Pure Water

People are always attracted to water. We hiked up the mountain to this cascade in Le Tigre National Park, Honduras.

(This post has been sitting in my drafts for a couple of years.  Now, that we’re on a “boil” order in my county in northeast Kansas in July 2011, I thought again of how we take our clean water for granted.  I wrote this about a visit to Honduras, where you can’t drink the water from the tap.)

It’s early on a February morning in 2007, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and already hot.  I don’t mind.  Back home in Kansas City it’s freezing.

Behind the courtyard wall, I wait at the gate, listening.  I’m an early riser so I volunteered to make the water bottle exchange.

“You’ll know when they’re coming,” my friend Michael told me the night before.  “They call out “Agua Azul, Agua Azul.”  He likes the sound of it.  “It’s like a call to prayer.”

Most societies and religions find spiritual and cleansing properties in water, so Michael is right about that.

Three large empty bottles sit on the driveway near the gate.  I hear the faint call, and I lean out to look.

I see a truck slowly rumbling down the steep incline of street in this affluent neighborhood in the capital city of Honduras.  The back of the truck is stacked with large water bottles.

“Agua Azul.  Agua Azul.

I wave my hand at the truck. A man darts to the gate, grabs the empty bottles and replaces them with full ones.  He hops back on the truck and continues his call.  “Agua Azul.  Agua Azul.”

Now we’ll have purified water for the next couple of days.  We go through it quickly, using it for everything that passes our lips. The water truck comes three mornings a week.  It saves the trouble of taking the bottles to the store. The house has running water, but it’s not purified.  We have to be careful not to drink it or even use it for brushing our teeth.  I keep a small bottle of purified water in the bathroom during my visit.

You can’t be careful everywhere, and on a trip to see the Mayan ruins in Copan, Honduras, some of us come down with horrible gastrointestinal distress.  I’ll spare you the details (worst diarrhea of my life!), but it was touch and go on the drive home.  Michael and Anita knew the roads and the rest stops, and thankfully, my husband is an Eagle Scout, prepared with supplies at all times, including a roll of toilet paper.

At home, we take pure water for granted.  But civilization has long been plagued, literally, with contaminated water.  Cholera is one disease spread by water fouled by bacteria.  People would often drink alcoholic beverages, rather than water, because they were less likely to get sick. Steven Johnson writes about a cholera epidemic in “The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World.”

Hacienda San Lucas overlooks the Copan River Valley, where the early Mayans settled more than a thousand years ago. Maintaining pure water is always a problem wherever people gather in cities.

In Copan, we visited Flavia Cueva, who owns the Hacienda San Lucas.  Anita, who is with the U.S. State Department, had met with Flavia before on an official visit.  Local people and members of the International Rotary were working to improve the water quality. International Rotary is providing water distribution and health education to six remote villages in the area.

My water district at home, WaterOne, sends out an annual water quality report, summarizing what’s in the water and provides lots of facts, which are also available on the website.  WaterOne was one of seven utilities worldwide selected as a finalist for a global water award for its Wolcott Treatment Plant. We’re very lucky we don’t need to buy bottled water, regularly, although there is a run on bottled water now because of the boil order.

Here’s a copy of the story in the Kansas City Star about our boil order:

Raccoon Believed Culprit in John County Boil Order


The Kansas City Star

Posted on Fri, Jul. 01, 2011 03:57 PM

A raccoon appears be to the culprit in a water pipe rupture that led to a boil advisory for more than 400,000 water customers in Johnson County.
Officials of Water District No. 1 found the animal dead inside an electrical unit at the Hansen treatment plant on Holiday Drive in Kansas City, Kan.
Eric Arner, a spokesman for WaterOne, said the animal may have chewed into wires or just brushed by the equipment, triggering an event that will affect customers at least until 5 p.m. Saturday during one of the hottest spells of the year so far.
People in the WaterOne service area — which includes most of Johnson County but excludes most of Olathe — are advised to use bottled water or to boil their tap water at least two minutes before consuming it. Unboiled water is safe for washing and bathing.
Retail stores in Johnson County are reporting brisk sales of bottled water. People are buying shopping baskets full of it at the Lenexa Sam’s Club, 12200 W. 95th St.
“We’ve got plenty for today and two more semis were dispatched when we heard about this,” said club manager Eric Rector. “We should have more in stock tonight.”
The Price Chopper at 8686 Antioch Road in Overland Park was sold out by mid-afternoon. A new shipment was expected over the weekend but store management did not know when it would arrive.
The boil precaution is necessary because the pipe rupture led to a drop in water pressure, which may have drawn contaminants into the system. Officials are testing tap samples from across the 275-square-mile water district for safety. That process, and flushing any contaminants out of the system, takes at least 18 hours.
Arner said water officials noticed a sudden drop in system pressure at 7:20 a.m., which they later attributed to a raccoon that got inside the housing of one of the huge electrical switches that run the pumps. The animal apparently shorted out the switch.
“The pumps themselves are designed to trip off when there is any fluctuation in power so they don’t fry their circuits,” Arner said. “So when the power was restored in a matter of seconds or even milliseconds the pumps turned back on and created a water surge.”
Officials believe that surge caused a 54-inch pipe near the Hansen plant to rupture at a joint. Arner said the pipe should not have failed even with a surge and WaterOne is investigating whether there were any other factors involved.
Water officials were able to restore pressure throughout the system shortly after the pipe break but some areas may have less pressure than normal.
While most of Olathe is outside WaterOne, between 6,000 and 7,000 people in northwestern and southwestern areas of the city are affected, said city spokesman Tim Danneberg.


