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Have you ever tasted really great water? Once upon a time in my life, that question would’ve made me laugh. I was ignorant then…more ignorant. Two molecules of hydrogen, one molecule of oxygen, and you’ve got water. The end, right? Nope.
Water and I have had a long learning relationship. I grew up in northern Michigan (long before the scandal in Flint happened) where water in the basement was a curse and water in lakes was entertainment. Every summer my family and I camped for a week at the very shoreline of some lake or other. I loved swimming underwater with my rubber mask so I rarely had to worry about sunburn. We had a small cabin cruiser that was scary in white caps on “the big lake.” My parents spent evenings parked at the breakwater of the small boat harbor to watch the waves. They painted waterscapes. My dad built his own fishing canoe, and they went fishing. Fried smelt and perch just off the hook were delicious.
When the first signs went up at our small boat harbor that the water was not fit for swimming, I could hardly imagine people could contaminate that much water. Later, I lived near Lake Erie, and I learned people could contaminate more water than I could imagine. The river that ran near my first university used to change color according to the construction paper being generated by the paper mill, and the river that ran beside Cleveland burned a bridge. Water could be filthy—as when the colored river flooded our campus, but there was always plenty. Shower at will.
Later, I moved west. My husband and I bought a reverse osmosis water purifier to accommodate living on the edge of the prairie where water was hard and not very tasty. The expensive contraption was a huge pain to operate. Then we moved into the mountains. We heated with a wood stove, but we drew well water from a natural deposit beneath our neighborhood, and I discovered what delicious water is. Our water was exquisitely delicious. My husband used to take jugs of it to work with him in the city to share with coworkers. But I was from Michigan. I liked the idea of limitless water. I watched our neighbors watering lawns, washing cars, and letting their hoses run water down the road. The idea that our water supply was finite disturbed me. What would we do when the deposit ran dry? “You’ll haul water,” I was told. It sounded primitive.
Out of love for horses, we moved farther south to what was optimistically called a ranch. We brought our waterbed. The first day we ran out of water. What? The neighbors shook their heads and laughed. We had a well. The meager water we had ran black with coal and smelled like sulfur. Combined with bubble bath, it could color you dirtier and create a scent that made you gag. We drilled a new well. But it turned out we hadn’t been told we had no mineral rights; someone else did. A gas company drilled and fracked for methane around us, and our well disappeared along with all the wells in our valley. We had to haul water.
Now, periodically, my husband wrestles a huge container into the rear of our pickup and drives to an outlet where we’re allowed to purchase water with a credit card. We have two cisterns that serve our house. We have to monitor guests who come from cities where people live with the illusion that clean water is endless. They pity us, assuming water shortage or contamination are both problems they don’t have to face. But what I have learned is, water can be delicious but you’ll probably never taste it like that if you haven’t already. The Native Americans are right to struggle against oil pipelines that threaten our water supplies. Clean water is finite. You can run out. Even in the city.
*“Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge