Pristine water, turbid politics

“And the least that those who are fortunate enough to be dwellers of the French Broad country can do, out of humble thankfulness for nature’s bounty to them, is make certain that their town, their city and their industries around them at last shoulder their responsibility.”

— Wilma Dykeman,
The French Broad

An abundance of water flows from our sacred Blue Ridge Mountains, filling the rivers of the French Broad River basin and supplying our people with some of the cleanest and most pristine water in the world. Springs bubble up from the core of Mount Pisgah and burst like water spouts from the craggy cliffs of Mount Mitchell. Water gushes from the very heart of our mountains, cascading down the slopes through an exquisite maze of tributaries like the blood of life that courses through our bodies’ veins and arteries. Tiny rills and brooks converge, swelling into creeks and streams that rush through tunnels of laurel and rhododendron en route to the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers. The dancing waters leap from rock to rock, meandering through shadowy bends, swirling in granite pools, giving birth and sustenance to a marvelously interdependent world of pulsating life. Such is our inheritance in Western North Carolina.

Who can deny that our water is sacred — and profoundly vital to our existence?

In most civilizations’ creation accounts, water is the womb from which all life is birthed — as in the Book of Genesis where, in the opening act of creation, Elohim is seen brooding on the waters of the deep. Every human ever born, every mammal, was incubated in the nurturing fluid of the mother’s womb and delivered into the world by its natural flow. Water is the principal constituent of all living organisms. It accounts for nearly 80 percent of the human body.

Water is also the cornerstone of religious ritual worldwide, symbolizing purification, consecration and the unfathomable mysteries of life. In the ancient Greek Bible, the term for spiritual understanding and enlightenment is “sunesis,” which refers to the point where the waters of two rivers converge, like the Tigris and Euphrates in ancient Mesopotamia. Whether it’s the sacred ritual of baptism, or the tradition of foot washing, or the divine experience of diving from the face of a boulder into a deep green pool on a summer day, it’s clear that water represents the life-sustaining power of creation.

Lay Vicar Brian Cole believes that every aspect of creation is sacred, to the point of saying that “to separate who I am as a person of faith from the natural world is to do a dance that’s not sustainable.” Water, he says, is a key element in his ministry at the Church of the Advocate (a congregation for the homeless in downtown Asheville), a way of “honoring the goodness and holiness of creation.” “Within the Christian tradition,” notes Cole, “the most common of all things we have in the world — water — can also be the most sacred. The sacrament of baptism demonstrates in concrete form that the spiritual and the ecological foundations of life are one.” For him, in the profoundly simple act of offering a cup of cold water to someone in need, the water itself becomes “an agent of service, an agent of compassion.”

The gift of abundant water is a sacred trust, and the stewardship of these resources demands the utmost integrity. Sadly, however, we have grossly polluted and mindlessly wasted much of our water, to the point that many people now use filters and drink bottled water to ensure their safety. Meanwhile, the infrastructure we have erected to deliver our drinking water is crumbling.

Despoiled by decades of neglect, political abuse, turf battles, lawsuits and threats of lawsuits, our local water system is in a state of crisis, with little immediate hope for improvement. The Regional Water Authority estimates that 1,100 miles of lines need repair or replacement (at a cost of $35 to $75 per linear foot, depending on the terrain). About 27 percent of the treated water the system produces is lost before it reaches the end user. And because ours is not a truly autonomous water authority, we’re forced to pay the state Department of Transportation more than $1 million a year to relocate water lines displaced by highway projects.

Meanwhile, debt-service payments drain 28 percent of water revenues. Another 7.5 percent of the water budget — money that has absolutely nothing to do with water — goes to Asheville and Buncombe County, disguised in the Water Agreement as payments in lieu of taxes. Water rates have increased 32 percent in the last 10 years and will only continue to rise.

Since last October, representatives from Buncombe County, Henderson County, Asheville and the Regional Water Authority have been negotiating ways to address this dilemma. Little progress has been made, however. The word “rival” is derived from a Roman legal term referring to a person who shared with another the water of a river or an irrigation system. That sense of sharing contrasts sharply with the bitter conflicts played out over the last two years. Only recently have there been any signs of good-faith efforts to solve our water crisis and promote the kind of regional cooperation that so many in this area desire.

What are we to conclude about the state of our local affairs when the two elements most vital to our existence — water and air — are so degraded?

Hazel Fobes, the grand matron of all local activists, has devoted countless volunteer hours to the cause of clean, affordable water for our region. All her life, she’s been impressed with the importance of water and the grave responsibility of guarding our resources at all costs. She recalls the common practice of straight-piping into a nearby creek, which prevented her from playing in the water as a child; the excursions her family made into the mountains of Virginia in quest of the medicinal water her mother needed for her health; and the experience of water-witching with a branch from a peach tree, which led to the discovery of an artesian well that provided water for her father’s business.

Years later, Ms. Fobes lived in India as an adult; she still vividly remembers a local villager she met who walked nearly a mile a day carrying water for her family’s needs. One day as Ms. Fobes was rinsing carrots in the sink, the woman saw her and decried the waste, exclaiming, “Shame on you!” Those unforgettable words, says Ms. Fobes, marked the turning point in her determination to care for our natural resources.

“Water and air must be guarded, protected and improved in order that humanity can survive and be healthy and at peace,” Ms. Fobes proclaims. “Whenever the air quality is in a healthy condition and the water quality is excellent and affordable, then the economy will flourish, jobs will be more plentiful. It is essential that citizens work collectively, in unison, toward these goals. We can ill afford to put our wants and pleasures above this common good.”

Our collective apathy and greed have grossly defiled many of our precious natural resources, bringing us to the present point of crisis. But with a deeper reverence for our sacred inheritance and a more concerted and determined effort by the community at large, these problems can still be solved.

In her book The French Broad, Wilma Dykeman issued a clear warning and challenge to the people of the French Broad River basin: “In a democracy, there is no stronger regulator than the will of the people — simple people, fine people, clean or dirty people — the people. And when we realize what our apathy is costing us, we will realize it is too expensive a luxury and exchange it for enlightened self-concern and public concern. We will realize we had rather raise our own voices to cleanse our own evils than wait until emergency has brought other pressures to bear.”

[Local activist/traveler Mickey Mahaffey tracks regional water issues closely.]

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