Chop Wood, Carry Water
Water is life, this much we know. I live in a beautiful little mountain town in far northern California (so far north than when people say “San Francisco”, we laugh because that cute little city is four hours south of the wild west where I live). My town is situated at the base of a 14,180 foot mountain, and the water coming from the taps in this town is untreated spring water.
Yes, untreated, which is the reason why we’re consistently under siege from water bottling companies. Nestle tried several years ago, but thanks to a lot of concerned citizens and some very educated environmental professionals, they didn’t take hold then. Crystal Geyser Roxane’s got a plant in the town next door, bottling and shipping water all the way to Japan, and for the past five years a related subsidiary (both fall under the umbrella of Otsuka Pharmaceuticals, a massive Japanese drug company) has been trying to open a plant here in Mt. Shasta as well.
They own the building already, a plant that previously held a failed attempt by Dannon to bottle here too — when they tried, surrounding residential wells filled with gravel or went dry altogether. The plant sat vacant for quite a few years before Crystal Geyser bought it, but they’ve been unable to operate for the past five years thanks, again, to the work of many dedicated people, including the Winnemem Wintu tribe and the W.A.T.E.R. group.
There are, needless to say, a lot of concerns with a corporation coming in and taking water. There is not an infinite supply here; aquifers can and have run dry; flavoring this delicious, pure water and shipping it off globally is unnecessary. If you want to drink water from Mt. Shasta, come visit!
Manufacturing PET plastic bottles in this place is another huge concern, and an insult — Mt. Shasta is not the kind of place, as you can see from the photograph above, that needs to include in its credits “responsible for even more trash in the ocean”. Also concerning is how the plant plans to discard phthalate-containing offput from the bottle-manufacturing process in leach fields behind the plant, which will drain back into the aquifer being pumped from — the aquifer that feeds water to many people, animals and trees here.
The Winnemem have a very convincing argument as well (in my opinion, the best one): you don’t suck water out of a volcano’s coolant system. Especially a 14,180 foot dormant one. You gonna seriously eff things up that way. Trust them, because unlike us, their people have been around here long enough (oh, you know, at least 6,000 years, though their stories speak to even longer) to observe what kinds of things might piss off a volcano.
I have been fairly active in this cause; I love living raising my family here where we have clean air and clean water, and I believe water needs to stay where it is. I believe the water systems we have in place in this country are an absolute failure, a complete environmental disaster, and a total disregard for gaian principle. We cannot continue this way just because it’s the way we’ve already been doing things. We are merely a part of this whole system. Already driven by the fact that I’m responsible for bringing another life onto this planet, I’m even more dedicated to protecting this most precious resource now that I don’t have any.
Okay, that’s an overstatement, but here’s how it is at my house right now.
Last month, my cabin imploded. In a manner of three days I experienced a rat infestation, a propane leak, the discovery that an entire corner of the cabin was rotting and falling off, and the need to find a new place to live. The cabin owner was exceptionally accommodating in this regard: knowing he will have to fully gut the entire place to make it livable for anyone ever again, he’s just letting us “use it for whatever we need to use it for” until we can move, so we are living rent-free in the process, but with some “perks” — we’re learning all over again how to live without water coming from the tap.
We found a new place quickly, but literally the day before we went to go look at it, a pipe burst (it gets cold here) and so we’ve been delayed a few weeks while everything gets repaired. About a week into that, a main at the landlords’ house burst, too.
God, is it catchy?
Yes, basically, every house I’m connected with at the moment has no running water. It’s a little bit of a laugh, really — my new landlords are members of the aforementioned Winnemem Wintu tribe, water people who have been praying to and for the water for eons, but for us white folks, and with all the water issues we are constantly discussing, it comes as no surprise that my family has been given this extra moment to focus even more deeply on its importance for us all.
We’re all living alright, however. My new landlords are both spry seventy-somethings, and both grew up without running water. My wife and I both spent many years traveling so while yes, there are a few freakouts here and there when I’m feeling grimier than usual, we now carry all our water for the time being, and we’ve gotten used to it, and we’re both often reminded of other places where this was a daily reality.
It’s not as bad as it sounds for us, really. Hot water can be obtained by electric tea kettle or heating it up on a little electric burner, and our neighbors let us bathe at their house whenever needed , though it’s always a little unnerving to be in someone else’s space so much, so we’re quick about those.
For everything else, there’s a hose spigot outside where we fill up 5-gallon containers to bring in, and like those days when I lived in rural Mexico, we fill up buckets to flush the toilet. There’s a lot of water carrying right now. Suffice it to say, we’re grateful for that hose spigot; we are grateful to have any water nearby AT ALL. We remind ourselves, daily, that there are many, many women in this world (and yes it’s almost always women) who walk miles a day with 8 times what we have to carry those 20 feet from spigot to house.
How much water does one use in a day?
I went to Burning Man for years. I hauled and rationed my water there for the 8–10 days I lived out on that alkaline lake bed, based on some math someone else did long before me, and I won’t deny it whatsoever, the first thing I did upon reaching Reno afterwards was rent a hotel room and spend a good 45 minutes washing the dust off (the irony is not lost on me — I quit going to Burning Man after 2001 when the drugs finally wore off and I saw how much of a complete environmental insult the whole thing was).
The average American, however, is still unaware of how much water we use in a day, or how to conserve it, really — my daughter is still getting sent home with “how to save water” memes that instruct people to turn the tap off when they’re brushing their teeth. I’m amazed that people still do that — water is thisclose to becoming currency.
A moment I’ll never forget? Working in Vienna, Austria, a while back, as a New Yorker I was highly suspicious of tap water until I couldn’t find anything fizz-free in a bottle (I know, I’ve learned a bunch since then). That’s when my Austrian waiter informed me that I was drinking Austrian tap water, and it was some of the purest and best-tasting water I’d ever had. He said to me, and I will never forget it: “Austria has some of the most pure water in Europe. We will be a very rich country for it one day.”
Now I know what he meant by that.
And yet we still poop in it.
Many people concerned with water issues have seen this meme circulate for a few years at this point. And it’s sad, because it’s true. Not only do we have clean water, but yes, we have an abundance of it. We’re a place where water “begins” so to speak. The headwaters of the great Sacramento river are here, in our city park, where water enters the sunshine after 50+ years of traveling through the mountain. We watch the snowpack on the mountain with concern, yearly, because it tells us some of what we need to know about the rest of the year — if it’s dry, if it’s empty, the wildfires will be even worse than usual. Deer will go for our gardens. Crops might not produce. The list is very, very long.
In a state that’s been in a drought for years, you’d think more effort would be put into greywater systems for people still insistent on the idea of grassy lawns, or for composting toilets, for example; California makes both of these things pretty dang difficult (though I know many people who build their own and quietly just get on with it). Imagine though, just imagine… Humanity, finally dealing with their shit instead of flushing it down a toilet for someone else to deal with.
What could we become if we had more respect for water?