We all know that fresh water is essential for life. During recent decades, careless industrial usage, industrial agriculture and poor waste management caused significant damage to earth’s largest aquifers.
Like oxygen, the value of water has long been considered by many in the industrialized world as practically a free good. Water has been hungrily and cheaply used by industry for leaching, processing, flushing and everything else imaginable that affects its quality. Yet in much of the world, drinkable water is a prized and scarce resource. China even has an Institute of Artificial Rain to coordinate the shooting of thousands of rockets with rainmaking chemicals into passing clouds.
Even in America, people in some places in Arizona are advised to not buy a home unless it comes with assigned water rights from a Colorado River aqueduct. According to USA Today, drought “now afflicts about one-third of the contiguous USA, including part of the upper Midwest” and “in the West, 69.5 percent of the region’s 11 states were either in drought or abnormally dry, nearly double the area affected a year ago.” Fires spread with impunity. In California and Arizona, “about 90 percent of each state is in some stage of drought.”
According to the World Water Council, 1.1 billion people, a sixth of the world population, do not have an adequate supply of pure water. Even in West Virginia, a drought alert occurred this summer as rivers in southern counties suffered extensive low water levels.
In West Virginia, water is clearly a resource that is both most valuable and least appreciated. When Virginia left the Union, the remaining area that became West Virginia retained ownership of all waterways, streambeds and riverbanks up to the low-water mark. Mother Jones recognized this fact when she waded streams up hollows and organized coal miners, knowing full well that she would not be arrested for trespassing while on public property.
Water has a long history of careless or free use in West Virginia. Dumping in the Ohio and Kanawha rivers, both owned by West Virginia, has created chemical pollution. PBCs, spread by flooding and dumping at electrical shops such as in Minden, led to Superfund status for Arbuckle Creek, which flows into the New River. Union Carbide, while constructing the Hawks Nest tunnel for free use of the New River to power its Alloy plant, caused hundreds of workers to die from silicosis during the drilling process.
Mammoth water suppliers, such as West Virginia American Water, draw water without charge from state-owned rivers. Firms exploiting other natural resources routinely use state-owned water to clean coal and use strip mine valley fills to eliminate streams that once provided spring water to many West Virginia families. They also pump dirty water and iron sludge back into the ground, thereby contaminating well water supplies used for generations. Poorly regulated blasting that moves rock formations fracture well casings for families and systems, like the Page-Kincaid Public Service District, that historically relied on aquifer sources for the supply of pristine water.
Economic goods essential for life such as water and oxygen have been free for misuse too long and consequential developments are interesting.
For example, European nations are now supplying Costa Rica with “oxygen grants” to subsidize organic farming and keeping one-third of the country as protected rain forest. Asian smog-laden cities sell whiffs of oxygen at street corner kiosks. In China, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, the desert is advancing at the rate of 1,900 square miles per year, causing tens of thousands of environmental migrants.
Back home, West Virginia American Water, an investor-owned supplier owned by American Water Works that compensated its Chief Executive Officer $4,983,114 in 2018, clearly put profits ahead of safety. It pumped drinking water from the Minden mines for the Oak Hill area for a decade after PCB’s were dumped in those mines by Shaffer Equipment; it still uses asbestos pipe; and it has the horrible legacy of the Elk River disaster which impacted 231,000 residents and businesses. In that case, Advocates for a Safe Water System charged that West Virginia American Water prioritized profits in its decision to remove water monitoring equipment from the Elk River Treatment Plant before the disaster occurred.
The time has now come for a practical solution. State agencies such as the Public Service Commission, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the Department of Natural Resources must coordinate with the Legislature to control iron infusion from mining, fracking fluids from drilling, and other contaminants into what the Governor calls on Fox News our “pristine” water supply.
The same applies to the New River, now used by West Virginia American Water for much of Fayette County, which is contaminated by agricultural pesticides in the Carolinas, chemical plants in Virginia, a railroad tank car dump near Princeton, PCBs from Minden, Black Fly spraying, railroad pesticides along the tracks in the New River Gorge, and a major abandoned riverside dump in Fayette County near Cunard.
It is ironic that it is unsafe to eat the fish from the New River but safe to drink the water. The drought and climate change, which has recently caused emergency caution on river water draws in southern West Virginia, also impacts the supply of water on the New River, forcing draws to suck up more contaminated bottom water and requiring greater chemical costs for treatment. In addition, according to Virginia Tech’s Department of Biological Systems Engineering, drinking water from 19 springs that feed the New River tested positive for coliform bacteria, which indicate that disease-causing organisms could be present, and e. coli was found in half of those streams as well. E. coli bacteria can cause severe diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and, in some cases, can be fatal.
West Virginia is blessed with an essential resource that everyone around us will soon need and want. Unlike coal, the waters of this state are publicly owned and thus must be prudently managed for quality. Furthermore, the water resource must generate public revenue that benefits citizens of West Virginia, perhaps through a public savings trust that supports state services and gives income dividends to residents.
As West Virginians, we cannot afford to squander the opportunity to focus on water as we realize that coal, with global warming pressing for renewable and clean energy, is likely not the fuel of the future as it once was and not the sole engine to sustain West Virginia’s economy over time.