August 19, 2013

By Arthur H. Gunther III

The price of “progress” is not always worth the results. Once, in my region of the world — “upstate, country” but just 20 miles from New York City — tasty, fresh, clear water came from underground wells, springs and fissures in the glacial rock that covers well-named Rockland County. Just dig a bit or drill a little, and for two centuries there was much supply to be had, cheaply. The water encouraged fruit and vegetable farming and the growth of villages and towns. Many people had their own wells. Rural life was pleasant enough, and communities prospered.
In the “progress” that is constant but not well-planned growth, industries and filling stations and strip highway shopping rose along with housing, bringing oil, gasoline, industrial chemical and pesticide pollution. Large parking lots and numerous paved streets put impermeable covers on the land, and rain water could not return as easily to the wells. Flood plains were eliminated to make room for the march of “progress.”
In Spring Valley, a village named for its natural water source and where the first public utility began in the 1800s, pollution was so great that the water could not be tapped. Still, the utility grew with other supply, absorbed first by an out-of-state company, then a French-owned worldwide conglomerate that treats water. There is money to be made in water — it is the next “oil” — and there is also cash to be had in treating water, which is an even bigger business than supply.
My region now has strongly treated water, so much so that we cannot use it as it comes from the tap. There is a strong chlorine smell and off-taste, and it must be filtered, at our expense, before use. When I was a boy, I could take a very cold draw from a neighbor’s well, which no longer exists. It was not treated water, no chlorine smell, no poor taste. It was free. But that was before “progress.”
In these parts, reservoirs have been constructed to aid development, and that was all right. They form pretty lakes, and green space is preserved. However, much of the original buffer land surrounding these reservoirs is now gone, sold off for new development, for additional “progress,” for more big company profit. Government, which has a good ear for lobbies, has signed off on this, advising, “Just treat the water more.” The buffers helped reduce pollution runoff, but in the name of “progress,” it is OK to use chemicals instead.
Now, there is super growth in some of my area, and there is an insatiable thirst for more aqua, so much so that the salt water in the famous Hudson River could soon be treated, at very high cost, to add to supply. This waterway is the second-largest Superfund target because of industrial PCB pollution.
Once, before “progress,” I could have a tin cup full of water free from a neighbor’s pump, super satisfying on a hot day in the rural summer. Now I pay dearly for a glass of water that has its taste obliterated by chemicals. And we face perhaps a doubling of expense to have salt removed from an commercial river.
Ah, “progress,” it can have a bitter taste.

The writer is a retired newspaperman.

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