A dash of salt
On spring cleaning and shared waterways
Every spring, people in northern states watch as the snow melts from fields, streets, lawns, and parking lots. It's often a process that cascades on itself, as ground and pavement become exposed to solar energy and thaw out, accelerating the warming trend for the snow that remains unmelted. From time to time a blast of fresh snow is dropped in the midst of the spring melting season (think of the extraordinary 2019 "bomb cyclone"), but most of the time it all rather quickly ends up flowing downstream.
■ This annual process represents a massive missed opportunity for the water sector. Americans generally take public drinking water supplies almost entirely for granted -- where it isn't entirely unmetered (and thus "free" in the eyes of the consumer), it's almost always incredibly cheap: Virtually nobody is charged even one cent per gallon for fresh potable water.
■ The missed opportunity is in failing to illustrate and remind the public that water is, in fact, cyclical. What melts now and percolates into the ground or (as is more often the case when the ground remains frozen) flows downstream ultimately becomes source water for somebody. Since gravity takes water to lower elevations until it either enters an aquifer or runs to the sea, most people see their water depart to lower elevations -- yet another one of the many ways having the "high ground" tends to be advantageous.
■ But whatever enters the water at those upper elevations tends to stay there. Every spring, water-industry authorities ought to thump the table over and over: Look at what's moving downstream as the snow melts! Look at the salt marks! Look at the trash and the litter that are carried along in the storm sewers!
■ Sometimes it's inevitable that we'll do incidental damage to the waters we share in pursuit of other worthwhile goals -- like putting salt on the roads so that it's safer to drive in the winter. Good for drivers; bad for streams and rivers, and most importantly, bad for the people who will ultimately drink from them.
■ We have to recognize that there are consequences to what we do, even when it's done out of necessity, and we have to clean up after ourselves. Ben Franklin once put it that "He that resolves to mend hereafter, resolves not to mend now."
■ It's better to refrain from contaminating communal resources in the first place wherever we can, but it's a close second to take accountability for "mending now" what traces we leave behind. And there is no time like spring -- the season of "spring cleaning" -- to remind the public at large that virtually everyone is living and drinking downstream of someone else.