Water, water everywhere, but...

For those of you who think clean water is nonfinite. That it's ok to dump waste down the drain, or leave the water run. For those who don't believe that conflicts have been brewing for centuries over fresh water supplies...

Not a Drop to Drink
By the Inkslinger - October 2, 2009

I'm catching up on my in-box, and here's one of the first things I found: an investigation by the New York Times, that says the nation's fresh water supplies are drowning in woes. The newspaper reviewed zillions of water pollution records from all over the place and uncovered an ocean of trouble that even I (who's just about seen it all) can't quite believe.

Highlights (or lowlights as the case may be) include over 500,000 violations of water pollution laws at chemical factories, manufacturing facilities, and other workplaces in the last five years; 10% of Americans drinking water that fails to meet basic safety requirements; and 19.5 million people sickened by microbially-tainted water each year. In 2008 alone, 40% of the country's public water systems violated the Safe Drinking Water Act at least once and over 23 million people drank water from municipal sources that exceeded one standard or another. Tap water in the Midwest is filled with pesticides and fecal matter. On the East Coast it's loaded with dry cleaning solvents. And aging wastewater treatment plants everywhere are periodically failing under duress and releasing raw sewage and worse straight into our rivers and seas.

But the biggest bummer of all is that nobody's doing a thing about it (97% of all Clean Water Act violations resulted in zero action), and few realize there's anything awry at all. That's because most of the time, we can't see these troubled waters. They look and taste just fine; rarely are the levels of pollution high enough to get noticed by eye or palate. But the dangers are there by the dozens and in amounts plenty large enough to cause all kinds of harm that's literally washing over many of us every day.

The Times article is filled to the brim with the heartbreak of desperate communities, and the heroes and villains who inhabit them. It reminded me a bit of Upton Sinclair's meatpacking muckraking masterpiece, The Jungle, in the way it revealed a similarly hidden world of incomprehensible suffering and ruinous criminality that's often as close as the nearest tap.

But here's the thing: we can live forever without meat. Without water, we're dust in just three days or so. Clean water, in other words, is not optional. It's what stands between us and all eternity, and we better start taking care of what little is available for our thirst-quenching pleasure. So read the article but save your tears, and not just because replacing them could be hazardous to your health. Turn what you learn into action and join others working to keep our vital waters clean. It's a tide we have to turn. And I think we can all drink to that.

photo: Frédéric DUPONT
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