OPINION | FRAN ALEXANDER: Everyone benefits from those dedicated to watching the water

They’re needed, because we all live downstream

One of the great conundrums about humans is our frequent refusal to accept the fact that water runs downhill. We tend to fight its natural progression, which I guess is why civil engineers were invented, but mainly we get into trouble when we forget we all live downstream from somewhere.

Watersheds are the carved paths making their way through the land that bring us water to drink, to irrigate our fields, to wash our cars, to flush our toilets, etc. It has always been somewhere else before it gets to us.

During a journalism class where I'd been invited to give students my opinion on opinions, a young college student asked me why I cared about environmental "stuff."

Fortunately, he had just taken a swig from one of those ubiquitous disposable water bottles, so I asked him what he'd just swallowed. Giving me that, "Well duh?" look, he said, "Uh ... water!" as if I couldn't get much dumber. I then broke the news to him that he might have also imbibed chemicals to clean that clear liquid of organisms and residue from whatever it took to filter dirt, trash, poop, petroleum, cleaning products, pesticides and even possibly some leachate and nano-particles from the forever-plastic he was holding.

Like the textbook example of an unaware person who believes milk comes from the grocery store, most of us have no idea where our water comes from or what makes it fit to drink. We are fortunate to have people in organizations in Northwest Arkansas who devote themselves to protecting and correcting how our water gets to us so that we can absentmindedly trust that it's safe to drink. But clean water doesn't just happen.

The Beaver Watershed Alliance is a nonprofit that works to protect and sustain high water quality in Beaver Lake, where a half-million Arkies, and some Okies, get their water. The work requires contacting a lot of humans about a lot of their activities in the watershed, ranging from pasture grazing to canoeing and swimming. Several area organizations with different water missions try to reach out to landowners with techniques they can use to restore waterways and water quality. They also monitor conditions, give technical assistance, provide education opportunities and, upon request, even help put land into conservation trusts.

The major tributaries feeding Beaver Lake are Richland and War Eagle creeks and the West, Middle and East forks of the White River. One of the worst pollutants by volume is sediment -- dirt -- which washes off fields, roads, construction sites and broken-down stream banks alongside these tributaries. And when topsoil leaves the land, not only is its soil value lost, but water becomes "too thick to drink, too thin to plow," as the old saying goes.

In 1998, due to loss of vegetation and stream bank instability and erosion, 27.2 White River miles were listed as impaired. However, today the Alliance, partnering with the area's other water protection groups, is celebrating the West Fork of the White River being included in Environmental Protection Agency's Success Story publication in July, marking its removal from the state's impaired water body list.

Celebrating with and congratulating water workers in the Beaver Lake watershed was EPA's Dr. Earthea Nance, who visited the region last week. She was provided information on strategies being used to protect source water and to prepare for the region's continuing growth. Nance stressed how assisting smaller communities and flood-prone areas is also a social justice issue. She also visited with the Illinois River Watershed Partnership to learn about their efforts and challenges.

I suspect most residents around here don't realize it takes fundraisers and volunteers to supplement the work of these organizations. The Beaver Watershed Alliance will hold its annual "Friendsraiser" Party in the Park from 6 to 8:30 p.m.Thursday, Sept. 22, at Bunch Park in Elkins to celebrate water accomplishments and bring together landowners, partners, agencies and anyone else interested in a good time along with BBQ, a silent auction, live music and family fun. Register at: https://www.beaverwatershedalliance.org/event/friendraiser/

The Alliance's website explains its task: "Managing the watershed area, or lands that drain into Beaver Lake, including portions of Benton, Carroll, Washington and Madison counties, takes a lot of collaboration and resources."

I just wish I knew where to find that college kid who asked me why I care about the environment. I'd like to introduce him to a few folks he needs to thank and then treat him to a tall glass of clean, clear ice water.