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May 2, 2006 > Editorial: Water, water everywhere

Editorial: Water, water everywhere

Water, water everywhere,

This phrase, famous through the poetic warning of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is used by a plethora of organizations concerned about water, the most basic asset of our planet. As scientists announced evidence of water on one of Saturn’s moons, inhabitants of our planet appear to be focused on everything but this indispensable element of life. Dealing with existing and potential pollutants is often left to the few who manage water resources with little understanding by the general public of how this miraculous substance is delivered to their home and workplace. The delicate balance between a safe, adequate supply and disastrous shortages and pollution is relegated to the deep recesses of our minds.

The poem tells the tale of a seafarer who, aboard a sailing vessel, makes the mistake of killing a sea bird – an Albatross - that has followed the ship. The Albatross has been an omen of good fortune. With its death, the ship is becalmed without adequate provisions and water and shipmates hang the bird’s carcass around the mariner’s neck as a gruesome reminder of his role in their misfortune. Misery follows as the crew dies from thirst with the exception of the mariner. The mariner’s soul is won in a dice game between Death and Life-in-Death; his fate, one of continuous penance and agony.

The reason the tale of the ancient mariner comes to mind is a recent discussion of concerns and "facts" at a meeting of the board of the Alameda County Waste Management Authority on April 26. A few weeks ago, I wrote about a proposal and Environmental Impact Report by this agency’s staff to create a massive compost facility in Sunol. Questions have been raised about the suitability and safety of such an operation and the public meeting was an opportunity for these to be aired and answered. The standing-room-only crowd included experts both in favor and opposed to the facility. Although no decision was made at that meeting, it appeared obvious that serious questions remain, not the least of which is the safety of Alameda Creek which represents a significant water resource of the Alameda County Water District serving the Tri-Cities.

There is a question that sticks in my mind about this whole affair. Why, when it has been admitted by the staff and its recycling "expert," an agronomist without medical credentials, that there is no facility in existence that duplicates the technology and assumptions of this one, does this project need to be initiated on such a large scale? Several speakers commented that each part of the county should be responsible for its own recycling facility thereby spreading the waste matter over a large area. That might be an equitable solution, but before this is considered, how about testing this new and so-called "cutting edge" technology with a small amount of compost output? Assumptions can be either confirmed or refuted without risking a catastrophe. Our scientific community does not permit medicines or any technology that has large potential consequences to the general public to move forward without adequate testing. Even with these safeguards, catastrophic failures can occur. Why not use the same logic with this proposal?

Let’s leave the rhetoric and self-interest aside for a moment and consider a rational approach to the problem. Opposition is not based on the theory or practice of recycling, rather to the self-serving methods and tactics used to implement an unproven technology. What is wrong with testing a theory before it is put into large scale practice? At a world conference discussing water resources, Benedict Chacha of Tanzania sagely noted, "People do not drink words." Using one ecological good to potentially destroy another is not rational. Neither is a water caravan to Saturn.

 
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