The Extraordinary Complexity of Water


Deborah Dudley

Asking people about water is like asking them to explain the meaning of life. We open up an endless array of possible strings to pull on, each having consequences to the integrity of the fabric of our existence. The scope of the question splinters into numerous facets, from the obvious biological dependencies—not only for humans but for all living beings—to the political hail storms (hail is made of water) that rage related to climate change science and policy, to the historic, economic, linguistic, emotional, religious, and philosophical applications of three loosely bonded molecules. Two Hydrogens and One Oxygen. H-2-O.

There is no end to the threads we can pursue when speaking of our dependency and relationship to water. The water drum of local Iroquois tribes used in traditional dances and songs sums it up well: The water drum, described by Mohawk storyteller Dave Fadden, is an instrument composed of a tight band tying deer skin to a hollowed-out hardwood base filled with water. Each component of the instrument represents the interdependency of plants, animals, and water to sustain life. If one piece of the drum is missing, we cannot exist. 

“The beat of the water drum is the first sound that one hears in the womb,” says Fadden. “It is the heartbeat of the mother, and the heartbeat of the Earth Mother.” 

Many Eastern and Western religious traditions have a form of ritual cleansing along with familiar or well-known stories and texts related to water: Noah’s ark and the flood; the story of Moses parting of the Red Sea; passages from the Quran that reference water as the source of every living thing; Hindu pilgrimages to the banks of the Ganges River; and Buddhist funeral rites involving pouring water into a bowl until overflowing, just to name a few.

We asked faculty, students, and alumni to consider these relationships through their academic pursuits, personal and professional domains. 

Erika L. Barthelmess, professor and co-chair of the Department of Biology and project director for Nature Up North recently partnered with St. Lawrence Land Trust and Grasse River Heritage to pilot a community-based water quality program along the Grasse River. This partnership seeks to explore how to empower local communities and individuals to adopt standard scientific protocols to “crowd source” data on the health of North Country rivers.

Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Sara Ashpole studies amphibian populations as indicator species of complex degraded ecosystems. 

“I work to restore wetland habitat and measure the response of amphibian as a sign of success,” says Ashpole. “Amphibians are declining globally due to a complex multi-stressor environment which is indicative of our own environment. They are sensitive to their aquatic environment, including water quality, the presence of non-native species, disease, and climate change. Water is a central theme: When you have healthy populations of frogs, you have security of both water quantity and quality.”

“Geopolitical problems due to the lack or over-abundance of water will heighten over the next several decades,” says Department of Geology’s Jeff Chiarenzelli ’81, MacAllaster Professor of North Country Studies. He frames the discussion of water through what he sees on the horizon resulting from “changes in the distribution of local water/snowpack/groundwater resources due to global climate change.” This, along with proximity of major urban areas to coastlines, unwise/unregulated development along shorelines and flood plains, and expanding populations, industry, and agriculture in arid areas, Chiarenzelli says, make water purity and access unsustainable.

Tom Greene, professor of psychology, reminds us that water plays a prominent role in two units of environmental psychology courses at St. Lawrence. “First, water is treated as an affordance—species-specific elements that promote survival or comfort,” Greene cites from the course literature. “Put simply, add water to almost any scene and it will be perceived as more attractive; whether an urban fountain, mountain whitewater, or a peaceful pond,” Second, students consider how water is also a good example of a commons. Greene continues, “Like the atmosphere, water tends to be owned collectively, and self-centered appropriation or pollution of this commons is one of the most difficult of environmental threats.”

There is also the business of water. If we are all taking for granted that we are collectively owned, how does industry factor in?

“From the perspective of an environmental engineer,” says Brendan McLaughlin ’90, senior client services manager at Woodard & Curran in Pittsburgh, “industrial clients are motivated to use as little water as they can for several reasons. Water requires significant capital and operating expenses to procure, pump and treat it prior to its use and again prior to its discharge. Some water sourcing points and most discharge points are governed by permits that require annual compliance effort, including routine sampling and laboratory testing.” McLaughlin also notes that there is “financial, reputational, and in some cases, criminal risk for non-compliance to local, state or federal permits.” Finally, McLaughlin points out, “some processes just require water. And for each process that does, the company incurs ongoing risk of supply.”

For alumna Cortney Terrillion ’99, senior manager, strategy and business development, with Nestlé Waters North America, the national debate about bottled beverages is a topic she knows very well. Terrillion answers questions from clients on everything from the industry’s efforts to use more recycled plastic content in bottles to researching the outcomes of plastic bottle bans on college campuses. 

While many campuses, including St Lawrence, continue to grapple with the waste management and the impact of plastic packaging on the environment, research suggests that, bottled water bans may have unintended consequences. Data collected from a 2013 bottle ban at the University of Vermont showed that, although the ban was designed to reduce plastic waste, there was an uptick in purchases of other bottled beverages like soft drinks, which have higher plastic content per bottle as well as high sugar content. This resulted in more plastic, not less, entering the waste stream.

St. Lawrence students in Professor of Global Studies John Collin’s Fall 2016 First-Year Program course “Global Questions, Local Activism” chose to confront the question of plastic water bottles head on. They created a class project aimed at both reducing the sale of plastic water bottles on campus and encouraging the use of reusable containers. 

“It wasn’t just about banning the water bottles,” says Emma Whalen ’20 of Newburyport, Massachusetts, “it’s about the mentality. If students are a bit more conscious and use reusable water bottles, that’s still progress.” 

Collins concurs; “It’s not that simple to just stop selling plastic water bottles, but there’s also clearly an openness to dialogue. Ultimately, people are interested in trying to do better on this issue.” 
Besides the water we drink, there is the other water, you remember the one that blankets the North Country for anywhere between three to six months out of the year. That frozen water is responsible for a multi-billion dollar winter sports economy, which is now at risk as the snow and ice become increasingly unreliable each year. 

In this issue, we listen to the heartbeat of the water drum, illustrating some of the relationships we all have with water and understanding that these stories are just a drop in the bucket. 

Water in the Adirondacks

The Other Water