5.24.2014

not a drop to drink in Portland?

refrigerator water storage options: plastic jug, thrifted European glass bottles

The timing of Portland's little E. coli scare in our drinking water that made national news a mere three days after a right-wing-funded ballot measure was defeated that would have created a separate, private water district, is more than a little fishy. The boil ban has just been lifted in the last hour. The tap is all clear. I only hope local reporters are digging around for more than closed restaurants, runs on grocery stores, dead birds, rat poop, and broken sewer pipes in all this mess. Coincidence is overrated. Cui bono?

Of course, the personal lesson here, as city emergency planners have long advised, is to keep a stock of potable water on hand. That way, we won't find ourselves standing in front of empty grocery shelves in the bottled-water aisle, left drinking corn-syrup flavored chemicals, as the greedier, faster citizens of Portland were outside in parking lots Friday stashing cases of bottled tap water into the backs of their SUV's. Or instead we could have chosen to just boil some water for tea or cooking, the simpler, cheaper option that few seemed to be heeding. At home, I already had cold water stored in the fridge in thrifted Italian and French glass storage containers and a mostly full plastic gallon jug of water leftover from last summer's move (which in a true emergency would not nearly be enough). And I also boiled tap water in the microwave at work and at home for tea (though I doubt it was even necessary). As long as there's an easy heat source, boiling water is not exactly hard, people. This was a whole lot of fuss and loss to local businesses over a little extra bacteria. Follow the money.


tea bags stashed in stacked Anchor Hocking jars

At school yesterday in North Portland, as adults taped signs on drinking fountains, saying "Bad Water" and "Don't Drink," making the children glug more milk at lunch, I thought about how Portland's infinitesimal extra amounts of feces-contamination would still be ranked as pristine drinking water in most parts of the world. I thought about how one of my favorite students, reared by his grandparents in Mexico till he was five years old before coming to the U.S. to be reunited with his parents and younger siblings, has been sick maybe a day in his life, having an extra-strong immune system from being exposed in tropical Mexico to far worse than contaminated Portland tap water.

Oregonians are spoiled. I've drunk rust-colored water in Belgium and the Czech Republic and Korea, and I'm still living to tell about it. Portland water is purer than anywhere else I've traveled or lived, and if people don't know that for themselves, they should get out more, read a little more. Portlanders have been drinking "polluted" tap water for days this week, anyway, before Friday's city-wide alert, and they feel fine. I haven't spotted a single case of proven tap-water-related illness reported in the news so far. The event reminds me once again of the lessons cited in Naomi Klein's classic, Shock Doctrine: catastrophes are created or used to privatize and drain public resources. Portlanders beware. The move to privatize and divert Northwest water has already begun.


Portland tap water stored in secondhand French glass jug

I've written about water issues before and will again. My own namesake, water should be a holy topic—human birthright. Life cannot exist without it. Instead we are literally pissing it away. We are using up the diminishing supply of potable water instead of greywater to water lawns in yards and golf courses, to wash cars. We are soiling it. We are looking to low-saline undersea aquifers, to waterless Mars (future escape hatch), for salvation. We are insane. We are selfish as children. We are self-destructing.

Pick up any classic text on Western water issues, from Joan Didion's White Album essays to Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert, and you'll find the future, like the past, looks tumbleweed-dry. I moved up to Portland from California almost seven years ago in large part because the Northwest has its own water supply and fewer people, meaning a relatively sustainable system—for now—compared to many regions around the U.S. The entire Southwest, including Los Angeles, is dependent on the Colorado River for large-scale human habitation. (Remember the Pueblo Anasazi?) The Midwestern monoculture breadbasket is sucking up the Ogallala Aquifer, and the pretense that lush green fields of corn and soy are anything other than sand dunes with grass on top fit only for buffalo and prairie dogs will one day come to an end. Aquifers take thousands of years to form. Rivers can run dry.


water glass at windowsill, Portland, OR, May 23, 2014

While I'm no scientist, only a lowly English major, it has seemed clear from everything I was reading 10 years ago and since, such as Mark Lynas' Six Degrees, that the global warming feedback loops would spiral out of control faster than predicted. And this is coming true. Arctic ice, that natural thermostat, soon will no longer exist to reflect solar light back into space. Polar bears are mating with grizzlies. Storms in the Atlantic are stronger and more deadly than ever. And fracking in the Midwest and Appalachia will do more than cause unexpected earthquakes in regions better known for tornadoes or hurricanes.

The future of life on the planet centers on water. It always has. Signs of disruption, of lack, surround us now, visible to anyone paying attention. Texas towns in drought are running out of water, and some have begun processing waste water as drinking water, taking cues from Nevada. California, which grows half of America's produce, faces the worst drought in 100 years, and has begun enforcing water restrictions on farmers and cities alike. Food prices will continue to skyrocket, though wages aren't keeping up.
 
Yet humans are notoriously inept as a species at preparing for the future, for taking the long view of time, more attuned genetically to fight-or-flight street fights with large, hairy, fanged or horned creatures. Few are paying attention to something as seemingly ubiquitous, free, clear, and bland as water. It is easier to turn on the TV, pop open a can of fizzy Coke, and watch zombies attacking Atlanta than reconsider our own wasteful behavior within an industrial, fossil-fuel driven culture, facing the monsters of our own creation. They're coming. They're just outside the door. They're already here.

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