When The Well Runs Dry...
I’m Exhausted & I Bet You Are Too
I’m gonna get more personal with you this week. I’m feeling a bit hopeless. I’m pissed. I’m sick of it all, and I know many of you feel the same way.
Don’t worry, I’m not giving up. I just need to acknowledge what I’m feeling.
Our country (and our world) is overwhelmed right now with COVID, job loss, systemic racism, winter storms, wildfires, you name it. It’s been almost a year since millions in the U.S. went into some kind of lockdown and billions did the same throughout the world. We’re worried; we’re lonely; we’re mad; we miss our loved ones; we’re anxious about all of it.
I’ve spent most of this year at home with my dogs. It’s been a huge shift from giving keynote lectures and flying back and forth across the country to help communities in need. In 2019, I spent two months in Australia working on water contamination issues.
Here I am, less jet-lagged than ever, and yet I feel exhausted.
My inbox has never been busier. This past week I received a stack of messages about a problematic water situation in San Angelo, Texas. Even my fearless editor-in-chief Suzanne received numerous texts from friends about the water hacking situation in Florida.
I could write endless newsletters about water treatment gone wrong and infrastructure failing. It’s a mess!
For years, I’ve been cheerleading and offering positive messages for others to learn from, but I can’t do it all. As one person, I can’t possibly fix every water contamination, cancer cluster, toxic poisoning, pipeline spill, medical error, and more.
What I can do is inspire you to do what I’ve done. Use your voice and don’t give up. I need more folks to get on the field. We need a people’s movement for water.
So I ask you, what’s one thing you can do for water?
Can you read an article and share it?
Attend a city council meeting and speak about what’s happening in your community?
Help a friend interpret their water report?
Research a carcinogenic chemical and share that with someone who is fighting cancer?
Write or call your governor, your senators, your president?
Attend a virtual event or sign a petition?
Share a post about water issues on your social media feed?
What’s your action?
You don’t have to take on everything, but you need to start somewhere, with one small action. I’ll offer a few suggestions at the bottom of this letter too.
Please share in the comments what action you’re taking this week so we can inspire each other. We need to support one another in this fight.
If you’re like me and feeling a bit exhausted or overwhelmed, I also want to encourage you to do something this week to rejuvenate.
I go for 5-mile walks in my neighborhood in Southern California or I lounge on my back porch and watch the sunset. In order to be a force of nature, we must take time to commune with her. One of my favorite things to do when I’m working in the field is to get quiet and listen.
There’s nothing better than being deep in the forest with your thoughts or sitting in the sand watching waves come to shore.
Novelist Barbara Kingsolver once wrote, “Hope is a renewable option: If you run out of it at the end of the day, you get to start over in the morning.” Nature helps connect us back to that well of hope.
A lot of us have been spending too much time indoors and “nature deprivation,” or a lack of time in the natural world, has been associated with depression and other health issues.
Let’s inspire one another with our nature time too. Tell me in the comments what your R&R practice in nature looked like this week.
Don’t Drink the Water In Texas
In my book, Superman’s Not Coming, I share the story of the Elk River Spill.
It’s easy to take clean water for granted until it’s suddenly not there. Just ask any of the 300,000 residents in Charleston, West Virginia, who woke up one morning in January 2014 to a do-not-drink order on their tap water. They couldn’t brush their teeth, brew a cup of coffee, or make oatmeal that morning thanks to an industrial chemical spill, and not a small one at that.
About 10,000 gallons of an unregulated chemical, 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM), leaked from a storage tank into the Elk River. The cause? Corrosion—in the form of a one-inch hole where chemicals seeped out and into the river. Records showed that the tank had not been inspected since 1991.
But the Elk River crisis is not an isolated incident. Just last week, more than 100,000 residents of San Angelo, Texas, had a similar water ban.
The City of San Angelo Water Utilities Department issued a citywide “do not use” order for tap water due to an undetermined contamination. Water in the PaulAnn area of town began smelling like mothballs starting on the evening of February 8. Restaurants, hotels, and bars were ordered to close.
The city investigation is ongoing but the list of chemicals found in the drinking water so far include benzene, naphthalene, acetone, tetrahydrofuran, toluene, acrylonitrile, styrene, and more. That’s a dangerous cocktail of chemicals!
Then, a winter storm rolled into town causing the city to issue a boil water notice to boot.
According to a press release issued on February 16, “Citizens in the areas approved for water usage must boil water before consumption. This does not apply to those still in the red and white “do-not-use” or “do-not-drink” zones. We are asking for people to assist the water utility by lowering their water usage to essential needs only. Do not use water unless you are using it to drink or cook after you have boiled it. If you are in the PaulAnn area, you are still under a do-not-drink notice. Please do not take baths or showers or use water for any non-life sustaining uses at this time. We realize that there are still a large number of citizens without power due to the winter storm and that boiling water may not be possible due to no electric power.”
Talk about not being prepared! My heart goes out to everyone dealing with this crisis.
What’s going on in this town will take some time to unfold, but my water expert Bob Bowcock and I have visited this town before (back in 2016). Ongoing issues with the water system persist and they’re using chloramines to try to fix it.
Watch Bob in action at this 2018 meeting for North Texas Municipal Water District.
Water treatment facilities throughout the country are switching from chlorine, the primary disinfectant used in drinking water systems for more than 100 years, to an alternative disinfectant called chloramines, a mixture of chlorine and ammonia. Some estimates show that about one in five Americans drink water disinfected with chloramines.
One of the main reasons for this switch is to provide increased protection from bacterial contamination, but using chloramines is literally one of the cheapest options available. It doesn’t help control the taste or odor in the water.
I like to call chloramines the godfather of where we’ve gone wrong with our drinking water. It might help water districts meet standards set by the EPA to lower levels of disinfection byproducts, but for so many towns it creates more problems down the road.
Chlorine evaporates into the air relatively quickly, while chloramines are more stable and last longer in the system. Research has shown that chloramines cause deterioration of the municipal infrastructure thanks to changes in the water chemistry.
“The (city) council ultimately has authority over the decisions, but the water manager is in consultation with TCEQ,” Bob told San Angelo reporter Rosanna Fraire in an interview. “Then the water manager goes to the City Council and they say they’re going to switch to chloramine because it's the least expensive option for them. Then you’re back to the problem you are dealing with today. If you have the filters designed to remove the organics that form disinfection byproducts, you would have captured the spill and it would have never gotten to the distribution system and saved your community tens of millions of dollars.”
It’s time to stop masking the issue and get to the source of the problem.
Folks writing to me say that the water has been undrinkable for years. Many local residents speculate about releases from a manufacturing plant named Ethicon, a Johnson and Johnson medical device company, located next to the PaulAnn subdivision.
Rumors in town say they have contaminated the water in the past and many people have died from cancer working there. A pediatric nurse wrote to me saying, “we have so many kids here with brain tumors and other weird cancers, disproportionately so in my opinion.”
Federal Investment Has Left the Building
Meanwhile, in Florida, a hacker attempted to poison water supplies remotely in the 15,000-person city of Oldsmar (just 15 miles from Tampa) by increasing the amount of lye (sodium hydroxide) to dangerous levels.
Am I surprised? Not really.
While a supervisor from the facility reversed the changes and saved the town from a disaster, this incident shows a major weakness in how we handle our drinking water .
As reported on the PBS Newshour, “Treatment plants are typically cash-strapped, and lack the cybersecurity depth of the power grid and nuclear plants.”
The country has about 151,000 public water systems that are mostly underfunded, under-resourced, and dealing with aging infrastructure. In addition, we lack federal regulations on security measures at these type of facilities.
CNN reported that the Florida water treatment plant had multiple computers running on an aging version of Microsoft Windows to monitor the facility, and all of the computers shared one password to access the remote management software.
“Water treatment and sewage plants are often some of the most digitally vulnerable critical infrastructure targets in the United States, made more so by the budget cuts and remote work scenarios imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic,” according to an article in Wired.
The real problem here? Federal investment to our drinking water systems peaked in 1977. Public utilities throughout the country are scrambling to fund infrastructure updates, create more robust cyber security, or deal with chemical contaminations like lead and PFAS from customer revenue alone. It’s why so many have huge water bills for water they don’t want to drink.
The EPA estimates that $600 billion is needed for water infrastructure improvements in the next 20 years. That’s gonna take more than a local bake sale to fix. We need a stimulus package that includes major investments to our infrastructure.
As long as our local municipalities are in trouble, we are all vulnerable.
Watch Something NEW
Wanna hear me gab more? Here are two recent podcasts with me talking all about how we need to become the hero we seek.
The Marianne Williamson Podcast: Finding Your Inner Erin Brockovich
Better Together with Maria: How To Summon Your Inner Warrior
Watch Something OLD
Did you know the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee has a YouTube Channel?
Don’t just trust me on water issues? Watch this video of a roundtable discussion from 2018. The panel featured drinking water experts talking about contamination, drinking water infrastructure issues, and reviewing funding priorities leading up to a larger infrastructure debate. Infrastructure is still an issue!
Contact U.S. Senator Tom Carper, the newly elected Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and tell him to fund updates to water infrastructure now.