October 18, 2022

Clean Water Act - Happy 50th!

On October 18, 1972, the US Congress passed the Clean Water Act.

As a birthday tribute I offer the following passage from my book Susquehanna Essays (with a slight change for New England), available at thebookpatch.com:

Homage to Water

Earth’s water came from asteroids. And the first thing Scott Kelly did upon arriving home after three hundred and forty days in the International Space Station was to jump into his swimming pool. Afloat in space above his home planet he yearned for the feeling of water around him, a hunger satisfied only by the indescribable feeling of total immersion.

Water shapes human life inside and out. Not surprising given that the percentage of liquid water of our bodies—70%—is about the same as distributed over the planet. Nonetheless, we require some distance from commonplace thinking to gain true perspective.

In simplest form the story of the Connecticut River bioregion is the story of water, a molecule composed of 1 atom of oxygen and 2 atoms of hydrogen: H2O. The story of this protean glue that holds all living things in Susquehanna’s basin is as wonderful as Alice’s in Wonderland. Thank you, French chemist Antoine Lavoisier for putting one and two together.

Imagine: falling and falling and falling as Alice did down the rabbit hole, into a glass of water!

What do you see? Chemists describe geometric clusters collapsing and reforming. A kaleidoscope.

Cup your hands full of water. Imagine those Wonderland cluster-bursts pulsating along your fingers. Infinitesimally small galaxies, billions of bright-whirling atoms. Fall into the atomic scale of things. Every creature including you lives there. Or, in polluted areas, diminishes and dies there.

Water’s so much part of life it’s easy to overlook, no matter that without reverence for water we cannot comprehend or respect the world we live in. Imagine an alternate world where some other liquid takes its place. Ammonia, for example, made of nitrogen atoms and hydrogen atoms. If we somehow adapted to the acrid fumes of that molecule, we’d still have to contend with its unnatural properties such as the inability to evaporate until temperatures go well below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Our bodies wouldn’t exist in that world because we cool ourselves down by evaporation of water through the skin at temperatures we can comfortably tolerate.

We know that our world suits us, but rarely reflect that it is water not ammonia or any other compound that makes it possible. Imagine if we were born with all the wisdom of the world and took that extraordinary endowment so much for granted that we forgot it. We are and we do. What follows is a refresher course in H-2-Ology.

Water’s specifications determine its performance. So how does a molecule of liquid water work? Since we cannot see one with the eyes, we’ll do a bit of mind’s eye seeing. Seat yourself on the nucleus at the center of an atom of oxygen with a grateful nod to Ernest Rutherford, the New Zealander, who discovered your comfortable perch. Now look, as does the little Prince on his asteroid, into the telescope I’ve conveniently placed on your tiny body in space. Far away, at a distance in human terms of ten thousand miles, you may witness a shimmering aurora borealis not of light energy but of the pure energy of being itself, pulsations of electrons, particle-wave chameleons called wavicles.

Oops! You’re inside Niels Bohr’s and Erwin Schrödinger’s Mad Tea Party of quantum physics where meaning what you say and saying what you mean are not the same thing a bit! Eight of these shifty wavicles belong to your oxygen atom and two others belong to separate atoms of hydrogen, one apiece, which by a sort of gravitational force oxygen takes hold of and bonds with. Electrons now exist intertwined in a cloud suspended far above three solid nuclei, one of which you sit on in wonder at the mysterious immensity of a single water molecule.

Your compound has tendency to be social, wanting to join—though not inseparably—other molecules of liquid water. Such characteristics give water the physical property of strength plus pliability making it the superstar of the natural world (Cheers!).

Water has special charms convenient for life. Temperature increase may break the social bonds of liquid water by the mechanism of evaporation, a fact of of vital importance to planetary climate. The evaporation of water from liquid state to gaseous state by heat—think of morning mist rising off the surface of a lake— moderates the overall temperature of large bodies of water.

How does water do this? The wavicle bond— technically an electron pair bond—determines the amount of heat called the specific heat needed to raise the temperature of liquid water. Great River Connecticut, Long Island Sound, and the Atlantic Ocean absorb solar heat during the day and release it to the atmosphere at night. Because liquid water has a relatively high specific heat, these bodies of water, while holding and releasing much heat energy, maintain roughly constant temperatures.

By contrast, the surface of the moon, without a river or an ocean, experiences wide swings in temperature from day to night, swings which may be as much as hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit. But Earth dissipates solar radiation moderately through vaporization, cooling in the process, without excessive loss of liquid.

The warm-blooded human body also depends on these properties of water. Just as the Earth preserves its 70% of water from excessive evaporation due to water’s high specific heat, so too the 70% of water in your body is conserved while the heat of metabolism is released by the evaporation of tolerable amounts. In this respect, we are physiochemical avatars of the Earth, conscious fractals of the great conscious whole. To say, “I live on a water planet” is a truism.

Water possesses just the right surface tension, or wetness. Consider the element mercury, low in wetness compared with water. Mercury makes those familiar silver-white balls when we pour it onto a flat surface. By contrast, benzene, being very wet, spreads a thin film over a flat surface.

As Goldilocks discovered, the surface tension of water—the tendency of molecules on the surface to be pulled interiorly—is just right! Adequate to its job of flowing over and embossing the skin of the planet. Not to mention the delight we take in bathing and showering.

Still, we are not finished with this catalogue of wonders. Water is one of the very few substances which are more dense as a liquid than as a solid (ice). Common sense tells us that something which is less dense—a cork for example— floats on a substance which is more dense—water. Thus, ice floats on the top of the river. If it were denser than water it would create March mayhem rather than Spring runoff.

Water is life in its simplest form. The social bonding force found between water molecules is not widely found throughout the molecular universe, but it does occur commonly in complex molecules such as proteins, the organic builders of cells and living tissue. H2O is the elemental ancestor of life. Streams rivers oceans are alive, rain is a shower of vitality, and the blue planet is a very great living entity.

For information on America’s rivers or to get involved, go to: rivernetwork.org.

Lake Pocotopaug in Fall Sunlight
Lake Pocotopaug in Fall Sunlight