It’s been more than five years since thousands of gallons of chemicals spilled into the Elk River, contaminating the water supply for more than 300,000 Kanawha Valley residents. On Saturday, water advocates gathered at Haddad Riverfront Park to remember the crisis, pay tribute to West Virginia’s waters and plan for their future protection.
The event, Global Water Dances, was an interactive one. Children and parents blew giant bubbles and played games before watching — and participating in — performances from the Charleston Ballet and Capital High School dance team.
“Today is about the more spiritual component of protecting and caring for our water. Through the dancing, it’s a way to express your appreciation for water — something we don’t do enough of,” said April Keating, co-founder and president of the Mountain Lakes Preservation Alliance. “This is a fun, friendly, lighthearted way to bring attention to a nasty, nasty problem.”
Sponsored by a number of activist groups, including the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the event included a water blessing and the reading of prayers submitted by attendees regarding water and the fight for clean water.
“I just hope we’ll continue to have enough of it,” one prayer read.
There were roughly three dozen people in attendance, including a number of children, an encouraging sign for Angie Rosser, the executive director of the Rivers Coalition.
“It’s inspiring to see so many young people out here. They’ll be making future decisions to protect our water, but they’ll also be dealing with our bad decisions,” Rosser said. “It’s important that we continue educating and keeping up these conversations. Especially here, there’s certainly still a memory of the water crisis and what it was like to not have access to potable water. We haven’t forgotten.”
Hanna Thurman, from Putnam County, attended Global Water Dances with her 5-year-old daughter, Jo.
Thurman certainly remembers the water crisis, and used the drive to Charleston that morning to tell Jo about it.
“I was pregnant with her at the time, so I was explaining to her today in the car that she was in my belly when it was all going on. It was scary, it really was,” Thurman said. “You know, you have this human in you, and you worry about what you may have already done or put in your body, and what it could mean for them. We remember. I don’t think we’ll ever forget.”
While Thurman enjoyed the dancing and the bubbles with her daughter, she didn’t waste the opportunity to educate her on water conservation and the fight for clean water.
“It’s something we’re certainly conscious of at home. We keep a rain barrel and we stock up as we can, especially since 2014, and we conserve as much as we can,” Thurman said. “It’s never too early to start teaching her about these things.”
For Keating, Saturday’s event involved conversations that should be happening all the time, not just when something goes wrong, like with the water crisis.
“After that, it seemed everyone wanted to fight together for our water, to protect it. Then, slowly, attention kind of dwindled and as people began looking away, those industry players — from coal and oil and gas — they started chipping away at our protections,” Keating said. “These aren’t things we can talk about fleetingly. We need to keep our focus — this is our life. We’re 75 percent water, those bubbles are water, we need it to live, so why do we take it for granted?”
While the event was fun and celebratory, Rosser hopes those in attendance Saturday will remember one thing: the water crisis is far, far from over.
“We have water systems, people on those water systems, across our state that are being polluted every single day,” she said. “It’s not a hypothetical — it’s happening, in different ways, in hundreds of places.”
In addition to being polluted by extractive industries, Rosser pointed out the aging water systems that are inadequately serving thousands of West Virginians, as well as the people in areas that are not serviced by any water system.
“That’s a problem that’s getting worse every year, every day, and we — our leaders — are not paying enough attention. We’re not investing in the right places and we need to change something, soon,” Rosser said. “There are things that globally, no matter where you are, connect us — water, climate. But the health of those things are at risk here, and that’s a conversation we must continue at the state level, the national level and the global level.”