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An Independence Day Salute to Our American Heroes
Jim Lauria
/ Categories: Water

An Independence Day Salute to Our American Heroes

Jim Lauria

Last month I tipped my hat to America’s rural water districts in the blog post Rural Water Systems: Dancing Backwards and in High Heels. As Americans prepare for Independence Day, it’s a perfect time to salute some truly unsung American heroes: the people who operate our nation’s drinking water and wastewater treatment plants.

“They’re health professionals,” says Kelly Matheson, operations director of the Oklahoma Rural Water Association. “They’re just like our firemen and policemen, but they just don’t get the recognition for what they do. They don’t get a pat on the back. Most of the time, people are just yelling at them if they don’t have water.”

Well, here’s that long-overdue pat on the back. Here’s a chance to point out that water treatment operators are the guardians of our health and safety—not just in emergencies, but every day, 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. As a country, we enjoy some of the best medical facilities and most qualified caregivers in the world, but our water treatment professionals do something every bit as amazing: they keep us from having to go to the doctor in the first place by preventing outbreaks of waterborne diseases that can devastate societies.

Water professionals stand between us and disasters like the cholera epidemic that killed 5.5% of Chicago’s population in 1854, or the outbreak of the same disease that swept London that year and claimed nearly 11,000 lives. (In fact, that 1854 London outbreak was the watershed moment Dr. John Snow deduced that contaminated drinking water was the key to the disease’s spread.)

Societies thrive when their citizens aren’t sick in bed. In his book The Big Thirst, Charles Fishman points out that American mortality rates dropped 40% between 1900 and 1940. In those decades, medicine made several advances, but—just as important—cities, counties and districts across the country installed modern water and wastewater treatment systems. During that period, infant mortality rates dropped and life expectancy in the U.S. climbed from 47 to 63 years. Lubricated by clean water, America’s workforce emerged as the engine of the global economy.

Nations also blossom when half their population doesn’t spend a huge chunk of every day hauling water. A 2012 study by the U.N. Development Programme found that women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa spent a total of 40 billion hours every year carrying water—40 billion hours that could be spent in school, at work or growing crops to sustain their families. It wasn’t that long ago that many Americans were hauling water, too. At the Oklahoma Rural Water Association, Matheson says he regularly meets current rural water district board members who used to haul their own water by the pickup load before the districts were launched in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Though Americans from a century or so ago would marvel at how reliable our water supply is (and how convenient it is to have an indoor bathroom in every home), it’s only in the few instances when our water treatment systems fail that we recognize how valuable they are nowadays. Think of the 1987 Cryptosporidium outbreak that sickened one in five residents of Carroll County, Georgia, or the 1993 outbreak of the same pathogen that sickened more than 400,000 residents of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and killed at least 104 of them. Or consider the cholera epidemic that swept through Haiti after the 2010 earthquake destroyed the nation’s water treatment systems: 2,300 new cases sent people to the hospital every week, and over the course of two years, more than 8,200 Haitians died from the waterborne disease.

Pretty much the only thing standing between us and outbreaks like Haiti’s right now is the commitment of people like Kelly Matheson. When Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast, Kelly headed from his home in Oklahoma to Cameron Parish, Louisiana, to help water district workers repair damaged systems, flush mains and get safe water and sewage systems back on line.

“After a big event like that, two things have got to happen,” Matheson says as he describes the scramble to restore hard-hit communities. “The power’s got to get back on and the water’s got to get back on.”

Driving hundreds of miles to battle floods and restore sewage systems is nobody’s idea of a fun vacation. But Matheson shrugs it off.

“Rural water is like a big family,” he says.

It’s a close-knit family, too. Junior Welch, training specialist with the Oklahoma Rural Water Association—and a rural water district board chairman himself—points out that providing wholesome water for neighbors is a point of pride for the deeply committed core of people who stay in rural districts.

“For these guys, it’s not just a job, it’s a passion,” Welch says. “You find that all through the rural water industry. There’s a passion for what they do and they take pride in their job.

I’ve seen that passion in small districts operating on a shoestring as well as big, well-funded systems that protect millions of people. But how many of us even think about that passion when we turn on a tap or flush a toilet?

Unlike firefighter or police officer, water treatment operator is not a career little kids announce that they’re aspiring to. But right up there with firefighters and police officers, America’s water workers are keeping us safe and protecting our way of life. It’s time we give them equal billing.

So as you fill up a jug to make ice tea for this year’s July 4th barbecue or stop in a rest room on the way home from your hometown Independence Day parade, take a moment to salute the water treatment operators who make it all possible. They may not be in uniform marching down Main Street in parades across the country…but they should be. They’re American heroes.


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