We are all mostly water. Similarly, the Earth itself, is about 2/3 water. A commercial on television tells how much water is in our various organs. Most surprising to me was that our lungs are 80% water. It made sense but the purpose of the commercial was to entice folks to buying Nestle’ brand water. This is laughable, since the Nestle’ boycott is one that I continue to honor. Examples of the commodification of this sacred substance abound, but few understand the significance of using that approach to convey outright ownership of this essential life-giving fluid.
Even as a young child I tried to find out as much as possible about where water came from, how it gets to it’s final “use” point and where it went after that. Living along a river for much of my childhood, I researched the watershed, the activities that took place there as well as the profound changes that took place along the streams and tributaries that made up the flow past my back door, green colloidal suspension that it was. Most rivers today are severely impacted all the way back to the watershed boundary. The first river that I studied closely was the Mississippi. Starting from snow-capped mountains, it is the primary artery of our country, but at it’s mouth it carries the precious soils of the Midwest to the sea. Even before our lust for plowing and paving was established, many tons of material were carried to the Gulf by that great river. Human activities have accelerated that process by many thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of times. The same happens here in the Great Lakes Region. Scientists estimate that our activities have led to increased eutrophication (filling in the lakes with nutrients and particles suspended in runoff) by over 10,000 times! This has terrible consequences for the Lakes, the people who live around them and the organisms that live in them. Keeping water clean requires knowledge, skills and attitudes that are currently in short supply.
It certainly is not enough to draw a schematic diagram of the water cycle, present it to children or adults and expect them to realize how intimate our relationship with water really is. I have known people who depended on their own personal well for every drop of water that they needed to sustain them; who also use hazardous chemicals and spread toxic compounds directly above their water source. In kitchens, you are never supposed to store meat above vegetables because pathogens that are destroyed during cooking could drip down onto foods that might be eaten raw. Similarly, water that lies below our feet can be contaminated from above. One thinks this would be a “no-brainer”, but as we see daily, there is often a disconnect between our knowledge and our actions.
During many attempts to enlighten property owners about this phenomenon, gravity, I was told that dirt “filters” dangerous chemicals out or that the chemicals degrade or disappear after twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Not so with many toxic compounds, especially underground. One fellow, a very close friend, refused to apply basic knowledge to this mystical fluid. Hundreds of gallons of solvents were dumped less than 100 feet from his well. 100 feet in the other direction was an old cesspool that had been overflowing into the headwaters of an adjacent creek for generations. He had no problem using toxic home cleaners, or chemicals in his hobby farm activities and was at a loss when his spouse passed away from cancer at age 45.
This same friend grew a very large garden. His wife canned hundreds of jars of veggies each summer and fall so that they could “know where their food came from” but every drop of irrigation water was contaminated with solvents. Every canning day was accompanied with volatilizing hazardous chemicals from the washing process to the blanching process to the canning process. I always brought my own water to his house, but rationalized that coffee made with that fluid had already had it’s burden of solvents vaporized. In retrospect, a convenient lie perhaps, designed to not start an argument.
Loving those who choose to stay in the dark about reality is heartbreaking. In the end, I drifted apart from this friend because his reasoning continued to fail him. He bought into the crap that we wade through every day, the commercial interests, the political rhetoric, the patriotic fervor. He abandoned compassion, the human race and his good sense! Many of us have felt helpless and disillusioned when loved ones ignore the facts. This is not an alien concept. My own concern here is that far too often, we forget that clean water is a birthright that is often tainted for the benefit of the few. The farm pond, which was a “sink” for runoff as well as a hedge against drought, has all but disappeared from the landscape. Now is the time to regain some of the good sense that we have lost over the past hundred years.
Water law in our country has been fraught with misunderstanding and greed right from the start. Our collective approach to management of this gift from the heavens has been to use as much as we want, as long as we can get it on to our property and to shunt any excess away onto property downstream, so that downstream neighbors will face inundation during wet times. Massive infrastructure exists to redistribute this liquid gold from areas of perceived abundance to areas of relative scarcity, but the ecological consequences of this approach are rarely understood or even considered. The brackish, foetid liquid that exists at the terminus of the Colorado River, no longer reaches the sea or supports life. The vast wetlands complex that once flourished there no longer exists. All the water is “used up” by irrigation, diversion and greedy US “interests”.
In our search for sustainability, we need to recognized bad habits for what they are worth as well as what they truly cost. Water is often the ameliorating force that buffers us from harsh climatic change, invigorates life at the most basic level and, since the vast majority of our population lives near water, informs our concepts of recreation, nature and relaxation. The tormented fluid has been pressed into service in so many unhealthy ways that it is difficult to quantify. Sewage and waste disposal, dilution for toxic compounds, process water, cooling water, even water that is held behind dams for long periods all sustain qualitative changes that are presumed to be innocuous. Hydro-fracking involves using steam and chemicals injected into bedrock to liberate “Natural” Gas. It is difficult to say that this process resembles anything natural. This single use alone points out how our relationship to water needs to change. As we look to the future, we need to seek out new ways of honoring this sacred element for what it truly is, the source of life as we know it on Planet Earth.
