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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Dracut Water War

Air Date: Week of

The price of clean, drinkable water is not cheap, and there are folks who get accused of stealing it. The commissioner in Dracut, Massachusetts recently resigned after being accused of diverting millions of gallons of water to Dracut at the expense of citizens in the neighboring city of Lowell. Commentator and Dracut resident Jane Brox says the water case has become the talk of the town. Ms. Brox is the author of "Here and Nowhere Else: Late Seasons of a Farm and its Family."


CURWOOD: The price of clean drinkable water is not cheap, and there are some folks who get accused of stealing it. Take the water commissioner in Dracut, Massachusetts, for example. He recently resigned in the face of allegations that he had diverted millions of gallons of water to his town at the expense of citizens in the neighboring city of Lowell. Dracut resident and commentator Jane Brox says the water case has become the talk of her town.

BROX: When we heard the news about stolen water, most of us in town just shook our heads and cracked a little smile as if to say the old boys aren't gone, are they? We have a notorious political history here in Dracut, though I know we'll sober up when we figure the costs and the goodwill lost. But behind our head-shaking also, I think, is the idea that water should be free. It all seems like such a gift: rains out of the heavens, the melting snow pack, all the small incipient rivers that stream out of the north and feed the Merrimac, which gives us our drinking water.

But the Merrimac hasn't been free for centuries. Carefully controlled and exploited and used for our purposes, locked and dammed for commerce, and then for industry. The 19th century was a strong moment in the valley's history, and it is by that time we are largely identified. Most of us still see the Merrimac as the river that powered our mill towns. Red brick factories line every drop on the lower course.

Those mills poured their dyes and scourings into the river, and when the textiles went south other industries continued to use the Merrimac for their wastes in the belief that all would wash into the Atlantic. A belief that held into the 1960s when I was a child and the Merrimac was, as the joke goes, "too thick to pour, too thin to plow."

The Clean Water Act of 1972 went a long way toward improving the river, and now I can be startled by white sails gracing its waters, startled by the waters themselves glinting in the May sun. Something as a child I never dreamed of seeing. A consolation, those sails and that glinting, and partly an illusion.

Pollution now comes from less obvious sources: storm drain overflows, runoff from farms, salts and oils from highways, the acid rain, acid snow. The balances we strike can only be attained by testing the waters and counting the spring fish runs, by capturing the hundred salmon that still come up the river and bringing them to a fishery to propagate.

A pristine river is a complexity we can't begin to imagine, and with all the works and laws of our days we can't attain. No matter how clear the source, by the time the water reaches the purification plant in Lowell it has accumulated the histories and ambitions of our lives. The Merrimac doesn't fall through the New World, but through the world of our making, and we have to pay for it.

CURWOOD: Commentator Jane Brox is the author of Here and Nowhere Else: Late Seasons of a Farm and Its Family. You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.



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