What the Water Says

Photo: Charles Brackett

Inspired by FLOW’s Campaign for Fresh Water
by Jaimien Delp

Maybe there was a specific moment when it happened: the first time you saw a kiteboarder on the bay, or the evening you dipped a paddle to the surface of an inland lake so smooth you felt a part of something surreal when you looked down and found the sky and your own gaze reflected back to you. Maybe the feeling struck you quite suddenly, say, on a fall color hike along the shores of Lake Michigan, or the afternoon you held your palm flush to the current of the Boardman River and recognized for the first time a seamlessness between yourself and something wild and elemental.  

Or maybe your love of water began years before you even realized it.  Like time, maybe water is a thing that has shaped your life quietly, a presence you’ve grown towards so steadily and naturally you’ve hardly felt the need to name it.  Suppose your childhood is one long story of rivers and streams, summer days adrift in a rowboat, a montage of Great Lakes waves and pools and rivulets that have buoyed you into adulthood, always present in the backdrop of memory or the moment, easy as breath.  

Easy as forgetting what water truly means to life when it has always surrounded you, softly and in such abundance, and without asking anything in return.  

Photo: Charles Brackett

My own love story with Northern Michigan’s water began well before any memory of it and reaffirms itself over and over again in moments.  I love watching the sun melt into waves at secret beaches in summer. I love standing in a river’s current. I love the sound of water, the smell of it, the sensation of slipping in and giving over whatever heaviness I might have been wearing.  

I often wonder, though, where does the heaviness go?  What do the lakes and rivers do with it? How much of our mess can we dump into these watersheds, and how much of its beauty and wealth can we take for ourselves, or have stolen from us, before it’s all gone?  

These are questions of feeling, yes, but they have taken on very tangible meaning in recent decades within the Great Lakes states.  We are living in an era of mounting urgency when it comes to matters of clean, safe and affordable water for all; of correcting the failures of our leaders to abide by their Constitutional and common law duties to protect the invaluable resource of our watersheds from pollution, privatization and the desecration that follows; of the most fundamental principles of water justice, equality and people over profit.  

We are all familiar with the headlines about the Flint water crisis, the ongoing water shutoffs to households in Detroit, with oil spills and lead poisoning and PFAS, with the risks to resources and society that corporations like Nestlé and Enbridge hang their hats on.  We know, on the most basic human level, that our watersheds are threatened.  That our streams cannot sustain such giants coming in with taps and pumps to bottle and sell away our water, and virtually for free.  That we, by virtue of our elected leaders, are allowing for the destruction of a resource absolutely vital to the survival of our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren…

Photo: Charles Brackett

The magnitude of the problem is vast, and often illusive to the naked eye.  You see, our water is so lovely to look upon, so vibrant and seemingly endless when you stand at the peak of Pyramid Point, or when you cross the Mackinac Bridge, that it’s difficult to believe a rusted pair of pipelines are pumping crude oil just below, threatening to burst. Or that not far away, a corporate giant is sucking the landscape dry.  

Photos of Enbridge’s oil spill in the Kalamazoo River (the birds black as ink, the men in masks, the utter mess of it) seem almost implausible, impossibly far away from what you know of beauty when you breathe in such a contrary scene. Not to mention those bottles of Nestlé water lining the shelves of grocery stores, gas stations, your friend’s refrigerator… that couldn’t really be from your watershed, could it?

What can be done? The question resonates. I am small, and the problem is massive, complex, far-reaching, so much larger than me… How do I protect the water I love?  The question dissipates in the air above one of the river pools you go to for answers, seems to grow a bit lost…

But the truth is, there are solutions to ensure clean, safe, affordable water for all, and FLOW is leading the way towards this opportunity for actualized, real change.  FLOW president and renowned water attorney Jim Olson, Executive Director and water law expert Liz Kirkwood, and their team of highly specialized lawyers, scientists and staff have been working tirelessly to shape and launch the Campaign for Fresh Water. The campaign offers an in-depth, comprehensive and innovative look at emerging threats to our groundwater, details the most current analysis of Line 5, exposes loopholes in the Great Lakes Compact, and ultimately, unveils new hope for the future of Michigan’s water – and so the future of public health – in the Public Water, Public Justice Act.  This model legislation, pioneered by Jim alongside FLOW’s team, and with input from experts across the state, brings the intertwined water and health crisis in Michigan under one comprehensive legal framework, and reprioritizes protecting our public water for the health of generations to come.  

Sometimes when I sit by the water, I think about her voice, what she is saying in those moments of strong current, or purling waves, or when the oil spills, or when the Nestlé pumps appear.  Recently in New Zealand, after over 140 years of negotiation, the Whanganui River was granted the same legal rights as a human being.  The Māori tribe was finally able to have the river legally recognized as an ancestor, with two individuals elected as guardians to speak on the river’s behalf.  What do they know that we are still learning, here in this part of the world, in this country, in this state?  Perhaps that where the water thrives, the people will thrive. That the health of one directly informs the health of the other, and that there is no separating the two, not for anything.  I’m grateful to organizations like FLOW, to campaigns like the Campaign for Fresh Water, and to those unwavering, sure voices who show us the way to a brighter, healthier, sustainable future.  

About the Author: Jaimien Delp is a long-time friend of FLOW and an award-winning writer and lecturer who divides her time between Ann Arbor, where she teaches in the English Department at the University of Michigan, and all the watery places in Northern Michigan.  She earned her MFA in creative writing from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, where she was the recipient of a Zell Postgraduate Fellowship. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Orion, Mid-American Review, Bridge Magazine, Dunes Review, Traverse Magazine, and The Smoking Poet.  Most recently, she has a piece in ELEMENTAL, Wayne State University Press’ forthcoming anthology of nonfiction, and has joined the editorial team at Mission Point Press.


One comment on “What the Water Says

  1. Janny Gates Norman on

    My love affair with water started at a very young age. It would take up pages of writings to reflect on my experiences and enjoyment. It will continue thru the rest of my life.


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