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Our Water, Our World: A Vision for Public Water

by Paul Pickett

To begin with full disclosure, I'll admit I'm a customer. Our home well has a lot of iron and we don't like the taste of the water. So we regularly visit the free-flowing artesian well in the downtown Olympia Diamond parking lot to fill our jugs.

When I heard the Friends of the Artesians were going to disband, putting public access to the well at risk, I was sad, but not just because I'd lose my free water. I can live without it in fact my life would be easier without the constant runs downtown whenever the jugs are empty. But there's something more going on here.

It may be the sense of history. Artesian water is as synonymous with Olympia and Tumwater as the marketing phrase "It's The Water." Dozens of artesian wells have been mapped in Olympia and have always been a part of the local scene. To drink that water is to share in the heritage.

Still, it's more than that. The Green Pages once ran an issue with pictures of Artesian well users braided along the sides of page after page. Their faces are the faces of our community. People of all walks of life share the well, from transient street people to white collar workers. Our common humanity, through our common need for fresh, clean drinking water, meets at this place.

That sense of universality is not misplaced. In cultures all over the world a well is the centerpiece of the community - a place to both get water and exchange news, ideas, and merchandise. Our cultural history is filled with stories of meetings at the well. And in poor communities of modern underdeveloped nations, the simplest way to provide clean water is to provide a "water point": a sanitary community faucet for spring or well water shared by the community.

A public artesian well in Olympia represents a fulfillment of the Right to Water declared by the United Nations as an expression of Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Although most of us can pay for water, either from our own well or from a community system, some people in our community have no supply, e.g., homeless and low income folks who can't pay the bill. So how do we guarantee their human right to clean drinking water? One way is through a public water supply like the downtown artesian well.

We are in danger of losing this unique resource. Friends of the Artesian have expressed their frustration with the City of Olympia in not carrying through with a commitment to create a permanent public well http://www.oly-wa.us/Artesians/ Continued use of the well depends on a commitment for testing the water and progress toward a permanent solution. If this group steps away, there is currently no one to take their place.

Once there were champions for the well on the Olympia City Council, such as former Mayor Stan Biles, but the Council now lacks a personal history with the issue. Many community members have been asking the City to take a more active position, but it's not clear what will happen. One concept, an artesian well pocket park, is working through the City planning process, but is a long-term solution; it won't address the more immediate problem.

There are others who could play a role. The Port of Olympia offered a location for a new well at one point, and the Thurston PUD was contacted by the state Department of Health about assisting with the situation. Currently the PUD is investigating how they might help, and there is some logic for their involvement, since a public well is a resource for the whole county, not just for Olympia. Ultimately though, Olympia should be the lead on finding a solution since the artesian water system is located within the city.

Whether our community continues to have a public source of free artesian well water into 2009 and beyond remains to be seen. If you care about this issue, the time to speak out is now.

Paul Pickett is an environmental engineer, Public Utility District Commissioner, and regular columnist for Green Pages.

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Updated 2015/01/07 21:14:22