“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water,” W.H. Auden, First Things First.

Emotions run high in the issues involving ‘hydrofracking’ in the southern tier of New York State. The Marcellus Shale deposits of natural gas are extracted using the force of water and sand mixed with a secret toxic mix of chemicals to fracture the shale and release the gas. Greed, jealousy, betrayal, anger and fear dominate this local emotional landscape.

Love is at the heart of this debate. Love of family, love of the land, love for Nature.  Passion for the protection of fresh water is my sentiment in the debates. Hydrofracking is one of many attacks on the environment.

There is no incentive to stop pollution. There is no profit in conservation. Those who maximize profits in the water and gas industries take advantage of a dwindling supply that cannot meet a growing demand. Pitting citizens against each and niggling over the specifics of the techniques and methods is to avoid the larger question of the unsustainable nature of such a model of economic development.

Nearly a decade ago, Vandana Shiva brought the focus to the global political economy of water as the new oil for this millennium in her book Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution and Profit. Last year Bill McKibben’s Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet made global climate change a foregone conclusion with mounting evidence that we are past the tipping point. There are no snowcaps left on the Andes Mountains and the fate of freshwater sources is seriously in peril.  McKibben points to our First World wasteful ways with water in the U.S., comparing us to the first class passengers on the Titanic.

Local author, biologist and poet, Sandra Steingraber wrote the last chapter in her new book, Raising Elijah (2011) about high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing moving into our upstate New York communities and her struggles to find ways to protect her children – and all children – from the toxic, ecologically unstable world. In her earlier books, Living Downstream and Having Faith, the environment and its desecration are made personal in her voice resembling a modern day version of Rachel Carson. Steingraber is fortunate to live near Ithaca, in the heart of the Finger Lakes, where Cayuga Lake is clear and fresh. The EPA have declared the fish free from contamination and good enough to eat.

“Forty percent of U.S. rivers and streams are too dangerous for fishing, swimming or drinking, as are 46 percent of lakes due to massive toxic runoff from industrial farms, intensive livestock operations and the more than one billion pounds of industrial weed killer used throughout the country every year. Two-thirds of U.S. estuaries and bays are moderately or severely degraded. The Mississippi River carries an estimated 1.5 million metric tons of nitrogen pollution into the Gulf of Mexico every year. Every year, one quarter of U.S. beaches are under advisories or closed due to water pollution,” according to Maude Barlow.

Maude Barlow is the head of Canada’s largest public advocacy organization, The Council of Canadians, and founder of the Blue Planet Project. In 2007 she sounded the call for a water justice movement with her book, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water (The New Press, W.W. Norton). “The three water crises – dwindling freshwater supplies, inequitable access to water and the corporate control of water – pose the greatest threat of our time to the planet and to our survival. Together with impending climate change from fossil fuel emissions, the water crises impose some life-or-death decisions on us all,” Barlow wrote in 2007.

The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Freshwater in the 21st Century by Alex Prud’homme, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, by Paul Greenberg, Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind by Brian Fagan, and  Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization by Steven Solomon, are four books published on this matter in the last three months. All four sound the alarm bells. Gas companies and politicians seem to be deaf.

As we continue in vain to find new sources of fossil fuels to serve an unsustainable economy, we waste water. As agricultural sciences professor David Pimentel of Cornell University reports, it takes seventeen hundred liters of water to produce one liter of ethanol. This includes both the water required to grow the corn and the water required for the industrial, chemical production of ethanol. The water required for hydrofracking natural gas is much greater than that required in biofuel production. Both industrial processes produce toxic wastewater that further destroys freshwater sources.

“Fracking makes water disappear,” wrote Steingraber in her way of making the biology clear to those who are not physical scientists. The added chemicals alter water irrevocably into a toxic stew. Steingraber points to the obvious but still inconvenient truth:  “Sooner or later, the gas will run out.” These things we know for certain. “Sure thing number three: Accidents happen,” wrote Steingraber. Those in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, have experienced a tractor trailer carrying an acid used in hydrofracking overturn in their community. And in Dimock, Pennsylvania, the accidental groundwater contamination happened without a crash or a bang.

Seamus McGraw, journalist, in End of Country offers the first memoir written about hydrofracking in the Marcellus Shale region in the northeastern corner of Pennsylvania. McGraw will be reading from his new book at Buffalo Street Books on Wednesday, August 10, at 6 pm. His story foreshadows the future of hydrofracking for the southern tier of New York.

2 thoughts on “Without Water

  1. Dear Ms. Swenson,
    Great review! Thanks. I really enjoyed The End of Country. McGraw’s an outstanding writer whose book deserves a place in the pantheon of environmental treatises – as a cautionary tale of environmental equivocalism! Liz R., KeepTapWaterSafe.org

    • Dear Liz Rosenbaum, Appreciate your note about this review of End of Country. McGraw IS a great storyteller. You may be interested in a forthcoming title by Wilbur on hydrofracking soon to be released from Cornell University Press. I promise to review it here!

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