Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Last March, the first thing Michael McClure said at a lecture he gave at the Rainer Valley Cultural Center, was how good the water in Seattle tasted.

It does. This has been one of the enduring rewards of living in this city. Turning on a tap and getting some of the freshest, sweetest water I have ever tasted. This is water you would not want turned into wine. It is that good.

Though turning it into coffee on occasion can be highly rewarding. There is a reason Starbucks got its start in Seattle, and that reason is water. Coffee made with Seattle water is pure elixir. Strong, dark, electric.

Where does our water come from? It does rain a lot in Seattle. Its ultimate provenance is the sky: fronts that blow over the north Pacific, dropping a lot of precipitation on the Olympics and adding to the density of the rainforests, then continuing east to Seattle where it arrives in what is usually a steady drizzle, though sometimes a torrential downpour. The clouds drift onward to the Cascades, where precipitation flutters down as snow in the winter, creating lush packs that in late spring begin dripping and trickling and feeding the thousands of streams silvering the sides of cliffs and gliding over granite and schist in emerald mirrors that converge into rivers.

Seattle’s specific source is the Cedar River Watershed. The Cedar River is about 45 miles long and empties into Lake Washington. But before it gets there pipelines maintained by Seattle Public Utilities at Landsburg reroute approximately 100 million gallons per day for 1.4 million people in King County. And it is the snowpack in the central Cascades whose melting in the spring and summer months keeps the Cedar River boisterous with water. You would think a snowpack, like space and gravity and other natural phenomena, would be a pretty stable occurrence. It’s not. Due, ostensibly, to climate change, the snowpacks have been dwindling. This year the snowpack is just 56% of normal.

Worrisome? Hell yes.

Annual water withdrawal is capped at 22%. Salmon require a minimum of 78% to swim upstream without getting caught in dry gravel beds. 78% is required for the Ballard locks to move up and down from sea level to lake level, and 78% is required to keep the floating bridges in Lake Washington afloat. If the lake level drops past a critical point, the bridges will crack, break, and sink. Current consumption is close to 20%. Meanwhile, population in King County increases by approximately 18,000 per year.

And so I get pretty pissed when I see people power-washing a sidewalk or driveway, or sprinklers keeping a golf link green in the middle of summer. This is stupid, scandalous waste.

And God forbid if the water becomes privatized.

Tap water costs about a half penny per gallon. A pint of bottled water is about $1.40.

Bolivia gives me hope. In September, 1999, Bolivia’s dictator Hugo Banzer signed a contract with Bechtel to privatize the water in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city. A contract was awarded to Aguas del Tunari, a consortium in which Bechetel held a 27.5 interest. Water rates skyrocketed. People had to withdraw their children from school and stop using doctors. Protests ensued. Martial law was declared. Bolivian police killed at least six people and injured over 170. But the protests continued. The Bolivian government withdraw the water contract.

More recently, Michigan has been battling Nestle. In 2001, Perrier, which has since been bought by Nestle Waters North America, was welcomed by Michigan governor John Engler, who let Nestle open a plant for a licensing fee of less than $100 per year, and threw in some tax breaks worth millions. Nestle purchased the groundwater rights to an area known as Sanctuary Springs in Mecosta County and began pumping 100 to 300 gallons per minute out of the local aquifer and bottling it for sale as Nestle’s Ice Mountain brand. A grassroots movement of local residents and activists coalesced to protest. They formed the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation group and filed a lawsuit in Mecosta County Circuit Court against Nestle, seeking to prevent the pumping, arguing that it was not a legally defined "reasonable use" of water and violated state and federal regulations regarding water rights. Judge Lawrence Root presided, and ordered Nestle to stop pumping, on the basis that it impaired the local resources, lowering water levels at lakes and streams, causing the water temperature to change, and irreparable havoc in the entire ecosystem.

The commons has been under continuous assault since unbridled predatory capitalism gained serious momentum during the Reagan administration. This phenomenon is not unique to the United States, as the recent riots in Greece and France have shown. The conflict, as Seattle’s WTO protests gave earlier evidence, is now global. When speculators play the market, people starve. When the commons is privatized, people starve. As it currently stands, 1.1 billion people do not have access to potable water.

Roberta and I sometimes talk about moving to the Midwest. Life is cheaper than in glitzy, software-addled Seattle where Microsoft’s affluence continues to offset a more modest approach to living. We could afford a house in the Midwest. But having grown up, partly, on a farm in North Dakota, where I continued to have strong family connections for many years and reasons to visit, I can attest that the water there is hard and acidic. My father spent his retirement years in the Turtle Mountains, living in a cottage on a small lake near the Manitoba border, and made his coffee with bottled water, so that it wouldn’t taste so bitter.

It isn’t entirely the water that keeps us chained to Seattle. It has quite a few other amenities as well. Microsoft isn’t entirely to blame for its inflated real estate. But while our dreams are often abutted by the hard realities that go with living in an expensive city, it is the water that keeps them afloat.

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