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 Winter 2012

Water: A Reflection

Water Wars Graphic by Adam Abraham

The Global Seminars are an integral component of Antioch College's new curriculum. The first seminar, Water, was taught by Lewis Trelawny-Cassity, assistant professor of philosophy, and David Kammler, associate professor of chemistry. The following excerpt is adapted from student Rachael Smith's seminar paper.

I spent my life on the shores of rivers, beaches, and oceans. The heavy fog that hangs in the air year round keeps fields misty and park benches wet. The gray sky and constant moisture of the redwood forest is to me the feeling of home.

I grew up along the coast of Northern California, where I splashed in the waves, floated down the river, took walks near an artificial wetland that also functions as a waste treatment plant for the community.

We had bonfires beside the icy cold ocean, which glittered with phosphorescence.

Beaches and rivers were precious to me, as precious as the fog and rain. But water for drinking was like breathing. I recognized its importance but I didn't particularly enjoy or cherish it. Rarely was I thankful to have it.

We live outside the city limits so our water comes from a well. When the electricity goes out, the water also stops running and we have to take care about flushing toilets and shower at the gym. All the water in the house is good to drink, but we usually drink from the multi-pure water filter in the kitchen.

This class helped me come to think about water in a different way.

I initially dreaded learning about the science of water. A basic understanding of the science of water, however, helped me to learn about water's economic, social, political, and legal impacts in much more depth.

Take, for example, hydrogen bonding.The words reek of high school chemistry. I can't handle this. I want to leave.

But I found myself intrigued by what I was learning. One water molecule makes four hydrogen bonds, which makes the collective intermolecular force very strong. This force makes water have a high boiling and melting point. A high boiling and melting point means liquid water exists in an unusually broad range of temperatures and on most of the earth's surface. Water exists as a liquid, solid and gas naturally on earth; this is key in how it moves through the environment. It also exists in large, deep bodies which regulate the temperature of the planet.

I came to this understanding reluctantly. Yet, it became crucial in my understanding of water conflicts, such as those related to hydraulic fracking.

In California, I was largely unaware of fracking. It became a scary reality when I enrolled at Antioch.

Rachael Smith

A day after Thanksgiving, the water ran out in the Pittsburgh house where I'd been staying. We walked to the neighbor's with a wheelbarrow full of jugs to fill up with the hose and lugged them back to the house to use for the rest of the day. It took all of fifteen minutes. Afterwards, I thought about all the people who live in places where water is scarce and spend so much of their time carrying water.

On the way out of Pittsburgh, we passed two different fracking operations. I recognized them from Gasland, Josh Fox's 2010 film about the communities in the U.S. impacted by natural gas drilling and, specifically, the stimulation method known as hydraulic fracturing.

It amazes me how, as a nation, we are so unconscious of the impact we have on the environment or the privileges we enjoy.

A visit to the Yellow Springs Sewage Treatment Plant gave me a better perspective on water-based waste management systems. Treating water and flowing it through a community is a complex and flawed process. In Arcata, California, our wastewater is managed in an artificial wetland system, the Arcata Marsh. The marsh lies on the edge of Humboldt Bay and was once the site of a landfill and several lumber mills. It is purified through a series of oxidation ponds with aquatic plants and microorganisms. (I am embarrassed to say I researched this information from Ohio.)

I now know how the sewage treatment wetland in my hometown works as well as the treatment plant here. This fills my head with ideas about recycled water being used to flush toilets and water gardens, artificial wetlands created to manage waste, and composting toilets. Right now you don't see these systems in place very often, but I think this will need to change in the coming years. Fresh water is becoming much scarcer. We need to conserve.

“The world is thirsty, screaming through parched lips as we race toward nine billion.”

The Fertile Crescent, an area in western Asia that was the fertile home of some of the earliest human civilizations, has been sucked dry. Iraq now suffers from desertification and soil salinization due in large part to thousands of years of agriculture. Saddam Hussein's government projects drained the eastern inhabited marsh areas by drying up or diverting streams and rivers. Egypt's Aswan Dam blocks the passage of fertilizing silt, transforming the previously rich, self-sustaining system to one dependent on chemical fertilizers and prone to water logging and salinization.

The world is thirsty, screaming through parched lips as we race towards nine billion. The more I know, the worse I feel. To learn is painful. Ignorance is worse.I feel stuck in a system so deep rooted that drastic changes are close to impossible.I have watched the Klamath River slide down the banks year by year as the giant and beautiful vineyards suck it dry. The dams for irrigation make it so that salmon cannot complete their annual journey. Or the shallow water heats to temperatures in which they can't survive and then they die before reproduction.

Gasland inspired me. It reminded me that education is the key to change. That those of us who aren't scientists have the capacity to understand and effect these issues, and that we have the responsibility to spread the word. I know I am able to effect change in water-related issues. I know that we all have that ability but that it takes community. It takes a film by Josh Fox, committee meetings, informational packets, and horrible stories of what the consequences might be.It is my responsibility to learn about water-related issues and to put my strengths where they can be of use.

I can talk to people and join committees. I can write proposals and create packets. I can protest and I can support. Someone else can develop energy-efficient reverse osmosis systems. But it will take all of us. Like hydrogen bonds, collectively we are strong.

Rachael Smith ’15 is a Horace Mann Fellow.