Water is crucial
Eagle River Water and Sanitation District recently mailed out their consumer confidence report. The Environmental Protection Agency requires all water utilities to mail a yearly report. Vail’s looks good. It had no violations of the 80 possible contaminants regulated by the EPA. I like the EPA. Here, strong government is good for my health. The Bush administration’s anti-government rhetoric and undermining of the EPA may sound good in a sound bite, and no doubt for the health of favored industries’ bank accounts, but it’s worth thinking about the consequences whenever you twist your tap.Taste is a personal issue, but I like Vail’s water. Minerals give taste to water, as do the trace residues of chlorine and other treatments to disinfect water. Water without any minerals (distilled) tastes flat. Whiskey connoisseurs drink the praises of “branch water,” or unpurified natural stream water as the ideal complement. Could work in Scotland, but here with giardia, I’d go for the purified tap water unless I wanted to lose weight quickly.Vail’s report suggests that if you’re buying bottled water for safety reasons, you’re wasting money. Better to save your dollars and upgrade your plumbing. Corrosion of old fixtures is a greater source of contaminants than the water district. Installing a filter is also a lot cheaper than bottled water and in many cases not too different. While much bottled water does come from aquifers and springs, some is merely filtered tap water with a fancy label. Then there’s the question of chemicals leaching from the plastic bottle over time. I’m not a great fan of bottled water. It reeks of an exclusive opt out from the public water system, and I’d rather have everyone in a community committed to a clean water supply. You know the “one for all and all for one” type thing. Bottled water is convenient for that drink to go, but carrying a bottle of tap water works, too, and prevents landfills of plastic bottles waiting 1,000 years to decompose. That takes a minimal amount of effort and thought, so it isn’t seen as convenient.Clean water and our access to it is something we take for granted. It’s only when I go for a multi-day hike with a water filter that I get to appreciate what the water district does for me. Our planet is two-thirds water and we can also forget how unique a chemical it is. When we search for signs of life on other planets, we look for water. Without it life can’t exist, and on the scale of the universe it is very rare. Our blue sparkling planet is a rarity in space – a gem of wetness. If alien life ever were to arrive here, they’d be more interested in the nature and diversity of life on our damp planet than by our money, cars and houses. Water is such a special molecule that its occurrence is either an incredibly fortunate accident (from life’s point of view) or divine intervention. Water and mercury are the only inorganic materials that are liquid at earth temperature. Water contracts as it gets colder until 4 degrees Celsius. Then it expands into the pretty lattice structure seen in snowflakes. The practical result: ice floats and bodies of water only freeze on the surface. If ice sank, lakes and oceans would slowly freeze from the bottom up. Without available liquid water, life would stop.A water molecule resembles Mickey Mouse: a positive oxygen atom with two small negative hydrogen ears attached. It’s a small magnet and ideal for dissolving a vast array of substances. Blood, milk, beer, etc, are all salts and organic materials in water. Oxygen and carbon dioxide depend on water to enter, move around and interact in living organism. Every chemical reaction in your body happens in a solution of water. Elements that don’t dissolve in water are either toxic (lead, mercury) or of little importance to life (gold).The magnetic property of water molecules causes them to stick together (as seen in surface tension) and reluctant to evaporate as easily as such a small molecule should. The practical result: it takes a lot of heat to vaporize water – why sweat cools us down. Large bodies of water absorb and release huge amounts of heat. Globally oceans and lakes smooth out daily and seasonal temperature swings. Deserts have hot days and cold nights because there is little moisture in the air to act as an energy sink. Same up here with our thin, dry air, too.Life has evolved around water, and nature’s ecosystems developed ways to recycle and purify this water. Here in North America, beaver ponds collect run-off and filter out the sediment. Locally you can see this with all the road gravel from Interstate 70 filling in the ponds. For every pond filled in, there’s less gravel suffocating the streambed. Beavers are a reservoir for giardia, though. Small streams and wetlands are often seasonal, but are extremely useful for cleaning water. They make up 80 percent of the nation’s network. In studies, small streams removed phosphorous and ammonia from water within 65 feet and transformed or retained inorganic nitrogen within 1,000 yards. The Bush administration recently abandoned – under public pressure – plans to eliminate half the nation’s waters from protection under the Clean Water Act. But a new guidance memo to regulators threatens development of 20 million acres of wetlands, small streams and other waters.Looking at the water district report you see that our water comes from groundwater wells and surface water. We are lucky here to be so close to the source. There is little time for sediments and contaminants from roads, lawns, building sites and industry to wash into the streams and leach into the groundwater. Whenever you twist your tap think of the wild streams, lakes, fens and wetlands it comes from. Protecting those places safeguards our water quality and quantity. It should be a symbiotic relationship, one that requires long term vision, understanding and compromise. I think the water district has it with its conservation policies and tiered rate structure.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.