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The focus is on water

Wednesday, March 05, 2014 - Updated: 7:37 AM

By STEVE PAUL

The Kansas City Star

As many as 300,000 West Virginians are still wondering whether it's safe to drink the water more than a month after the local supply was tainted by a spill of industrial chemicals.

In North Carolina, the full consequences are yet to be determined following the collapse of a pipe last month beneath a utility's coal-ash pond, which spewed tons of the toxic substance into the Dan River. Public health officials have warned residents to avoid river water and to forgo eating any fish.

In Texas -- irony of ironies -- Rex Tillerson, the chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., joined a lawsuit against a water utility that wants to erect a huge storage tower near his idyllic ranch home. The tower is meant to serve the ever-expanding need for water in the nearby fracking of shale deposits for oil and gas.

And in Chesapeake Bay off Maryland and Virginia, the Environmental Protection Agency hopes to spearhead a long overdue cleanup of polluted waters and dead-zone fishing grounds, though several farm groups and attorneys general from Kansas, Missouri and 19 other states are trying to stop it.

The litigants in that case argue that the EPA has overstepped its bounds, and they fear that in the future they'll be ordered to clean up the messes made daily in their own watersheds. What a scary concept.

"Mark my words, in the next century water will be the core issue." I found these prescient words just the other day on the wall of an exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art. They came from the artist Alexandre Hogue, a regionalist painter in the mold of Thomas Hart Benton, whose longtime project involved depicting the arid lands of the over-farmed and industrialized West in the Dust Bowl 1930s and beyond. Hogue's paintings are colorful but carry a grim message that remains relevant: use your resources wisely and protect the natural world from human greed and excess.

Despite recent rains, farming regions of California are experiencing severe and persistent drought. One need not take a position on climate change to note that vital underground aquifers of western Kansas and adjacent states have been dangerously depleted by irrigation and long-term drought.

A recent study by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that one in 10 of the nation's watersheds were "stressed." And a report by the Columbia University Water Center highlights the risks to businesses in drought-prone parts of the country, as they compete with agricultural operations for the dwindling resource.

The Chesapeake Bay case, which Missouri and Kansas have joined, highlights the complications of protecting Americans from polluted water. The states may have valid legal points on whether the EPA has overstepped its authority under the Clean Water Act of 1972 and usurped local and state governments' role in land-use and water-pollution regulation.

But that does not deny the fact that states have done such a lousy job of regulating.

Just ask some of those West Virginians how they feel, as they await the latest test results of tap water samples. In a poll conducted for the Sierra Club, 73 percent of them thought that "West Virginia has paid too little attention to addressing threats to air and water."

Or ask residents of North Carolina, where federal prosecutors are now diving deeply into the records of state agencies and Duke Energy, the huge utility whose toxic coal-ash containment operation failed. Is it possible that corporate lobbyists, cozy relationships and campaign contributions have contributed to the state's lax attention on the utility's activities? Who has ever heard of such a thing?

Yes, precious water is a core issue -- for individuals and governments. And individuals should keep watch on their water, their weather and what their governments do about all of it.

STEVE PAUL is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.

     

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