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FRAN ALEXANDER: Famous poem a shout-out to protect water quality

by Fran Alexander | July 20, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

When Samuel Coleridge wrote, "Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink," in his poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," he wove the story of a grizzled old sailor wandering the land telling of a voyage gone terribly wrong.

By the time Coleridge published his poem in 1798, people had long known they could not drink the ocean's saltwater no matter how thirsty they were. He would probably be astounded that by 2021 humans were causing much of their fresh water to be as deadly, just in different ways. In their day ocean water, stretching as far as the eye could see, was used for fishing and ship travel. Neither the poet nor his fictional sailor would have imagined seas contaminated with human trash so vast and deep that filth washes onto global beaches and chokes marine life that swims below.

The poet no doubt had seen slop pots dumped onto public streets, coal dust choking cities, and rivers running as open sewers because pollution is not a new thing in the human story. The symbolism and theme in his epic work, however, was not pollution. The mariner's epiphany was that in killing the albatross that had guided his lost ship, he'd made the mistake of a lifetime. Coleridge could not have known that centuries later, "nor any drop to drink," would become the most prophetic line in his poem, a warning shout-out to upcoming generations striving to protect water.

Mom Nature has no clue how to deal with the nightmare of human-created "forever chemicals." These, along with garbage, sewage, manure, plastics, tires, metals, sediment, fossil fuels, ash, pesticides, fertilizer, drugs and industrial wastes eventually can find their ways into watersheds that lead to oceans.

We drink, flush, wash, swim, boat, fish, bathe, irrigate and run industries with water that our treatment plants have cycled back to us cleaned up as much as current technology can manage. But the hundreds of treatment facilities in the country are uneven in their quality, largely because of dependency on money and political decisions. Consequently, water is not consistently clean and safe everywhere, leaving citizens to ask, "Where did my water come from and where is it going next?"

Flint, Michigan's lead pipe contamination exposed similar lead problems nationally from Newark, N.J. to Portland, Ore. Levels of arsenic and bacteria also have been found in some water systems, and chemicals from underground fracking for oil and gas continues to endanger aquifers and wells.

Groundwater use in Arkansas is not sustainable according to a recent state report, but conservation and tax incentives are making a difference in shifting to more use of surface water. Recovery of and maintaining the aquifers in the state will depend on somehow not over-consuming or wasting the state's most precious resource while population grows.

Fayetteville hopes to study Lake Fayetteville's impaired condition, "to pinpoint the source of water quality issues for the lake's watershed." That quality is bad enough now that swimming by humans or dogs isn't allowed. I do hope someone has figured out how to tell the dogs.

Since the lake is considered "Plan B" if something happens to our Beaver Lake water supply, figuring out how to clean it up and keep it that way should be the city's top priority instead of encouraging more growth. Bragging about our quality of life and high living in Northwest Arkansas should be allowed only after we've fixed the consequences of existing population pressures, not before.

The Beaver Lake Water District, the Beaver Lake Watershed Alliance, as well as organizations like the Illinois River Watershed Partnership and the Watershed Conservation Resource Center are doing their darnedest to protect the water of this part of the state. Hopefully in articles to come, I can elaborate on their roles.

We know that, for now at least, we're lucky to currently have enough drops to drink in our region. Out west the lament is becoming, "No water, no water anywhere," as wildfires rage across forests dried into crispy torches and as lake levels shrink.

The ancient mariner may have killed the great sea bird out of stupidity or superstition, but his fellow sailors blamed their bad luck on his decision and tied the dead bird around the killer's neck. Only he survived to do penance for his dead crew and the albatross, nature's destroyed gift.

Our choice is to keep the drops we have clean, safe and plentiful, or to forever carry the guilty burden of knowing we did not.

Print Headline: 'Nor any drop to drink'

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