Finding The Balance Of Clean Water

  Finding The Balance Of Clean Water
by Julia Henley - Cover
04/01/20 Driftless Area Magazine

show|hide ad

Finding The Balance Of Clean Water

The Magic In The Bottle

On a field trip to a French restaurant in Chicago as a young teen,  I experienced my first bottled water.  Those years ago, it was a unique offering.   It was Perrier, a sparkling water brand bottled in France, a small taste from a country whose language I was studying.  I wasn’t drinking it because our water at home was bad, instead it was a delightful choice, a special occasion, a memory in a little green glass bottle. A bit of something from far away.

That experience is nothing like the choices we must make today regarding water.  The bottled water market is fueled by an increasing sense of unease and water insecurity regarding the safety of our own water coming from our own taps and the convenience we have become spoiled to enjoy.  From a disaster preparedness perspective we are wise to have our 72 hour emergency stock, and water is often the first and most needed item in response to any disaster.  Water in general is a better choice than a chemically laden beverage, and is touted as a healthier choice.  And then it gets complicated, ranging from Ph levels and minerality to taste preferences, to in many cases, a range of purification and additives enhancing or purifying the original water.  Aside from the sustainable aspect of the water itself, how much of it is drawn from the earth or packaged, how far it travels, all are part of the calculation of sustainable.  Within this arena, a new and growing market of offerings are about taste, and specific mineral properties of a specific region or terroir, akin to wine tasting, finding the best and unique and most natural from around the world.
This exploding market of bottled water then meets the reality of water resources worldwide, each with its own need in terms of water delivery to its people, environmental costs and challenges, drought and flooding, industrial contamination and community infrastructure resources and status.

Why worry? A day of Lobbying at the Capital for Clean Water legislation

My eye-opening day at the capital can be summarized like this—just because you voted someone the title of Senator or Assembly person, it does not mean they suddenly understand the most complex challenges make understandable by science, much less what to do about the multiple issues of a rapidly changing framework of water resources and technology.  That’s where lobbying comes in.  Lobbyists come in two main stripes:  armed with thoughtful citizens and non-profits intent on the greater good, or the self-interested (for good or for bad) power brokers and larger companies.  Both try to influence legislators as policy is developed and votes are cast.  What helps in both cases is science, the facts, and the reasonable and careful interpretation of them.  Being the unpaid variety, it makes it tough to have as strong a voice as a well-funded for profit organization.   These groups are underpinned with volunteers willing to show up, to understand a problem and how it relates to an issue or a policy or an upcoming vote.  This is tough if you work full time and cannot do these days, or don’t understand the problem well enough to stand in.  It is, however, vital it happens, and somehow, enough people show (thousands) and quickly learn of the legislation at hand and come to understand the nuances and importance of why we need what we need. This is particularly important if you and your district has voted in someone that has an engaging personality but still never really liked the rigor of high school biology or even the interpretation of facts. 

Lobbying is a peculiar thing.  You attempt to engage, get to the heart of the matter, share your story, emphasize the facts, and you get conversations like this, agreeable, but not necessarily radiating confidence that your legislator actually gets it:

“Of course, I support Clean water!  Everybody does! Our water is better than it was even 30 years ago—I remember we had brown water to drink as a kid and that was just the way it was…we accepted it!”  True enough, but that isn’t the point.   I am a student of history enough to know that much of the positive change that did occur throughout the land is because of the work of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and legislation that followed with the work of the Department of Natural Resources at the state and local level.  This legislator I am referring to could be anyone.  This legislator is one of many at the capital of whom we are relying upon to handle the next 30 some years of protection, and fixing what ails us, where it ails us, from sources old and familiar (nitrates and farming) to new (extreme weather causing damage to infrastructure and industrial waste disposal).   The fact is that due to the wisdom of the EPA for decades, the strength of our Department of Natural Resources, and our local ordinances is precisely why our water is better than in the 70s.  It isn’t because we came to accept the brown water coming from the tap. 

Yes, it does seem like a no brainer  that funding repairs to schools at minimum to keep lead levels coming from bad pipes hurt our children, or having some teeth in a law that addresses the real damage of PFAS (Perfluoroalkyl Substances) to whole communities  is indeed the basis of  “supporting clean water”.   (Those were the issues of that lobbying day.)  Although it is a very charming and reassuring assertion that yes indeed, this is an issue we can all get behind,  the facts are that those that support tying the DNR up with delays when a problem is detected, or hamstringing the agency by not filling posts and letting the experienced scientists that understand the complexities of the science and our environment retire  and not being replaced, is short sighted.  In addition, the fact is, clean water as a concept is always a moving target as new chemicals, new  products and technology in water purification as well as  industry inputs morph and change, equipment and infrastructure continues to age, increasingly severe and damaging flood events become regular life, and  all play a role, and we need to stay ahead of it.  To ignore these realities by restricting resources to deal with these challenges too often trickle into a river of new ways to skirt the laws that protect us.  Clean water requires a comprehensive approach, to ensuring a reduction of pollutants in our water shed, monitoring, fixing, and improving based on science large and small delivery systems.  It means a recourse to communities that have been harmed by bad actors polluting water. The challenges to having clean water won’t be found just by having lots of bottled water available.

NOT doing this as a legislator means you not only don’t care about Clean water, but you don’t understand the critical nature that clean water is to a vibrant healthy economy, what that means for health costs, or what that means for a working and productive society. We in the Driftless Region are blessed with water resources regularly replenished.  We must not squander this gift, but manage it, and prepare for the future.

Tapping Into Sustainability

Our own taps, whether sourced from your municipality or your well, are generally the best option for fulfilling our water needs.  Municipalities are required to do rigorous testing and purification processes, resulting in safe drinking water, but not all are up to the challenge, need reinvestment or repair, and science plays a role to get it right.  Private wells can and do go bad, monitoring your well with regular testing is just smart.  Our aquifers must be protected from adjacent runoff of industrial waste—whatever the type.  Our lakes and streams should be monitored for contamination, and the source found, and eliminated.    This is the sustainable and right way to deal with water.  It makes no sense to not ensure the pipes are not filled with lead, leaking into your child’s glass of refreshment.  Knowing may be expensive, but not knowing is deadly.  Your local and state officials must be given the resources and talent to test and purify the water properly and tastefully, providing safe water to your tap, and assistance in dealing with private wells as needed.

A cultural de-evolution and the unpopularity of tap water

Unlike my delight in drinking something special in a special place, not long after, due to a health scare, I eliminated sodas and caffeine from my diet in my 20s.  This was before the ubiquitous plastic water bottle was offered by just arriving anywhere.    As a young professional, I would ask for water instead of soda or coffee at a meeting, and was offered it in the form of small paper cups for a good while.  How times have changed.  Since then plastic water bottles are everywhere. They are the filled in refrigerators in homes and in corporate America, the number one beverage on the go at every convenience store, loaded by the case in shopping carts, and the efficient first response at any disaster--flood, draught, hurricane, or earthquake.  Ironically, loads of plastic bottles are to the rescue at the great Flint, MI debacle, and many other sites where we have allowed polluters to continue as they may.   And that comes down to another example of who we pick to manage policy and legislate—matters.

Yes, plastic bottled water is everywhere, convenient yes, and somehow it has become a cultural phenomenon, replacing our tap water when it should not have, eliminating the free bubbler on the street for easy access to safe drinking water, and easy refilling.  The excessive reliance on plastic single use water bottles are creating a whole other problem within our oceans and beaches choked with plastic debris, and though technically this debris is to be recycled, it is not happening as there is no market for this plastic.  All this results in less pressure on our decision makers to make the kinds of investments into water infrastructure that we all need. investment into the more sustainable municipal well and infrastructure needed for our collective water futures and slight adjustments to use tap when you can make a difference. 
Disaster Recovery in a Bottle

