Helping Clean Vermont’s Waters Through Laziness and Drinking

Doing my civic duty over here. (File photo)

As a mid-July heat wave hit Vermont, beaches closed in Burlington — the state’s most populous city – because of potentially toxic blooms of cyanobacteria (also known by the misnomer blue-green algae).

This is a problem, and if you live in Vermont, you can contribute to the solution with a very minor change in your regular routine.

Algae blooms have been happening for years. The state and federal government have been trying to address the issue for almost as long. We have access to really interesting science and computer modeling that can help target the biggest sources of Phosphorus, which is what causes the blooms.

We know what to do, but as with so many things in Vermont state government, we’ve chronically underfunded the solutions. To give credit where it’s due, legislators in the past five years have made major advances in bringing new streams of money to help clean up the water. But we could always do more, and it turns out many Vermonters can do more by doing less.

If you regularly bring bottles and cans to a redemption center to claim the five-cent deposits for those containers, stop doing that and put those containers into the regular recycling instead.

Here it is, Vermont: If you regularly bring bottles and cans to a redemption center to claim the five-cent deposits for those containers, stop doing that and put those containers into the regular recycling instead. Those nickels will automatically be dedicated to water quality.

That’s because one of the first moves by state lawmakers as they tried to scrape together money for clean water was to dedicate all of the unclaimed bottle and can deposits to Vermont’s clean water fund.

Those deposits were never meant to raise revenue for the state, they’re just the byproduct of an environmental law designed to increase recycling. As a result, that funding stream for clean water has been relatively small. But let’s crunch some numbers.

In my past life as a reporter, I wrote about a University of Vermont study that found that 65 percent of Vermont’s population is willing to pay at least $40 per year for water quality. (This was in 2014, so I can’t speak to how this has changed since.) Based on the U.S. Census’ latest estimate of Vermont’s population (623,989), that would be more than 400,000 people paying $40, which raises north of $16 million. To readers outside Vermont, that might sound like chump change in a government budget, but that’s a big annual jump to our water funding, and state funds can often be leveraged to unlock more federal funds as well. In other words, that could really put a dent in Vermont’s water problem.

If 65 percent of Vermont’s population drank a six-pack every week for a year, each person would put down $15.60 and the state would have another $6+ million to dedicate to clean water.

The UVM study was theoretical, because there isn’t some hotline Vermonters can call and give their credit card number to pay for water quality. But we actually can deposit to the clean water fund — pun obnoxiously intended — five cents at a time. As long as the cans are still being recycled, the only cost is the five cent deposit you give up.

For a person to generate $40 of income annually for the clean water fund, it would take about $0.77 per week — slightly more than 15 bottle deposits a week. That’s probably too many drinks to count on, but we can still tone it down and make a huge difference without incurring diabetes or day-drinking. If 65 percent of Vermont’s population drank a six-pack every week for a year, each person would put down $15.60 and the state would have another $6+ million to dedicate to clean water.

So you can be lazier — tossing your (rinsed out!) bottles and cans into the recycling, saving yourself a trip to the redemption center — and you’ll be doing more to help clean waterways in Vermont.

There are plenty of things you can do, too, if you’re feeling less lazy. Check out rethinkrunoff.org for some great local resources on clean water in Lake Champlain. (For the record, I’m not affiliated with them.)

Disclaimer: I used to live in Burlington, where people regularly go through recycling that’s been left on the curb to get the returnables out so they can claim the money to support themselves and their families. This post is not a suggestion that no cans should be returned, or that people who need to claim that money are somehow in the wrong. My goal is only to help Vermonters make more informed choices.

The Dark Lens of Mental Illness

Mental illness can change your reality.

I don’t hear actual voices, but there is a war raging between two, sometimes more, completely different narratives of my life. The basic facts are the same — I am where I am, and I’m with who I’m with, doing what we’re doing, and we say what we say. Sometimes I see myself as a talented, smart, confident guy who can make people laugh and hold a great conversation. But, thinking back, was I just a loudmouth, cocky know-it-all who couldn’t make out the polite chuckles over the sound of his own laughter? My confidence goes into a tailspin, so I’ll stop engaging with other people (why would they want to hang out with loud, arrogant me?). It builds from there. I don’t see myself as a functional, mentally ill person who is taking some time to check in and ground myself. I see a coward who has all the privileges and gifts he could ask for, yet somehow still finds a way to sit in a dark room and mope, and I hate myself for it. It’s easy to get stuck in the most vicious of cycles.

When things are going well, I’m surrounded by people who, knowingly or not, check in with me to ground my reality. When things aren’t going well, I become convinced that those darkest narratives of myself are the only correct ones; convinced that the people around me, who love me, are blowing sunshine up my ass because they know a depressed person needs to hear good things. Why bother asking a question when you already know you’ll hear a lie in response? At some point, it ceases to occur to me that I’m seeing myself through a darkened lens and I begin to think, to know, that I am finally just seeing myself.

I’m lucky to have an extremely stubborn partner and wife in Tori, who refuses to be closed out and refuses to let me see myself only as the worst I could possibly be. And even without a helpful push, it always swings back. It always gets better. Sometimes I judge my past self for knowing how depression works and still allowing it to swallow me up day after day. But that, that judgement — that is how depression works; it sits quietly and waits until I ask myself a scary, vulnerable question and then it provides the loudest, most devastating possible answer. A most convincing lie.

There aren’t any special solutions available to me. I haven’t learned some mental trick to beat depression so I won’t bother pretending to have any new solutions. I just hope this might help someone out there feel a little bit less alone.

Check in with your loved ones, especially the ones who seem most distant. It doesn’t matter if they say “I’m fine” and end the conversation. The question is an act of love, and sometimes it’s all a person needs to see.

If you are suicidal or having suicidal thoughts, free help is available through the National Suicide Prevention Line: 1-800-273-8255

Using Data to Investigate

Start with data:

Panel to discuss citizen media and the marathon

I’ll be discussing covering the Marathon Bombings and the Watertown manhunt amid a chaotic breaking news atmosphere this Saturday as part of a panel moderated by Northeastern University Professor Dan Kennedy.

Media Nation

This Saturday, May 4, I’ll be moderating a panel at the main branch of the Cambridge Public Library on how nontraditional journalism and citizen media responded to the Boston Marathon bombings. Titled “Covering Chaos,” the panel will be held from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. and will include:

  • Josh Stearns, journalism and public media campaign director for the media-reform organization Free Press and an expert on verification and trust with regard to citizen media.
  • Taylor Dobbs, a journalism student at Northeastern University whose coverage at the finish line and again in Watertown was featured on the website Medium. Dobbs wrote about what he learned in a recent guest post for Media Nation.
  • Catherine Cloutier, a producer for Boston.com, the Boston Globe’s free website, which was a crucial source of information in the aftermath of the bombings. Cloutier was among those posting to the site’s live blog.

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A Lull

Things will be slower around here, at least for this semester, as I’m blogging (for a class but also just to blog) on The World Exposed, which discusses WikiLeaks, secrecy, and such.

I’ve got a busy semester otherwise as well. Three journalism classes that require reporting and an Arabic class will slow this down, but I hope to keep posting a bit still. In the meantime, check me out on twitter.

Thanks for reading!

-Taylor Dobbs

To Infinity! and Beyond?

Unlike previous blogs I’ve tried to start and run with no focus or goal, I’m writing here specifically to share my work and attempt to improve it as I go. More generally, I’m here to talk about journalism. How will news organizations support themselves by the time I graduate? What will “news” look like? Will I ever have anything published on real paper?

I don’t know, but I know I’m part of the wave of journalists that will be making these decisions, so let’s start the conversation.