This week's post is a guest post from Sayd Randle.
My parents let me run relatively wild as a middle schooler. I came home to an empty house on the days I didn’t have gymnastics practice after school, and was generally left to my own devices. We were a two-careers-and-three-children family living in a comfortable Washington, DC suburb and I was a solitary, bookish kid, so the lack of helicoptering made sense. They were busy and I was safe, and generally unlikely to get up to too much shady.
There was, however, a rule I broke with some frequency on those afternoons: no hiking alone to the river. We lived a wooded mile from the banks of the Potomac River, an easy hike along a relatively unpopulated trail. Sensibly, my Eagle-Scout-back-in-the-day father declared the rocky banks a no-go zone when I was unsupervised. He knew that the current was swift and that I liked to clamber on boulders, and also that it just wasn’t great policy to let an undersized eleven-year-old girl hang out alone on banks mostly frequented by men with coolers of Coors Light and fishing rods.
I knew all of this, and agreed with the logic in theory. But most days, if there was ample daylight and good weather, I went anyway, climbing the rocks, collecting handfuls of (pretty pedestrian) shells, saying hey to the fishers. I don’t think it was rebellion, really. It just seemed self-evident: the river was the best place within walking distance, the prettiest, the most compelling, the most destination-y. And so that was where I headed, prohibitions be damned.
During the months when I put off my pre-algebra homework to hang out on the banks of the Potomac, my father tended to stay late at the office. An environmental lawyer, he was working with the City of San Bernadino in a nasty, drawn-out fight to get their Superfund site of a groundwater basin cleaned up. I was vaguely aware of this project, mostly because Dad kept flying to California and I kept telling him jealous I was that he got to go on so much “vacation” (no one found this line cute). I knew even less about the coalition that sued the Washington DC Water and Sewer Authority in 1999 for allowing stunning volumes of untreated sewage to flow into the Anacostia River (which meets the Potomac not far from the U.S. Capitol). Similarly, when tests in homes just across the Potomac revealed near-toxic levels of lead in the tap water a few years later, I had no idea.
This isn’t an uncommon “water story” for a contemporary American. Deep attachment to a particular river as a place and perhaps even a symbol (freedom! independence! etc., in my case) coexists with near-total ignorance of the other watersheds and systems to which our lives are connected. For many (but, importantly, not all) of us, the water we encounter on a day-to-day basis occupies a space just below the threshold of thought. Our infrastructure, particularly at the home-scale, reinforces this way of understanding the resource. Our faucets are willing to flow forever and our drains siphon any excess easily away. So often, water appears and disappears without issue.
It took a damn good story to wrench me out of this way of thinking. In 2007, years after trading my childhood by the Potomac for college in New England, I stayed up most of a July night reading Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert. It’s a sweeping, gripping polemic, and it turns the history of the American West’s dams and rivers into an operatic, personality-driven narrative that sticks with you for the long haul. The book shoved the systems of concrete and steel that connect rivers to taps squarely into the center of my mind… and there they stayed.
Later that summer, following many beers and a bit of cajoling, some friends and I jumped into the Charles River from the Weeks Footbridge. Following the requisite sobering-up-middle-of-the-night-pancakes run to IHOP, I curled up in my friend Katie’s suite and Googled “where does boston’s water supply come from and is it safe to drink water treatment?” Even at my college-sloppiest, I had become a water person. And so I stayed, through a Master’s thesis on water recycling, a stint researching the BP oil spill for the federal government, and my current work towards a PhD in environmental anthropology.
For my current research, I spend a lot of time hanging around with LA’s water people, asking them too many questions about how they think and feel about water consumption and the urban landscape and transforming the city’s infrastructure. Some of them are environmental activists, some of them work for the city government, and some of them just really wanted to be less “part of the problem” - so they had a greywater system installed in their home. It’s a good gig, in no small part because people who are thinking about drought and water supply and urban stream health around here are so passionate about their work, and find the issues so damn enlivening. They see the connections between their home faucets and the Owens Valley, as well as their toilet tanks and the Santa Monica Bay. They want to improve and rework those systems and networks, to make them safe, reliable, and less carbon-intensive for generations to come.
More than once over the course of my research, I’ve been told that it’s impossible to hook most people into caring about the issue “just with water.” It’s too boring, too quotidian for many, just inert stuff that should be dealt with by technical folks. And… I get that. I know that I came to be fascinated by water first by loving watered places (like my river), and then by learning about the twisted human drama and power struggles that its distribution networks embody. It was stories and landscapes that got me here, got me caring, got me listening.
I walk and run along the LA River with some frequency these days, and I think about my younger self, stumbling down the hills towards the Potomac. Leaning back to steady myself as I pick my way down the concrete channel towards the ducks and egrets, I’ll note with pleasure the presence of fishermen and well-coiffed dog walkers and occasional unaccompanied minor, just hanging around. Rivers are good places to see connections between landscapes and people and water and infrastructure - or at least, to set that process in motion.