers come together in Fort Wayne to create the Maumee River, the flow was viewed as nature’s toilet, allowing us to give our runoff problems to New Haven, then Toledo and then Lake Erie.

“For the longest time,” said Kumar Menon, director of Fort Wayne City Utilities, “we’ve turned our backs to the rivers.”

I grew up on Pemberton Drive, just a stone’s throw away from the Maumee River. To me, the riverbank was an unlimited source of inlets and shorelines on which to play. I remember well, though, the prominent signs posted on the riverbank warning of their danger, not only from drowning but also from the pollution they contained.

In addition, each spring, the warm weather brought thawing which filled the land behind Lakeside School and was only held back (at least until 1982) by the strength of the Pemberton Dike.

So for much of our history, the rivers were viewed, at best, as a liability. Whether it was flood control, traffic planning or their occasional malodorous smell, we grumbled about our unsightly rivers.

But sometime in the recent past – the precise date is hard to pinpoint – our community’s thinking about the rivers reached a collective inflection point. You might say we rediscovered our rivers. Rather than viewing the rivers as a convenient opportunity for waste removal or the cause of seasonal flooding, the rivers came to be seen as a great asset. Their history, their beauty and the opportunity for recreational use have come to the forefront.

But economic forces are hard to overcome. Was Garret Hardin wrong when he wrote, in 1968, that as people pursue their self-interest the value of common assets, such as rivers, would be destroyed? The answer might come from a book recently co-authored by Mark Tercek, the head of the Nature Conservancy.

In his book, “Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature,” Tercek argues that nature has a value that, if recognized, will change the way we make decisions. The example that faced planners in New York City illustrates Tercek’s concept.

New York City’s water supply comes mainly from the Hudson River. But due to poor water quality management in the Catskills region upriver, New York estimated that they would need to build a giant $8 billion water treatment plant to sufficiently clean the water for human use.

But an alternative existed. Using the natural cleansing property of a well-managed river watershed area – such as soil erosion control and better wastewater treatment – the water flowing to New York City would be much cleaner and far less expensive to treat. And the cost to New York City of cleaning the Catskill runoff? $1.5 billion, or 80 percent less than the cost of the expensive treatment plant.

Add to this picture the unique opportunity we have with the Legacy Fund. The City Council has wisely taken a long-term view when deciding on appropriate projects. One project that has been funded is a comprehensive riverfront study, which is currently underway. The goal, as stated by the Legacy Task Force, is to create “an opportunity to respect the history and character of Fort Wayne; to create and maintain a place where the three rivers and the city meet in a way that is distinctive to our community and honors our history.”

I may be overreaching with this analogy, but just as two rivers come together in Fort Wayne to form a new river, so two trends have merged, as well. The community’s perception of the rivers as an asset is merging with the financial resources of the Legacy Fund to create a new course. Where that course will lead is not at all certain, but it is just one more element in what civic leader Mac Parker has termed our “swagger.”

Clean water, abundant wildlife, scenic vistas and opportunities for recreation are just a few of the possible benefits we could receive from our rivers, if only we would seize this opportunity. With skilled hands, hard work and tenacity, can we realize the potential of our own diamond in the rough? Rather than continue to destroy this great asset, we may, for generations, reap the benefits from the Fortune of the Commons.

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