Water as Commons

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Clean water is a human right with intrinsic value beyond that of a commodity. It is so much more than ecosystem services or even drinking water. We have an undeniable responsibility to protect our oceans and freshwater for future generations. It is a resource even without extraction. It has a value in itself, reinforcing what I adore about its esoteric qualities; its fluidity, its clarity, its beauty.  

“Life in us is like the water in a river” is a compelling quote from Henry David Thoreau. “Water is life” is the rallying cry of Native Americans at Standing Rock. This inspirational effort unites many tribes and supporters from all over the country to protect the Missouri River and ancestral archeological sites. These indigenous protectors are inspiring many in the environmental movement with the integrity of their peaceful, prayerful purpose.  

Water is a finite resource, one that is recycled only by the heavens. All the financial resources in the world cannot create more freshwater in a truly sustainable way, nor can money truly clean up many of the environmental tragedies that commerce creates.  

Public officials had to question business as usual after Hurricane Katrina and superstorm Sandy, too. Time and time again, people build in flood zones and have those buildings damaged by severe weather. After these recent storms, many wanted to rebuild in low-lying areas that would surely be flooded yet again and compound infrastructure problems. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo wisely said, “ There are some parcels that are owned by Mother Nature” and offered to buy the real estate at pre-storm prices.  

As an ecological artist, that statement seems so appropriate to me in the face of climate change’s escalating storms. Storm water runoff now accounts for the majority of our water pollution. The series of WATERWASH Projects work to create habitat for humans and wildlife using runoff before it enters the ground or the adjacent waterway. The goal is to involve stakeholders in developing long-range systems that provide biodiversity through soft engineering or green infrastructure. We use native plants to establish buffer zones that filter water through wetlands and meadowlands in transitional areas along the water’s edge. Community involvement allows these sites to be envisioned together and often inspires stewardship long after they are constructed and planted. WATERWASH is an imperative verb, emphasizing the urgent need as well as the function of these places that seek to reconnect visitors with the water and the powerful information it carries.

Few people realize that native plants require less water and soil enhancement than imported plants or lawns. They are better adapted to their surroundings as well as better suited as food for wildlife, birds, bees, and bugs. In general, these plants appreciate drenching rainfall infrequently, rather than the often overdone daily irrigation of lawns, so they can thrive in a time of storms that have increased intensity. They are perfect for rain gardens and bioswales. These storms swelling our waterways are also absorbed more quickly by wetland plants and natural shorelines that substantially reduce flooding. Building right up to the waters’ edge or hardscaping is a recipe for disaster, since there is no place for the wetland buffer zones to retreat with the rising tides.  

Our water is a commons for use by all, in much the same way our land and air is too. But if people have lost the awareness of its shared nature, it is not truly public. Land trusts and preservation are often ways to conserve the aquifer, to save the delicate balance of viewshed and watershed. Where I live, on the far East end of Long Island’s North Fork, we benefit from one of the most proactive Community Preservation Fund programs in the country. But then we have no choice, we live on top of a sole source aquifer, surrounded by salt water. Freshwater is sadly not a renewable resource. Many people now are distanced from their water sources and therefore find themselves less capable of a deep ongoing connection. They turn on the tap and are urged to trust that what comes out is safe, but increasingly even the public water supply is called into question. On a very basic level, the bond we have with our water is forged by a sense of community accountability.  

Wendell E. Barry puts it so well: “For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place.”

Every drop counts, all life matters. We are interconnected and that is simply the ethic of water.

About the author:

Lillian Ball is an ecological artist/activist working on water issues with a multidisciplinary background in anthropology, ethnographic film, and sculpture. She has exhibited and lectured internationally, recently at the Anchorage Museum, Seville Biennial, and Reina Sofia Museum.  Awards include: New York State Foundation for the Arts Fellowships, John-Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and a National Endowment Sculpture Grant. She was named 2012 Environmentalist of the Year by the North Fork Environmental Council, and awarded a citation by the New York State Assembly for WATERWASH ABC. Since 2006, Ball has served Southold Town’s Land Preservation Committee, advising her maritime municipality on land use/ stewardship.

The ongoing WATERWASH® public project series combine stormwater remediation, wetland restoration, and educational outreach. The 2008 prototype, funded by the LIS Futures Fund, transformed a boatramp park with a concept that adapts to coastal situations worldwide.  WATERWASH ABC (2009-14) is an innovative collaborative green infrastructure solution to runoff pollution in the Bronx River. Apprentices from Rocking the Boat, a non-profit doing environmental river work with local youth, planted 9000 native plants. WATERWASH ABC filters commercial parking lot runoff before it enters the river, opens private property to pubic use, and was sponsored by the NYS Attorney General’s Office.

Learn more about her work at: waterwash.org

Wendell E. Berry. [Lecture] “It All Turns On Affection.” Awards & Honors: 2012 Jefferson Lecture. 

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