Located at a beautiful river bend in Michigan, 6 miles away from the “downtown” of a suburban town, an 83-year-old woman, though self-sufficient and independent, now struggles to lift the 24 lbs. of water to dispense her drinking water.  Her well, and property value for now and forever, has been poisoned.  The sparkling clear river and creek on her land contains water not to be consumed—it isn’t bacteria that one is normally concerned about in open recreational water, it is PFAS.  This bottled water, she began receiving about two years ago when it was discovered that her well, and hundreds around her, had been contaminated by PFAS, an industrial chemical used in a variety of manufacturing processes, and the free water is  to handle her drinking needs until someday, likely within 5 years  from now, her home , and those others  in the township will be connected to the larger municipal sewer and water system.
This action is due to a settlement to provide clean water.   At the time, those in the know looked the other way, and by the time the problem was identified, the damage had been done.   The damage this far out from the industry waste producer itself challenges all those that think they can “move out” far enough away from such things.  Fast forward and this elderly woman has gotten a new filter which handles showering and laundry water, is told not to drink even that purified water, and she is dependent upon these deliveries and the eventual connection to municipal water.  Her property is not saleable, and her lifelong investment into this property is lost.  She cannot move. 

Fighting the Good fight –Science and the EPA

Her water was never brown, it was as clear and as tasty as it gets.  The medical records of her children and hundreds of others close to these types of sites, however, point to a problem.  And that points to another problem—proving it.  (Forget the idea that no one should be unknowingly forced to eat someone else’s poisonous waste, at this point, the argument is—“Chemical “x” has done you no harm”!  Quit picking on our industry”!  Prove it!), and the more powerful, resourceful and connected then begin to lobby.   Those efforts, at the State and Federal level,  leads us to the EPA, and further up, the administration that runs the EPA, the very agency that has helped improve our air and water quality in the United States for the last 50 years.  Having made great progress in many areas, the agency itself is now fighting its own internal battles to stay relevant and strong.
A recent test to the independent strength of the EPA is a recent bill called “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science”.  Transparency is good, right?  Not how this bill is written.  When researching sensitive information about people’s medical records, data is kept secure, and locked down, to ensure privacy.    This bill requires scientists to turn over their data, all their raw data, personal information of those in the blind study, to this federal agency currently in tumult as it fights from within to stay in step with its mission of ensuring clean and safe water, air, and land for the citizens of the United States.  It even would require decades old data to be opened, betraying those that did participate in earlier studies that benefited our country but are now up for renewal.  Orwellian in its title, the actual results of this rule are to weaken data sets, and scare off the research of scientists and volunteers, and leave us with “we just don’t know” answers to complex problems instead of facing head on the facts about pollution and its impact on human health.

We cannot bottle our way out of our lack of planning for the future.  Without coming to terms with the science (aka facts) of the rapid changes upon us—and plan for them so disaster recovery is not just paper towels and endless plastic bottles, we need smart legislators, respect for science, and a committed populace to show up, influence, and vote.
We cannot just move to ‘somewhere better” either.  The elderly woman was living in the country, far from the manufacturer that produced the toxic chemical mess.   But the waste found her.  The water flows and is connected, above and below ground.   Whatever the need, or how it is dispensed, the basics of water are rather simple worldwide.  Protect it.  All its sources.  Vigorously.   Because although bottled water may be available now it will not save any of us when we have polluted our sources.

And so, it goes

As the Clean Water lobbyists continued to make their point, the legislator countered with the importance of PFAs in the world, and how we musn’t blame PFAS for all our woes.    “There IS good PFAS, you know!”, as if that was the end of the point, as if nothing then can or should be done to deal with the needs and the nuances of clean water, protection or improvement .

I patiently replied, “I think we both know we are talking about the bad PFAS, right?”  He nodded, eager to move on, our time was up.  His vote was settled in his mind.

-- Julia Henley is a former Disaster Recovery Coordinator in Southwest Wisconsin and currently is managing partner of Driftless Fine Waters, an all-natural sustainably sourced and only bottled in glass  with international awards for taste.