Saturday, August 1, 2009
Incredible Clearwater Revival
From late 1971 to late 1972, I was between regular jobs, trying to make enough as a freelance writer to support a wife and two young kids. I wrote short films, edited a newsletter for an architecture firm, did some minor "stringing" for Newsweek and The New York Times, and hustled other now-forgotten work.
Actually that NYTimes Sunday Magazine piece could have been important. I was hired to provide an article and support information about the soon-to-come North Cascades Wilderness area--exploring hiking trails, visiting remote towns, trying to sound knowledgeable about the flora and fauna and geology of the whole wilderness region between Darrington, a logging community in the Cascades foothills of Western Washington, and tiny Steheken, at the head of Lake Chelan on the eastern side of those rugged, jagged-peak mountains.
But the editor who'd commissioned me quit or was let go, and the new boss didn't want to devote so much space to the whole story, so I got paid for my piece, which was then mostly cut from the newspaper's coverage. I was disappointed of course, but I kept hustling, and a few months later I received a phone call that led to a rather more extraordinary and challenging job...
Major engineering firm CH2M-Hill hired Roger Hagan, a guy I knew from documentary filmmaking, to produce a one-off issue of a tabloid newspaper aimed at selling the concept of "tertiary water treatment" for the Potomac River region around Washington, D.C. (the core sponsor was the County Council of suburban Montgomery County, Maryland)--and Roger subcontracted the whole job to me. I was to research the project at CH2M headquarters and back in D.C., then write and edit and generally invent the whole newspaper, and then finally oversee the printing and distribution of 100,000 copies of it too, in time for the fall election with river clean-up on the ballot. (All of which also meant that I had to move East for a few weeks once the initial discussions and conceptualizing were done.)
CH2M agreed to my idea of a Rolling Stone-styled issue that would look like some sort of established pop culture newspaper. (Rolling Stone was only three years old but already a major publishing success.) Borrowing a serendipitous word from John Fogerty's popular Creedence band, our paper was to be called Clearwater, with the defining subtitle "A Review of the Wastewater Crisis--Montgomery County--November, 1972." But, really, as I quickly learned, the project involved other nearby counties in Virginia and even West Virginia, not to mention the nation's capital, all of which contributed wastewater to Potomac tributaries.
I won't try to summarize the presentation we eventually assembled except to say that the river's water was filthy, people were worried sick (actually getting sick too), and scientists were arguing that tertiary treatment could clean the water sufficiently to make it safe enough to drink. But there were two main barriers to the success of that idea: advanced wastewater treatment cost a whole lot of money--the process required wastewater collection, a vast treatment facility, several giant holding tanks, retrieval of cleaned-up solid waste, and more--and the taxpaying citizenry had to be persuaded of the efficacy of reusing, maybe even drinking, water that started out pretty much as sewage!
CH2M provided some experts, and I sought out others, to contribute essays and explanatory pieces. I hired a cartoonist friend named Ray Collins to provide editorial cartoons, conferred with Roger's choice for art director, found a D.C. area photographer and printing plant, and we all went to work.
A few weeks passed, during which time I wrote background historical and connecting pieces and polished or edited the expert submissions as they arrived. I was staying at a hotel in Arlington, across from the Georgetown area, and my stay happened to coincide with the location shooting for that ghastly green-bile film The Exorcist. I got to know a few of the crew members down in the hotel bar, and watched some of the daily shooting. But mostly my focus was on wastewater...
... and soon I had the material needed to assemble for approval (in Montgomery County government offices and back in Seattle) the one and only issue of Clearwater--24 pages of information and humor and, we all hoped, a convincing argument. I hauled the final approved mock-ups east again, to the chosen print shop; and the presses rolled... and rolled... and rolled... while I stood by anxiously.
But all went well, and the papers were bundled up, and a trucker distributor and I hauled our stacks around the region to stores and restaurants and free-newspaper vending machines. This must have been in mid-October, well in advance of the election date, but I don't remember now: my part ended at that point, and I flew back to Seattle, still wondering how the voting would go, but also needing to move on to some new job (it might even have been me joining the creative group handling advertising for Rainier Beer, a job that quickly occupied me for a dozen years).
A few weeks later I heard that the public initiative had failed--not enough people voted in favor of our expensive and radical idea. But as the years went by, more and more citizens of the area around Washington, D.C., did come to accept the need for a major clean-up of the Potomac, and a decade or so later, the work began that eventually produced a river suitable for public use again.
And in this world of global warming, and shrinking supplies of water, governments and canny citizens alike now understand that water is a very precious and increasingly scarce resource--and that tertiary treatment of wastewater can indeed produce one potable source. Clearwater was just a couple of decades ahead of the curve.
UPDATE: I need to be careful what I wish for--or even write about! We live in a spring-fed house on an island in Puget Sound, and suddenly yesterday our supply of water slowed to a trickle. So now we'll be trying to backflush sand and air out of the system, to restore the gravity-feed source a half-mile away. But what if our spring is drying up completely? Yikes!