Water Under Fire

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in his Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, “Water, water, every where / nor any drop to drink”. The speaker of the poem, the ancient mariner, is of course talking about a lack of fresh water while out at sea but these words ring eerily true in my mind when learning about the state of our water in the United States. Our great enemy isn’t an undead sea dog like Coleridge imagined but rather man-made pollution.

Water, of course, is the stuff of both evolution and revolution.


Life on this planet, or any planet as far as we know, is not possible without the presence of water. Our search for extraterrestrial life doesn’t begin by analyzing random static in space radio waves but with the exhaustive search for water through careful scientific analysis of the surface of planets and other sizable objects in space (asteroids and moons). Water is universally the great prerequisite of life.


Water is a natural resource that is often barely a blip on our radar of consciousness. We too often seem to take it for granted because it is plentiful and because it is so mundane. However, when the natural world as we know it is turned upside down, people take notice.

We know that water is for putting out fires from the earliest age. A child will put on the iconic firefighter hat and pretend to put out fires. We have our oddly named fire trucks (they’re actually water trucks) and fire hydrants (they’re actually water hydrants) and they are tools used by firefighters (aptly named) to make use of water in putting out fires. But what happens when the resource we use to fight fires is itself able to catch fire?

In 1969 the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, Ohio caught fire and surprisingly, it wasn’t the first time. Due to a build up of oil, urban runoff, and industrial dumping, the Cuyahoga River was able to ignite. Records of the river bursting into flame go back as early as 1868 and it is said to have happened at least thirteen times.

What’s important about the 1969 Cuyahoga River Fire is that the image of one of our nation’s rivers billowing great plumes of smoke into the sky helped to rally the environmental movement in theUnited Stateswhich in turn led to some of the most important environmental legislation and safeguards in our nation’s history. The Clean Water Act was signed within a year of the Cuyahoga River Fire and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency soon followed. The people wanted to protect our nation’s waters and it took a river to catch fire to help raise public awareness.

If you have seen the 2010 documentary Gasland then you know that we are faced a second time with that most surprising of events: flammable water. Gasland documents water pollution across theUnited States as a result of the process of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, which is a method employed to harvest natural gas from underground shale reserves.

Many of the residents that live in the vicinity of fracked wells report water contamination by natural gas as well as the cocktail of chemicals used in the digging of the well to tap the resource. Some residents break non-disclosure agreements (they are paid for their silence) with the natural gas companies after they settle out of court for damages caused by fracking. Many of the affected people are forced to rely on water that they truck in or on cisterns provided for them by the natural gas companies as a replacement for their now tainted water supplies.

The most shocking aspect of Gasland isn’t that the natural gas companies ruined the water supplies of several communities. As a result of the contamination, several of the residents are able to ignite the water that comes from the taps in their homes.

It is my opinion that Gasland will be to the contemporary public consciousness of environmentalism what theCuyahogaRiver Fire was to the environmental movement of the 60’s and 70’s. Water catching fire is fundamentally backwards and hard to fathom.

If you live in South Texas, you should be aware that, like the places visited in Gasland,South Texas has a large deposit of natural gas called the Eagle Ford Shale Formation. Fracking companies are already hard at work in the surrounding communities doing exploration and digging wells to frack for the plentiful natural gas that is in the ground under our feet. Educate yourself about hydraulic fracturing and take part to support tight regulation of this industry that can harm our communities’ precious drinking water. We rely on it not just for tap water but for the vast agricultural industry that isTexas’ heritage.

For more information visit the Natural Gas portion of the Sierra Club website at http://www.sierraclub.org/naturalgas/ and watch Gasland, available now on DVD.

– Nathaniel Lang, Beyond Coal Intern for the Alamo Group.


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