The Politics of Drinking Water

The Politics of Drinking Water

Vital, renewable, and tied to civilization since the beginning of time, water: an Object Lesson

On January 9, 2014, American Water warned 300,000 customers in and around Charleston, West Virginia, that local tap water was no longer safe. Ten thousand gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM), a chemical used to clean coal, had leaked from a rusty holding tank into the Elk River, upstream of the water treatment facility. State officials warned that exposure to the licorice-scented solvent could cause “burning in throat, severe eye irritation, non-stop vomiting, trouble breathing or severe skin irritation such as skin blistering.” Given the paucity of information on MCHM’s effect on the human body, no one could predict the long-term consequences of exposure.

Within 24 hours, a mayor’s convention was cancelled, restaurants were shut down, and public schools were closed. Traffic clogged around the South Charleston Recreation Center, where the fire department distributed free cases of water, limited to one per vehicle. Its cache was depleted within hours. Bottled water supplies vanished. The National Guard delivered tanks of potable water and FEMA promised additional truckloads. When water shipments arrived at a local Wal-Mart, demand was so high that nervous employees called the cops, requesting guards to stand by while they restocked shelves.

It’s no surprise that the West Virginia leak, the more recent Duke Energy coal ash spill, or the newest BP oil rupture rile consumers. Hydration isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. Providing access to clean water is a fundamental measure of effective government. When water goes bad, so do political relations. After the MCHM spilled, West Virginia officials made a series of conflicting statements. Two days after Governor Earl Ray Tomblin began lifting the do-not-use order on local taps, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control advised that pregnant women continue to avoid Charleston water. In response, Gov. Tomblin back-pedaled: “It’s a very complicated issue,” he said. “I’m not a scientist.”

Most Americans take cheap, safe drinking water for granted. Globally, one out of 10 people can’t access clean water. Some 1,400 children die each day from water-related diseases. Unless there’s a spill or equipment failure, these numbers exclude U.S. residents. Across the 50 states, 155,000 public water systems treat, filter, and deliver 100 gallons per person per day, all for the low cost of less than 1 cent per gallon.

Contaminant-free drinking water hasn’t always been part of the American experience. Until the early 1900s, shared public cups accompanied most drinking fountains. Cholera, typhoid fever, dysentery, and food poisoning from coliform bacteria—all potentially fatal—spread from mouth to cup and back again. Diarrhea was rampant. Not until l889, when Kohler Water Works invented the Bubbler, which pumped a continuous flow of water an inch into the air, did a spout replace the cup. To partake, drinkers stooped over the copper basin and slurped. What wasn’t sucked up dripped down the nozzle. Clean water mingled with saliva. Though an improvement over the public cup, bacteria still flourished.