*This essay was first published in the June 2015 issue of ABOUT … the River Valley Magazine.
By Johnny Sain
“Water water everywhere, nor any drop to drink…”
This line from “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” a poem by Englishman Samuel Taylor Coleridge, perfectly captures the water situation in Arkansas and many parts of the South. Water everywhere but you can’t drink it.
Earth’s surface is mostly covered by water to the tune of 71 percent. But 97 percent of that water is found in the oceans and seas rendering it undrinkable and two percent is locked up in ice and glaciers. Simple math means that one percent is potable (drinkable) water. And of that one percent only a tiny bit is drinkable straight from the source. Of course we do have an abundance of potable water. Crystalline drinking water via treatment facilities is always at the faucet and taken for granted here in the U.S. and in other developed countries around the world. But abundance often leads to apathy and abuse. California, facing a drought of historic proportions, is a good example of this. Raising crops in the desert turned out to be a bad idea as the state literally dries up. Of course there’s more to it than overuse, but overuse and abuse is one problem that we can control.
The watery regions of the River Valley are somewhat like a desert mirage. Yes, the water will cool you off and it’s often teeming with life, but few are the bodies of untainted water. You can fish but you can’t just fry up your catch everyday. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission suggests a limit for consumption of fish from many bodies of water due to methylmercury contamination. Methylmercury is naturally found in many ecosystem, but high concentrations are often a by-product of metal processing, burning of coal, mining, and community waste. Methylmercury moves through the environment in water and moves up the food chain as predatory fish feed on contaminated prey.
Methylmercury isn’t the only contaminate found in our waterways, though. Our lakes, rivers, streams and ditches are crammed full of toxic stuff. Pretty much anything we put on our lawns, pastures, driveways, houses, roads and into our bodies will eventually wind up in the water. Overuse of fertilizers produce algal blooms that choke the life out of aquatic ecosystems. Pesticides and petroleum products kill vital aquatic invertebrates. And now we’re even causing sex-changes in fish. You read that correctly. Increased estrogen in waterways from various sources (some crop fertilizers, livestock operations and yes, human sewage) have started playing havoc with spawning habits of various fish even to the point of transforming male fish into females. Sounds like something out of science fiction doesn’t it? Sadly, it’s all to real.
It’s not that we are purposely polluting our most precious resource. On the contrary, you won’t find anyone opposed to clean water. It would be akin to finding someone opposed to oxygen. The problem is a lack of understanding that everyone and everything lives downstream from someone else. All that trash collecting at the Prairie Creek pump station on Bona Dea Trails is an ugly visual reminder of this.
Water, along with everything in it both good and bad, from your ditches and the potholes in your street is always on a journey to the lowest point. The recent flooding of the river serves as a good example. All that water didn’t come from local rains. Everything flowing through the creeks and streams in the Arkansas River watershed — a watershed encompassing nearly 170,000 square miles and starting with melted snow in the Colorado Rockies — eventually ends up in the Gulf of Mexico. The water pouring into Lake Dardanelle has drained off of countless pastures, yards and ditches, through thousands of feeder streams and hundreds of larger creeks in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and western Arkansas. Now think about just the contaminants you put into your lawn. Think about the pesticides, herbicides and nutrient runoff from agriculture you’ve witnessed. Think about the oil slicks you saw in the parking lot this morning. All of that is in our water.
What are we to do? Outside of gutting our current lifestyle the only thing we can do is minimize the damage. We can limit the use of lawn chemicals and fertilizers, we can encourage responsible farming practices and we can put our trash in a receptacle. All of this starts with the realization of just how precious our fresh, sweet water is. There is no life without water and there is no human life without clean, potable water. Period.
Count your blessings, River Valley. We are home to crystalline mountain creeks, lakes full of fish and bottomland swamps slowly returning nutrients to the ecosystem by ancient and mysterious ways. All are treasures that should be passed down to our children and grandchildren in working order. But those treasures can be ruined by nothing more than our inattention and apathy.