Filed under Biology, Drink, Health, Life, Personal, Random, Travel

7 responses to “Pure Water

  1. I still remember the minerally taste of the well water at my Girl Scout camp in Nebraska. Ugh! Of course, taste takes a back seat to safety. FYI: I just read the most outrageous book about…water (well, mostly). It’s The Unknown Knowns by Jeffrey Rotter. It as given to me by the mother of one of my students who said, “I know it’s extremely odd – but odd in a good way!” Very Vonnegutesque and about the protection of our water.

    Girl Scout camp! Bugs, rainstorms, mud and bad-tasting water! You bring back great memories from my Girl Scout camping days in Kansas. You and I would have had some fun times together in Girl Scout camp. “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the old gold.” We learned a lot of songs. Did you?

    I had well water at one of my houses in Lawrence until I hooked up (at great expense) to city water. The well water was full of iron and tasted rusty the few times I tasted it. I did use it to rinse my mouth when brushing my teeth, and it left an icky taste, as if I had bleeding gums. The water from my grandmother’s well in South Dakota was very cold and was my favorite water, even though it had a slight metallic tang to it …

    The book sounds very interesting. Water is one of the most fascinating molecules in the world, partly because of its molecular structure. One chemistry teacher told me that it was the only molecule that melted under pressure, which is what enables ice skating. Fresh, pure water is also one of the most precious and endangered substances in the world. Cathy


  2. Anita

    Cathy, Thanks for sharing this. What a nice piece. It brings back memories of our time in Honduras and is certainly right on target with the situation in Bujumbura. Here we have a water distiller so we don’t have to have bottles delivered. New York State is in the middle of a fight about fracking for natural gas, which has caused major pollution for water tables in Pennsylvania. Yeah, water is pretty basic.


  3. I’ve heard it said that approx. one-sixth of the people on Earth do not have access to drinkable water. That’s outrageous.

    You’ll probably say no, but are the colors adjusted in the photograph of the cascade? They are amazing. And the second photograph could have almost been taken in my neck of the woods.

    I recently did some thinking about water when I went camping and had to hike in ALL water under my own power for four days. I was keenly aware of how much we used and how quickly it went. As I carried the water I often thought about the women in tribal societies who hike to the river and carry everything they use back on their heads. I have to admit I’ve always taken our plumbing system for granted. You just turn it on and it’s there.

    A boil order must be very tough. Where I live the city pumps our drinking water out of the river. We are downstream of other cities that also pump it out, treat it, and put it back in. There has also been an upstream dam removal (yeah!) but now it is becoming apparent that this has lead to some extra heavy metals in our drinking water, like Chromium-6. In our house we drink out of the tap so we’ve been watching the city’s extra water testing with great interest. So far they always say that everything is within federal guidelines. That’s not the most reassuring thought in the world. 🙂

    Yes, I adjusted the colors in the waterfall photo. That photograph was taken with my old digital camera, and the original colors were so pale, because of the shadows in the forest. I uploaded that photograph to wordpress a couple of years ago, where it has been sitting in my drafts file (no doubt fading, ha, ha). I was too lazy to find it again and re-do it, which I should do because I know much more about photo-editing now. Now that you’ve brought this to my attention, I may have to re-edit.

    Engineers and other scientists are making good progress in creating simple and affordable ways to purify water. Thankfully, our boil order is over. Cathy


  4. Cathy,

    I believe North America may well be the only place in the world where one can drink directly from the tap. But even now, I use some sort of water filter (Brita, not sure how effective it is though) rather than drink out of the tap. As they predict, clean water is soon to be the most sought after commodity on earth.

    As today is the big day for you all, have a Happy July 4th Cathy! Enjoy the fireworks and celebrations… and have a wonderful summer!


  5. SandySays1

    Isn’t it strange how easy it is to take for granted the things that science has evolved (and sometimes complicates and corrupts)? The Geezer has been all over the world, and believe me, he KNOWS the joys of ameobic dysentery (Jakarta) and all the other maladies that come with impure agua. Good luck on getting the supply back to “normal” sooner than later.
    PS thanks for your kind words.


  6. Irony, to be in paradise (your picture is breathtaking!) and then the water isn’t safe. You brought back memories for me when I stayed with my relatives in Mexico and I had to walk ALL the way down stairs for a glass of water so that I could brush my teeth. Also, there was an awful lot of drinking I do remember older people telling me it was safer than the water.


  7. We do take clean water for granted. Living on a river, the things I see, I couldn’t begin to imagine swimming in it, let alone drinking it. I always have a moral issue with buying flowers from countries where water resources are so limited, yet they use what little water they have to grow flowers. It bother’s me. I know there are two sides to the issue, but I want people to have clean drinking water. Reminds me of this TED talk about Michael Pritchard and his invention for taking filthy water and turning it into potable water,, cehaply and in minutes. check it out, it’s awesome ~ here’s the link to it. http://www.ted.com/talks/michael_pritchard_invents_a_water_filter.html
    Thanks for the nice post Cathy. Enjoyed it!


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