10/25/2012 12:26 pm ET Updated Dec 25, 2012

Water, Water: Cornfield Creek Diary

In the shower this morning, I noticed that the soap was not sudsing up. I was using my usual brand of soap the usual way, but the water was leaving a slippery film on my skin, as if it were mixed with baby oil. It's not an unpleasant sensation, but it signals that the water needs attention. It's too hard, and needs softening.

I have a different relationship with water since moving to Cornfield Creek, off Maryland's Magothy River. I moved here after three decades of city living, which involved -- among other things -- not thinking about water very much. I drank bottled water during that time, but otherwise H2O occupied a very small corner of my consciousness. Nowadays I think about water a lot.

This morning is an example. Once I finished my shower and dressed, I headed straight away to the water room. This is a cramped little space behind the laundry room, filled with machines with pumps and gauges, and shelves stocked with solutions. The first time I entered the water room, only the hot water heater was familiar. The other equipment was mysterious, and gave off a slightly toxic whiff.

As I soon learned, this all had to do with our well. Nobody on Cornfield Creek is hooked up to a public water supply -- there is none -- so we all draw our water from private wells. Ours goes down about 30 feet into the aquifer, which is a shallow well, so the water is brackish and full of minerals, including iron and ions of calcium and magnesium. These "hardness ions" leach out of the aquifer into our supply, occasionally making their way into our pipes and spigots.

It's not difficult to soften the water. You just have to be mindful of its feel. This morning, I dumped a 40-pound sack of salt pellets into the resin in a plastic cabinet, part of the mechanical softener, which extracts at least some of these naturally occurring minerals. While I was in the water room, I checked the level in a squat, blue tank. This water conditioner is a solution of diluted sodium hydroxide and ordinary household bleach. The bleach kills bacteria, and the alkaline chemicals control the acidity of the water, which I check at the kitchen tap with a pH kit. Sodium hydroxide -- also known as lye -- is nasty stuff. I wear safety glasses when I handle it, and I wear long, heavy rubber gloves to protect my hands. I've gotten a bit woozy from breathing in too many fumes once or twice.

Or maybe this is all in my head. There is something about adding caustic chemicals to my water that awakens an ancient bias in me. After all, this is the same chemical they use to make textiles and paper -- and other chemicals. It's even used to dissolve the flesh of roadkill in landfills, and yet here I am, measuring out toxic quart after toxic quart to purify my tap water.

I understand the psychology behind my gut reaction, and in fact have written about it. In my book On Second Thought, I devote a chapter to the "cooties heuristic" -- which is a deep-wired, pervasive fear of any contagion. This fear-driven thinking is understandable -- and indeed, it probably helped our early ancestors survive by avoiding all sorts of environmental poisons -- but it's often irrational today. My rational mind knows that someone has been adding lye and other chemicals to my water for my entire life, to good effect, but doing it myself has taken some getting used to.

I've called on my neighbor Bill on a few occasions to help me with the well water. Bill is in his 80s, and has lived near Cornfield Creek his whole life. He is a plumber and knows the local water as well as anyone, and he's proud that he installed many of the wells and water conditioning systems along the creek. He came by recently to do some work on our septic tank pump, and we were chatting about the water. I told Bill what I had read recently in the science news -- that sewage water could easily be recycled into drinking water. The technology apparently exists to make it as pure as spring water, but our contagion bias makes that idea abhorrent to most people. Bill is a quiet man, and when I told him this, he replied: "Don't drink this water."

We don't drink it. The cornfields that gave Cornfield Creek its name are long gone, so our water isn't fouled by that kind of agricultural runoff anymore, but the creek and river and bay are far from pure. We know that. Even so, I do like being close to -- and playing a small part in -- the supply of water that runs from our well into our water room and into our pipes, then on to our laundry and dishwasher and morning showers.

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