Not a drop to drink

The farm where I have spent most of my life has one of the best wells in the neighborhood. My grandfather dug the well more than 80 years ago and we have only needed to maintain it. It is deep and cold and supplies us with a plentiful supply of soft, good tasting, clean water.

Every day I fill my kettle and heat water for my coffee, turn on the shower, flush the toilet, fill water tanks for the cattle and sheep. Most days, I don’t even think about it.

Unlike our well, much of the ground water on the Northern Plains is of borderline palatability. As a result we have spent millions of dollars to develop city and rural water systems. Thanks to our rural water systems, farm families who once had to haul water for drinking because their own wells were too brackish to make decent coffee, now can simply turn on the tap.

Three percent of the earth’s water is fresh water. Of that two percent is frozen, leaving only one percent for drinking. Not all of that is clean enough to drink.
Contamination of water in much of the world is very real. Four out of ten people on the earth do not have access to clean drinking water. The World Health Organization estimates that water borne diseases are the number one cause of disease and death in the world, killing 3.4 million people annually. Most of those who die are children under the age of 5. It is a myth that people develop immunity to the bacteria and parasites in dirty water. Just like us when we visit other countries, the people who live there get sick every day from the water they drink. Many hours of the day are spent, mostly by women, to carry water to their families for cooking, drinking and washing. Many of the world’s poorest do not have adequate fuel to boil the water before drinking it. Their choice is to drink the water and risk getting sick or to die of dehydration.

In recent weeks, we have had several reminders of the importance of caring for water resources. Most of the time our systems works. When the power goes out, as it did at Christmas, the pump fails, or something else goes wrong,we understand better what a blessing water is.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, issued a boil water advisory because the city’s water had tested positive for e.Coli contamination. Three days later the advisory was lifted and it was suggested that the initial tests were false positives. Imagine the costs of such a problem to restaurants, hospitals, schools and nursing homes. Imagine the costs of doing nothing and then finding that the tests were not false positives.

In January, Bridger Pipeline Company’s 12 inch crude oil pipeline which crosses under the Yellowstone River upstream from Glendive, Montana, sprang a leak. In a little more than the hour it took to shut down the pipe, more than 50,000 gallons spewed into the frozen over river. Weeks later, the oil has not been recovered because the river remains partially frozen. Within a couple of days, residents of Glendive smelled the oil in their water. Tests showed the city’s water supply was contaminated with benzene, a carcinogenic component of crude oil. Tens of thousands of bottled water were shipped in for drinking.

Bridger Pipeline Company’s website claims their environmental policies mean “leaving the Earth cleaner than we found it for future generations. We are committed to the conservation of the environment.” The oil spill on the Yellowstone cannot be completely cleaned up. That part of the river will never be cleaner than before they put a pipe under it. They neglected to monitor and to maintain their aging pipeline. They underestimated the power of the river running over the pipe. The running water had completely eroded the soil over it.

We cannot leave it up to companies for whom profits are the primary motivator to decide what safeguards are economically justifiable. We cannot rely on those companies to advise regulators on what is possible. They have a conflict of interest. Our state must hire experts who work for us to develop policies that protect our water, our land and our air. We need to elect officials who aren’t afraid to stand up to the lobbyists and their money.

We need good regulations, written with the long-term best interests of the common good as the primary goal. Those companies profiting from our earth’s resources in the short term must be held accountable for the messes they make, especially when it comes to water.

Having clean water to drink is essential for life. We can’t get along without it. There is no substitute.

Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains