Sign of the Times

25 06 2007

Water

By Jill Ettinger

Summer in the Northeast, New York City especially, has such fragrance. The state flower is the rose, a delicious scent that never gets old; magnolias and honeysuckle, pine and lilacs sweeten the warm breezes, but in the sweltering city there is that ever-present odor synonymous with July: rotting garbage. With more tourists visiting, and more people dining out, it seems the garbage increases ten-fold. Northeast summer heat means massive humidity that leads to sticky , sweaty, brutally hot days which requires adequate re-hydration. And in the city streets of New York, that means convenience stores and lots of bottled water. Or rather, lots of empty bottles. Even with our best efforts at recycling (which uses TONS of fresh water!), much of our trash is filled with bottles awaiting rest in a landfill. Big applause goes out to San Francisco’s Mayor Newsom for his recent ban on bottled water in city departments.

The article states that over one billion bottles end up in California landfills each year. (And they have one of the most progressive recycling programs in the country.) There’s got to be a better solution, perhaps something akin to Vancouver’s innovative Seymour Capilano Filtration Project that will produce 475 million gallons of clean water a day.

It’s ironic that our pursuit of environmental stability is entwined with consumption practices that are actually endangering our most precious resources. Clean water is the most obvious example. Everyone wants pure drinking water, yet it is becoming harder and harder to secure. Fresh water sources can’t sustain the current pace of population growth, and the damage we’re causing to the environment is most evident in the water we drink, or rather, avoid drinking. We buy fancy filtration systems, have weekly water cooler delivery services and of course, the fastest growing category in grocery stores: bottled water.

It’s big business, yet you have to sell a lot of water to be profitable. Even though shelf prices seem high, a bottle is rarely over $5. It’s heavy stuff to ship and the freight costs eat up most of the profits. Strange how we’re seeing more and more water on our shelves coming from remote parts of the planet (Iceland, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii) at costs comparable to local sources.

Think now for a moment, if you haven’t already, about all those plastic bottles, and all the factories employed in their manufacturing, from the bottle itself to labels, lids and cardboard cases. Think about the trucks that transport them to your local grocery store and all the resources they consume, right down to the fresh water rinse right before the wax goes on the chrome finish. Mayor Newsom has definitely been doing a lot of thinking.

Certainly we all deserve access to the world’s pure resources. Yet in the pursuit of those options to be made accessible for everyone, we must be healthy. Being sick and diseased is often a result of poor water quality. Add dehydration to the mix and you’re suddenly in a serious situation. It’s no surprise that fresh and abundant sources of water are at the forefront of many conscious and unconscious actions, but systems always need improvement

We are a nation of convenience. Just like our food now comes from boxes, bags and microwaves (rather than trees, farms or gardens), our water comes in cases of twelve or gallon-sized. We’ve again found a way to add another layer between ourselves and our resources for staying alive, and someone else is, of course, making money from it. In Manhattan, even up until the early 1800s, wells were the primary source of water. People were engaged in the process of connecting with their source; it took effort, and thought.

I recall my first trip out of the country at just twenty-one, climbing up a mountain side in an extremely remote part of Tasmania. We came across a small stream flowing right down from the top of the mountain just a few hundred feet above us, and we drank the water. I was terrified. I asked my boyfriend again and again if he was certain that it was safe, for all I could think was that it was impure, even though there were no signs to indicate the possibility. My experience was that water came from faucets or bottles, undergoing “processing” to cleanse and purify was the only full(fool!)proof way to hydrate. For days I wondered if I was going to become sick from what was probably the freshest, cleanest and purest water I’ve ever drank in my life.

Bottled water has slipped into the convenience segment of our consciousness, as it should be accessible and clean where ever our travels take us. But this is not the case. We think we are doing good for ourselves and families, drinking “pure” pricey water without seeking ways of creating a more sustainable system. We cut into the Everglades, to develop million dollar homes which we say is good for the economy, with little regard for what is like severing an artery. South Florida continues to face fresh water shortages, as all their drinking water is sourced from the massive aquifers under the the most critical ecosystem east of the Mississippi. So we have come to ignore the sources for our survival and rely on this precious liquid coated in plastic, sitting on shelves under fluorescent lighting, expensively priced, not to cover the cost of the water, but the massive industry that supports it. This is the water hole of modern America. There’s one really important thing about water holes that all animals know, except maybe one: sooner or later they dry up.

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