Water is a force of nature. When snow shuts down a city or rivers overflow their banks, we recognize the power of natural forces to overwhelm our human constructions. But most of the time, water is our friend. The presence of water is the indispensable condition for life on planet Earth. We not only need water, we are water. More than half of the human body is made up of water, and we need to keep replenishing ourselves to stay alive.
Maintaining proper levels of water is crucial for our human communities, too. We must have sufficient water for our crops, not too little and not too much, as we find out every spring when local farmers wait until the ground has the right amount of moisture for planting corn and soybeans. We must have adequate drinking water, properly purified and cleaned. Less crucial for life itself, but now an essential ingredient in civilized society, is water for bathing, laundry, cleaning, and all the other things we do at home that require water.
Because we can so easily turn a tap and get fresh, drinkable water, we rarely think about what we would do if this supply was no longer available. The great flood of 2011 in Jacksonville, and many other places in the Midwest, suddenly makes our dependence on readily available water obvious. Only about 14% of Americans, nearly all in rural communities, supply their own water through wells. Urban and suburban Americans are dependent on a public supply of water, which means on government.
The entry of local governments into the business of supplying clean water was made necessary by the 19th-century growth of cities. Ever larger sources of water had to be found which could meet the essential needs of expanding urban populations. As scientists discovered that water-borne germs caused outbreaks of disease, like cholera, dysentery, and typhoid, governments took on the additional responsibility of insuring the purity of public water. That meant creating sewage systems to remove human waste products of all types, keeping them separate from water supply systems.
Today we take all this for granted, except when unusual circumstances, such as the sudden and violent fits of Mother Nature, interrupt our regular supplies of water. Then we are reminded again of the significance of well-run government for our daily lives. Local governments manage water treatment plants, constantly test our water supplies, maintain a vast network of pipes to deliver water to each residence, and create and maintain sewage systems. State and federal authorities protect the nation’s water supply from pollution, and protect communities from floods by a long list of prevention measures.
None of these systems is perfect. But government is indispensable for keeping us supplied with water. Government got into the water supply business in the first place because no private enterprise was capable of harnessing the resources and taking into account the needs of the entire population. Private enterprise has been the most significant polluter of our nation’s rivers and lakes, and the underlying ground water. Private enterprise tries to make money from our need for water: bottled water, which is just somebody else’s tap water, originated in the profit motive. In emergencies, private enterprise and charitable organizations can offer some help, as has been the case in Jacksonville. The Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and Anheuser-Busch have teamed up to dispense water here. But their efforts are just a drop in the bucket of what is needed, today and every day.
Supplying pure water is just one of many essential functions of governments that we all must fund with our taxes. Governments, representing all citizens, were created for just such common purposes. Our Revolutionary War heroes, the founders of our country in an era of sparse population, never thought about water supply. The Constitution does not mention water supply. Life has changed since then, and government has expanded to meet the ever-expanding needs of American society. Our founders’ intent was to create a system flexible enough to adapt to inevitable change. Our job is to maintain that system in good working order, so when we turn the tap, life-giving water flows freely.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 28, 2011