The Sacred Waters

It always amazes me how much we take water for granted.

My husband works at a water company, so I know a bit about the sorts of things that need to happen behind-the-scenes to ensure that safe, clean, toxin and pathogen-free water can be delivered to the inside of your home with the turn of a tap. But most people never give it much of a thought. They certainly never consider the possibility that one day either the water won’t appear on demand, or if it does, it would be unsafe to drink.

Both of us have been following the story of the poisoning of Flint, Michigan with great interest. I think the story is probably more complex than most news outlets are portraying it, but Rachel Maddow seems to be doing a good job explaining things, as usual. (Yes, I’m a fan. I really like how thorough she is when she covers something.) In a nutshell, to save money, politicians decided to change the source of Flint’s drinking water from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The corrosive river water leached lead out of the old lead pipes in the town, elevating the lead levels in the water to over 10 times the EPA’s maximum allowable limit. And by now we know that lead is extremely toxic. We aren’t making water pipes out of lead anymore, but there are still plenty of lead pipes around. Lead is especially bad for children, causing permanent brain damage. That’s why people are making such a big deal out of the lead, but it sounds to me like there were lots of other nasty things in that water too. Ten people have died of Legionnaires’ disease, which is caused by an aquatic bacterium that needless to say should not be in a public drinking water supply.

People are focusing on which politicians to blame, but I don’t think I understand the situation well enough to weigh in on that. Apparently there was weird political stuff going on in Flint where the state government had taken over the city. I’m not sure how that works, but I do think that whoever made the decision to switch the water source and not do the proper treatments that would have prevented the water from corroding the pipes needs to be brought to justice. May Tyr insure that they do.

But even before the politicians made that decision to switch the water, the Flint River had been poisoned by years of industrial pollution. When they said they were going to switch to Flint River water, locals freaked out because they knew that river was nasty. If the water source isn’t already polluted, you don’t have to do that much to treat it before you can pipe it into people’s houses safely. But since we don’t appreciate water, we’ve been dumping our toxins into it for hundreds of years. Some rivers are so polluted it’s unsafe to swim in them or eat fish from them, let alone drink from them. Humans made them that way.


We have a different problem here in Texas. I live in an area where the water is extremely clean, on the edge of the Edwards Plateau, which is studded with springs from the Edwards Aquifer. The water coming out of those springs is crystal clear. Water companies only have to do a minimal amount of treatment before piping it into people’s houses. In the hot Texas summer, one of the most popular things to do is go swimming or TOOBING (pronounced “tubing” but definitely spelled “toobing!”) in one of our spring-fed rivers.

They’ve found artifacts here going back to the Ice Age, and local Native Americans still consider the springs sacred today. The major springs of the Edwards Aquifer stretch in an arc along the Plateau from Barton Springs in Austin, to the San Marcos springs in San Marcos, to the Comal Springs in New Braunfels, to the San Antonio springs in San Antonio. There’s a good reason why the major cities from Austin to San Antonio each contain a spring. The springs are why the cities are here in the first place. Civilization requires water to exist. Going all the way back to ancient times, you could only put big cities where you had a reliable source of clean water for the people living there. One of the most basic functions of government is to ensure its citizens have water. Think about the aqueducts the Romans built. No water, no civilization.

The problem we have is not the quality of water, but the quantity. In 2011 we had a horrible drought and the Comal Springs stopped flowing for the first time since the 1950’s drought. The San Marcos Springs are home to several species of animals (and one plant) that only live there and nowhere else on Earth. If that spring ever stops, they’ll be gone forever. The San Marcos Springs have never run dry in recorded history, but when the Comal Springs next door run dry it’s still worrying.

Droughts are a natural part of life here, but humans make them worse. Climate change is probably going to give us more severe weather extremes in an area that already has a drought-flood-drought-flood type of weather pattern. And then of course there are the golf courses!

Why do we even have golf courses in this ecosystem at all?

Why is there a golf course right next to the San Marcos Springs? It just seems to send the wrong message.

At least xeriscaping seems to be gaining in popularity. Many nurseries now carry native, drought-resistant plants. Most homeowners associations still require residents to maintain a green lawn (I’m so glad my neighborhood doesn’t have an HOA), but a few are coming around.

But this is also one of the fastest growing areas in the country. Many environmentalists are afraid that we simply don’t have enough water to support the population doubling in the next few decades like demographers are predicting. But local governments continue to do things to encourage more people to move here. They call it “development,” and that’s a good thing, right? No one seems to be considering the realities of carrying capacity, or that we shouldn’t be making plans based on wet years rather than drought years.

Last year in California they came close to actually running out of water. When that was going on, I saw people being interviewed on TV saying they are still watering their lawns because they are wealthy and can afford the water bills. Do wealthy people not understand that you can’t just make water appear out of nothing if you pay enough money? Or maybe people are just in denial that it’s possible run out of water.

That could happen here. We need to realize that water is precious, and quit wasting it or polluting it. The first people who arrived here back in the Ice Age knew they found a good place when they saw it, because it had water. The Spanish missionaries and German settlers couldn’t have put down roots here without the water. But now people are so disconnected from nature that a lot of my students don’t even know what the Edwards Aquifer is.

I think any local polytheistic/animistic cults here in Central Texas needs to include the springs and rivers as a point of veneration. The Native Americans hold a pow-wow honoring the springs in San Marcos every year, but I think it would be appropriate for us in the modern pagan revival to do likewise. I think it’s necessary to honor something that important to our survival, especially something most people take for granted. Let’s not be like those people who think the water is magically summoned from nowhere when you turn on the faucet.

I also think that pagans living anywhere should find out where their water comes from and give it due honor, whether it’s a lake, river, or aquifer. Water is precious no matter where you live, even if it’s an area that receives a lot of rain. As we’ve seen from the Flint example, even a wet climate can have water problems if people take it for granted.

So don’t forget to honor the water spirits, and to use their gifts wisely.