GB No. 2(13)/94
Where do we go to escape the summer heat? To the water's edge, of course. And what should the water be like? Above all, clean - that's obvious, since we'd like to cool off by wetting our feet at least. Meanwhile, most of the streams and rivers which flow through our villages, towns, and cities are hideous, cement-lined gutters - not at all reminiscent of the shady, meandering brooks which trickle lazily past. Gutters, which are impossible to climb into...
"I was brought up by such a beautiful, winding, fish-filled river. I know what it ought to look like, and I feel more and more sorry about what is happening to our rivers," says Zdzislaw Polak. He is a roofer by trade, but by conviction he is a true environmentalist, despite the fact that he has never read any environmental literature. It is simply a matter of feelings. In search of fish, Polak has roamed the rivers of the foothills --rivers where, in places, fragments of wooden banks still remain. This is how fast-flowing mountain streams were strengthened in former times. In several places in the Żywiec area, the wooden stakes on the banks have survived over a hundred years. The water preserves the wood by cutting off access to air. Plant life, unrestrained by concrete, grows freely over the edges of the streams and further strengthens them. And -- most important -- the bed of such a water course is varied, and so natural hollows form, creating quiet corners under the banks where tired fish can rest.
In fact, it is precisely the fish and other sorts of biological life in the river in which Mr. Polak is most interested. When a stream is lined with concrete slabs in the traditional way, it becomes shallow and fast-moving and doesn't give living things a chance to stop. And not only is it shallow and fast. Its sides, smooth as glass, have no recesses in which a crab or a fish could linger. Everything races down like mad along with the water. It is enough to look at the stream which flows from Straconka through embankments. It is not a stream, it is a gutter...
"Fish and ecology may not interest everyone," says Polak. "But the question of whether you'll be able to fill your bath with water next year, of whether you'll be have something to make the tea with, is easier to understand. It so happens that this year there was more rain and fewer problems with water. But if there are a few more years like last year, it would be a different matter. What does this have to do with river regulation? A great deal. Because water cannot be allowed to escape. It must be retained for as long as possible. It is common knowledge that we are the second last country (ahead only of Albania) when it comes to abundance of drinking water, because we are unable to store it. And everything continues to be done to draw this water as far as possible precisely by means of these slippery gutters with no dams.
Meanwhile, Zdzislaw Polak has an idea. One that is simple, cheap, and effective. We should return to the old methods of managing streams and rivers by driving wooden stakes into the banks, maintaining at the same time the natural channels, and not straightening bends. We also must not allow bulldozers to go mad -- something that has recently become a widely-used practice. The bank of a river is moulded from the gravel "pushed out" from its bed. "I know that that may be an effective way of protecting the banks from being undermined, but what is left of that river?" says an exasperated Polak. "It is enough to go to the upper section of the Sola to Zywiec above the paperworks to see what is left of a once beautiful river. It has been destroyed, and destroyed for many years to come."
Zdzislaw Polak wants to save rivers from devastation by means of strengthening their banks by pile driving. "There is always tons of material, in other words poles, in the woods -- since it is wood which comes from clearings and doesn't have to be specifically felled. The Forest Inspectorate itself has indicated places which ought to be tidied of precisely this kind of superfluous matter and that would be done by me or my workers. I have constructed a sort of drop-hammer, to drive in the stakes. When it is disassembled, it fits on the roof of a small Fiat."
So far Mr. Polak has not managed to bring any of those who "rule" the rivers around to his idea. Although they acknowledge that he is right and praise his idea, they immediately also say that there is not enough money. "When I asked what the chances were of obtaining a contract to regulate even a small section of the river using my method, I was told in the Environment Protection Department: 'There is a certain lobby which you won't get past. These people even have ways into the Ministry. There is money for it in the central budget and they will always get it. These are huge companies which pay a great deal in taxes. And their price lists are drawn up in such a way that the more concrete goes into a construction, the more it is worth.'"
The truth may well be that the cheap and unbelievably simple methods of Polak form a great threat to the "river monopoly," or the Regional Water Administration Directorate. Their investments tend to be very expensive. "After all, we have to protect the inhabitants from the threat which the river poses, especially in our region." It was at the Directorate that I heard: "Previously people kept far away from the river, which floods wide when it swells. It used to have a lot of room for that and it did not need to be restrained. As civilisation and towns developed, people moved closer to the river, and keeping it in check became increasingly expensive. Now we no longer have a choice -- in order to live we must control the course of the river and its banks which need to be stronger and stronger, and this costs us more and more."
Polak, on the other hand, thinks that it would be a lesser evil if someone's meadow flooded once every five years, so long as the river remains as natural as it can be. "Such a small flood is a lesser evil than what is being done to rivers at the moment!"
What have we in the Zywiec area got left of our original rivers? The top section of the Zabnica, the Sola in Soblowka, the Glinka in Rajcza, the Rycerka and Radecki streams in Rycerka, the Koszarawa in Jelesnia -- these are the fragments of rivers which have fortunately been forgotten about in the era of compulsory regulation. Unfortunately, the Mesznianka has recently been "improved" so effectively that it is heart-breaking. The Olszowka River has been straightened and lined with concrete although it was a natural, centuries-old water course. Apparently it got in someone's way. The same happened with the Kamieniczanka and Bystrzanka Rivers. That is why Zdzislaw Polak has this plea to the authorities: "Give me a length of the river and I'll see to it. Everyone will be able to see what it looks like. Then maybe we will decide whether or not it is worth regulating in this way. If I had my own length of stream, I would have staked it long ago. Unfortunately, I don't."
GAJA no 5, the Gaja Club quarterly