Monday, September 13, 2010

Water Everywhere? Or Empty Cup?

As noted, water is the issue which could turn Penn's Woods into Penn's Desert. And, since water is necessary for life--no exceptions here--the issue cannot be dismissed as a mere matter of aesthetics. It doesn't matter whether you prefer the landscape of the Sahara Desert or of a tropical rain forest, you need water to live in that landscape.
What threatens Pennsylvania's abundant lakes, rivers, and streams? First of all, we ourselves. We need to use our water supply frugally, whether for drinking, personal hygiene, home cleanliness, or recreation. But, although this step is necessary, it pales in comparison with some other steps we need to take. They involve standing up to some pretty daunting forces.
Right now, it seems to me the biggest threat to our water is the extraction of natural gas from marcellus shale. A lot about our future depends upon whether this is done with intelligence or without it. And I fear that corporate and personal greed will militate against intelligence.
Much of the problem lies in a procedure called fracking (hydraulic fracturing). This involves pumping many thousands of gallons of water, mixed with often undisclosed chemicals, into the shale to extract the very last bit of natural gas.
What effect will this have on our water? Or on plant and animal life? We do not yet know. It seems better to find out now, in the early stages of this inevitable development and while we have some chance to control it.
Other things that need to concern us are projects t0 drill for oil in lakes, from Lake Erie down to the smallest pond. Such projects have one more complication even than the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico. That is because we will be risking fresh water, not salt water. That is, water for drinking.
We have no way of replacing ANY water we have. No science known to us can do that.
And that leads to another threat: the privatizing of public water supplies. There ARE already some private water companies, and presumably some of them are doing a good job. But the temptation for a private company to cut corners for profit will always be present. In general, it seems to me that it is better to keep functions vital to the public good in public hands, and to supervise them with diligence. There have been too many stories of public officials who let public assets like water systems run down so that "privatizing" them seems to make sense. And there also are tales of private water companies plugging the water pipes of customers who cannot pay with concrete, rather than trying to work with them.
The next few years will indeed be perilous. If we survive, it will be because we have learned to work together for interests that transcend profit. Because, dare I say, we have learned to work together in the tradition of William Penn.

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