We have ushered in an age in which many are fearful of what comes from the tap. Where giant corporate interests are controlling water and it’s use. The use and abuse of this nearly universal solvent has led to some interesting shenanigans. One of my recent discoveries was about just how manipulated our water supply has become. Living in Wisconsin, we enjoy the protection of a “Public Service Commission”. They are charged with the responsibility of protecting the public from corporations who provide public services like electric energy, gas, and of course water. A friend told me a story about how our local city water department wanted to raise the rates to customers so that they could avoid a budget shortfall. They knew that the process of going through the Public Service Commission would take up to two years, but they wanted the money right away. Instead of waiting around for a rate increase to be approved through normal channels, they just raised the pressure on the entire system allowing more water to come out of the taps city wide. They got the extra money that they wanted simply by pushing more water through the system. I’m not sure that this would be considered illegal, but it surely is immoral. In my eyes, turning any of our God/ess given gifts into commodities goes against my beliefs. The fact that this “extra” water has to be pumped, treated and ultimately cleaned up at the sewage treatment plant was of no consequence when the decision was made to up the pressure behind all of the taps in the entire service area. When only the bottom line is considered, we often fail to see the true nature of our decisions.
Looking more deeply into our relationship with water means that we will ultimately come to respect it more. Honoring this vital fluid that gives us life can only help us to understand our place in the web of life. Steps that we can take to preserve water quality include washing our cars on the grass rather than on pavement, installing rain barrels or perhaps a water garden and using water more frugally. Realize that storm sewers drain to local streams. When mowing grass, make sure to direct the clippings away from the street. Encourage native forest cover to absorb moisture when it is available so that it can be released slowly. Perhaps most importantly, consider well the quality and source of the water that you choose to drink or cook with. In my particular location, we drink water from Lake Michigan. The water is run through giant sand beds for filtration and chlorinated before it comes into the delivery system that feeds our house. We have installed a filter that we use for both drinking water and cooking water. We are saving up for a larger filter system that will treat all of our water because we don’t want to bathe in chlorine and we certainly don’t want to water the garden with it.
The flow of water looks quite simple when we see it diagrammatically, like the “water cycle” we all saw in school. The actual fact is that there are millions of ways that water gets stored, turned to vapor and utilized. The nature of this substance is to both take on contaminants, which is why it is called the universal solvent, and to give itself freely to the process of finding it’s level, keeping life processes going, and ultimately to that water cycle we all learned about in grade school. Our planet is alive with these processes. Even though we may try to escape the rain, the dew and the snow, retreating to our homes to keep us dry, the water is in us, making our lives possible, our skin, brain, muscles and organs healthy. No matter how we try to avoid it, water is in us.
Learning to “go with the flow” can transform one’s life. To learn this elemental principle takes many an entire lifetime. Learning how to find our way amongst distraction and obstacles, we can take many lessons from water. First and foremost, be patient. If there is no other way to get out of a situation, we can always transform ourselves and float away on the currents of the wind. Water has the unusual ability to float when frozen. If this were not the case, the oceans would slowly fill with ice. This buoyancy can help when one feels stifled. There will always be times when, for one reason or another, we feel that we are at wits end over what to do. In this case, remember the water and how it can expand, ever so slightly when frozen. Allow yourself to mimic this process, remaining still, but growing. Chances are that you too will “float” and find your way, free of the oppressive conditions that you find yourself in. Another thing that water teaches us is that there is no need to go through three stages of existence in order. Just as liquid can go from solid to gas without changing to liquid first, (called sublimation) we can go from child to sage without growing up first. In many ways, the ability to see with the eyes of a child helps inform the adult within us. Water mirrors this for us in that whether it is snow or ice, liquid or steam, it is always the same water. Often, the wisest and most enlightened among us retain that mischievous look, that sparkle in the eye that betrays their eternal youth. Without the ability to look at problems with new eyes, we are doomed to keep making the same mistakes. Without the ability to become rigid at times, inflexible and strong, we cannot hope to make our lives have purpose. Without the ability to transform from one state to another, we would be like so many robots, unable to grow, learn or live. As we transform our culture from one of fear and hate to one of love and compassion, we must learn to appreciate the many lessons that water has to teach.
We are one with this vital fluid, enriched and sustained by it’s eternal power. It is our birthright to have it clean and unspoiled, but with that right comes the ultimate responsibility for keeping it pure and clean and for treating it with the same respect that we would want for ourselves.