By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Water, water, everywhere

Admittedly, we can’t get along without it. Likewise, we humans have difficulty getting along with it.

Part of the problem is that water, in some ways, is a bully. It’s a lot bigger than we humans. Here along Oregon’s coast, looking over our shoulder, is the gigantic Pacific Ocean. It takes up more than 64 million square miles with an average depth of 12,925 feet. What a tsunami it could stage. And it has helpers, such as the Columbia, and the Willamette rivers. Even muddy little Yamhill can be a tyrant.

Water takes up two-thirds of the earth — more than its share. We humans crowd together on the remaining third.

And as if that weren’t enough, our very bodies also are about two-thirds water. Our blood and body fluids, likewise, consist mostly of water. And that water in our bodies is by no means a constant. Our kidneys, bowels, and sweat glands work diligently to eliminate these liquids — and do so in the amount of some four-and-a-half pints every 24 hours. And we humans know well the danger of dehydration.

But doesn’t that arrangement seem a bit foolish? We conscientiously partake of liquids to replace those eliminated. But having done so, our body then advises us of the need to relieve ourselves and not always does it provide us with a proper place to do so.

We humans know the importance of water and indeed are grateful and express thanks for it, despite not approving of many of its actions. But instead of acknowledging our thanks, that antagonist — water — is apt to throw another punch.

Look at the considerable damage done by the recent floods in Colorado. And remember Vanport? It was located near Portland, sprang up as a shipbuilding site, and became Oregon’s second largest city. Population at its height in 1944 was almost 40,000, becoming smaller after war’s end. But on Memorial Day, 1948, the Columbia breached a railroad embankment, the flooding waters killed dozens, left 18,000 homeless, and kayoed that city.

Sheridan, Lafayette, Dayton have long known, too, about trouble-maker water. The flooding Yamhill at Lafayette in 1851 washed out a mill being built by Jacob Hawn for A. J. Hembree. An 1861 flood swept across the entire Willamette Valley and other parts of Oregon. Rainfall from October to March that season was 71.60 inches.

Wheatland, once an important Yamhill County shipping point on the Willamette, had two hotels, a grist mill and post office. When it flooded, lost were warehouses and most of the lower part of the town. In a duel with the Yamhill River, Dayton has lost bridges, storage buildings and railroad tracks.

In rebuttal, our “bully” then reminds us that in early days in Oregon, water was our “highway” — our only means of getting crops to market. Steamers once plied the Yamhill to dock at McMinnville. On summer nights, round-trip moonlight excursions to Lafayette provided heady entertainment.

And yet the bully still insists on getting in its licks. Dangerous waters at the mouth of the Columbia cause an average of one shipwreck per year. Fishermen drown and their boats capsize in rough waters. Although it’s delightful to plunge into a pool on a hot summer day, the tyrant takes its toll. People dive from high rocks into pools — and fail to surface. We dip our toes in the Pacific, the surf tempts, and dangerous undertows snatch the unwary.

True, in this ongoing feud, water has a good point. It accuses us humans of wasting this valuable resource. If we let water run while brushing our teeth — as many of us do — we probably use two gallons. If we dawdle in the shower, we could use 25 to 50 gallons. Each flush of the toilet uses from 5 to 7 gallons of water. For shaving, a man may run 10 to 15 gallons of water from the faucet.

We humans do indeed use copious quantities of water: about 168 gallons of water per person per day. An average household uses about 167,000 gallons per year. Cities require water for cleaning streets, putting out fires, flushing away the waste we humans produce.

In this give-and-take battle with water, we humans could point out that we are adopting shower heads with reduced flow, toilets that flush with less water, electric razors and toothbrushes. But our adversary has another accusation: people are abusing the land. We’re cutting down forests, overgrazing in some cases, denuding the land — so that when restorative rains bring more water, our land may not provide it with a foothold.

Water on the other hand, can be sneaky and sly. That glass of odorless, tasteless, colorless liquid that we so enjoy on a hot day, may contain impurities deadly to mankind. It has provided mosquitoes with breeding sites, attacked with typhoid and yellow fever, and cholera — as pioneers tragically learned on the Oregon Trail. Until modern sanitation came along, cholera was pandemic.

Nor is water always where we want it to be. A clump of people get together and form a city, but water may not cooperate and provide adequate supply. Ancient people resorted to aqueducts or long channels to bring water to cities. Los Angeles transports water 250 miles.

We earth people had a little trick with regard to that. When water wasn’t available from a faucet, “water witches” were called in and their divining powers then located underground water that was attempting to stay hidden.

Perhaps we shouldn’t blame water for being cantankerous at times. We wash our clothes in clean water, then give back the dirty stuff. Ditto with regard to showers and baths. Likewise, our sewage.

In addition to being a bully, water is egotistical. It chides us for over-use and yet at one time strongly advocated our drinking eight glasses of water per day. This we tried to do for a time, in the interests of good health. That idea then was challenged by a medic’s opinion that we could drown ourselves if we consumed quantities such as that.

So the feud continues. And we humans should realize it is futile on our part. Because always as its final argument, water will recite that old saw that you and I have known since childhood — that old saying, that, until the well is dry, water will never be missed.

And how do earth people refute that?

Elaine Rohse can be reached at

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