The Maritime Report: Water

The Maritime Report: Water

Dave Bloch


That's really what this blog has been about since it began. The focus has always been (and will continue to be) on things that happen in and on the water that surrounds our Island city. But this time, your Maritime Report is about water itself.

I don't know anything that we take for granted as much as water. (Not even air, which we notice when it's cold, or foggy, or smoggy, or completely clear.) You turn on the faucet, and there it is, clear and clean and ready for whatever you want to do with it.

Except that, these days, we are reading about water every single day. California has a drought - there's not enough water (and may never be again). Melting ice caps are raising sea levels - there is too much water, and plans for Alameda Point are incorporating berms, dikes and other mitigating measures to assure that billions of dollars in planned development stay dry. There's a real disconnect between these huge eco-political issues and the act of turning on the tap. Somehow it doesn't seem like it's the same stuff.

If you've lived your life in American cities, you're really used to that "water comes from the faucet" idea. I built a house in rural Nevada County back around 2000, and the very first thing we had to do was drill a well. Seven hundred feet down came up dry; the second 300-foot well hit a pocket that delivered three gallons a minute. Total for the two wells, not counting pipes, storage tanks, filters and a building to house that all in: $8,450. You start thinking about water very differently when getting it to the faucet costs that much money.

Up in the Oakland Hills at the Chabot Space & Science Center (you can see the sun reflect off the observatory domes from down here), there's a "space toilet" like the ones used on the International Space Station. Besides the interesting ways engineers have made it usable in zero gravity, every drop of waste gets filtered so well that the water content is put right back into the storage tanks, purer than the water we drink every day. As the guides (I've been one for several years) tell our visitors, water on the ISS is extremely valuable - it's REALLY EXPENSIVE to ship it up there! But think about the water on Earth - it's ALL the water we've got. Every drop gets used over and over and over, unless it becomes so polluted that it can no longer be purified.

My wife and I were in Mexico for the month of May, at a house we own there. We have all heard since we were kids, "don't drink the water!" We don't, of course. The Mexicans don't either. Mexico, as a matter of policy, does not purify every drop of city water to be drinkable. "Agua Potable," which comes out of the faucet, is good enough for washing, laundry, yard work, industrial use - lots of things. Cooking, provided you're boiling it for a while. But for drinking or washing your veggies, you use bottled water. Every home has a dispenser for those big 20-liter (roughly five gallon) water cooler-style jugs. You keep your mouth closed in the shower, you rinse your toothbrush with bottled water.

Just south of our town of Progreso is a Mayan ruin called Dzibilchaltun. "Dzibil" has a cenote - a pool where one of Yucatan's hundreds of underground rivers (there are no surface rivers) is exposed to the surface. The water is absolutely clear and beautifully clean. (Yucatan is taking great pains to get visitors to use only biodegradable sunscreens to keep the cenotes that way.) The cenotes were sacred places to the Mayan people (many of them still are).

East of Progreso the coast road passes by miles of mangrove swamps. The mangroves grow incredibly dense, intertwining themselves both above and below the waterline, creating an impenetrable barrier between the beach and the land. The tiny village of San Crisanto sits confined between beach and mangroves; the swamp there is about 2,100 acres in size.

Faced with a declining economy, the villagers of San Crisanto decided some years back to create a tourist destination. Using hand tools, it took them seven years to cut out a network of canals through the forest, leading to a beautiful cenote. A family of large tarpon, washed in from the ocean (about one and a half miles) by the storm surge of a hurricane live happily in the cenote, and occasionally rub against you as you swim. The half-hour trip in a small boat propelled by a villager with a long pole, a nice cenote swim, and the trip back, costs about $3.25. It is a beautiful water experience, along with a model of community development recognized by UNESCO for its contribution to eco-tourism.

Our Gulf of Mexico water is cool and cloudy; the waters of the Caribbean are famously clear, warm, and incredibly turquoise. We explored the beaches around Tulum (the Mayan city on the Caribbean coast), which are crowded with tourists from just about everywhere in the world other than Mexico. Another boat ride, this one a fast power boat, took us deep into the wilderness of the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, where we then floated on our life jackets down a long natural canal, watching for birds, fish and interesting plant life.

Fresh water. Salt water. Water you can drink. Water you can wash with but not drink. Water you can swim in, or sail a boat on. Water that will rise and cover some currently-dry places that are important to us. Think a bit more about it the next time you turn on the tap.