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Of Miracles and Illusions

 Bill Meredith

Every morning when I get up, I go into the bathroom and turn on the faucet over the sink, and a miracle happens: water comes out. This has been happening for a long time, but it still amazes me. In my early childhood, water was always a topic of concern to my parents and my grandmother, and their worries readily transferred to me. It was a formative influence; it still dominates my thinking.

The house I was born in had no bathroom, but it did have running water, after a fashion. There were two sources of water. One was a pump at the end of the kitchen sink; it drew water from a well just outside the kitchen door. The well was 16 feet deep; my father had dug it by hand, blasting a hole out of solid rock when he built the house 10 years before I was born. It was good drinking water, but in those pre-detergent days, it was too hard for washing; my mother’s tea kettle, in which she heated coffee water on the stove, would develop a thick, limy crust which eventually plugged up the spout, and she would have to get a new one every year.

In addition to the pump, there were hot and cold faucets over the sink, but the hot faucet wasn’t connected to anything; water only came out of the cold one. It was supplied by a large tank in the basement, which received rainwater that drained from the roof of the house via eaves-troughs and downspouts. That water wasn’t clean enough to drink, but it was soft, and therefore ideal for washing.

This system worked well when there was plenty of rain, but those were the dust-bowl years of the 1930’s, and we had droughts nearly every year. Every summer, the tank in the basement would go dry, and we would have to use the hard water from the well for washing. Then, eventually the well would go dry, and we would have to carry water from my grandmother’s house, about 100 yards away. Luckily for us, her well never went dry, but the fear that it might was always on our minds.

While Grandma’s well was reliable, her water system was not. Her house was old, and instead of a proper basement it had a cellar that was dark, damp and not large enough for an adult to stand up in. It was illuminated by a 25-watt light bulb, which was turned on by pulling a string that you never could find in the dark; even in the daytime, we had to take a flashlight to find it. In the corner of the cellar was a pump, which drew water in from the well in the yard; it was powered by what must have been George Westinghouse’s original electric motor.

Periodically, the motor would fail to come on; you could hear it buzzing, and if you didn’t go down to the cellar at once and start it by hand, a fuse would blow. There were two ways to start the motor. You could pull on the belt that connected it to the pump, but that was always damp and sometimes gave you an electric shock, and it also ran the risk of catching your finger in the pulley. The preferred method was to hit the motor with a stick, which was kept there for that purpose; that seemed to be a sort of miracle at the time, though I now know it simply jarred loose the brushes, which had corroded and were always getting stuck.

All of these memories have revisited me this summer, as drought conditions resulted in a state-wide ban on excessive water use. After the driest winter on record and a drier than normal spring, we have had normal rainfall for the past month; my lawn is green and the garden is flourishing. Some friends recently noticed that the town’s reservoir, Rainbow Lake, was full, so they went to the town office for permission to wash their car. They were somewhat put out when they were told the water running over the spillway at the lake was an illusion, and permission was denied. But while "illusion" may not have been the most tactful choice of words, it does describe the situation accurately. We do not have as much water as it may appear. Even when the present drought is over, we face a long-term shortage.

The average rainfall in the Emmitsburg area is about 43 inches per year, give or take a couple of inches; in bad years it may drop to 30 inches, while in wet years it may exceed 65. Ecologists learned a long time ago that it is the extremes rather than the average that determine the quality and quantity of life a place can support, and the quality of the oak forests that exist naturally around here tell us this has historically been a dry region (if it were wetter, the forests would be composed mainly of maple and beech trees).

When it rains, the water has three choices: some evaporates back into the air, some runs off the surface into streams, and some soaks into the ground. The latter fraction has two destinations: some is taken up by plant roots, sustains plant growth, and eventually is released back into the air by transpiration, and whatever is left percolates downward to recharge the water table. If a drought occurs during the growing season, its effect is immediately evident; crops fail, lawns dry up, streams go dry, and dust fills the air; there is no illusion about it. We have seen this around here in the mid-1960’s and the late ’80’s- early ‘90’s. By contrast, a drought during the winter, followed by normal rainfall in May, can produce the illusion that there is plenty of water because the surface soil has enough moisture to sustain plant roots. But while the surface may appear normal at such times, the water table can be perilously low.

As more people move into our area, especially into formerly forested regions, the water-absorbing forest soil is replaced by lawns and paved surfaces, and runoff is increased; recharge of the water table is diminished. At the same time, more wells are dug, more water-using industries and businesses are encouraged, and the water table is depleted faster. The water table is like a bank account; it is constantly in flux as a result of deposits and withdrawals, and restraint is required to maintain a balance.

By this analogy, we are living on a "fixed income," unless we can find a way make it rain more; yet our "expenses" are increasing. There are no miracles in sight; the so-called benefits of growth are an illusion. It shouldn’t take much of an economist, let alone an ecologist, to see that we are headed for trouble. Our town planners need to take note; our hydrologic bank account is dropping. Continued growth will bankrupt us.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith