In a conflict between oil production and preservation of a communal fresh water supply, there is no contest. Giving the nod to water is unassailable since it is an indispensable building block of life, something oil products are not. (The average adult can last no longer than three to four days deprived of drinking water.)
Left to its own devices, fresh potable water is a renewable resource through recycled rainfall. If the precious liquid becomes inaccessible for whatever reason, there is no substitute and life quickly ebbs towards the brink.
Oil, on the other hand, is a finite, single-use-and-done commodity and a polluting one at that. If it cannot be extracted because of threats to irreplaceable water supplies, there are usually energy alternatives. These days, they may range from wind and solar to fossil fuel deposits in a relatively benign environmental setting.
Such distinctions between oil and water should be kept in mind when considering whether the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines should proceed. After all, both projects would be routed over waterways of enormous strategic importance to society.
In the Keystone's case, the water source that would be exposed to an oil spill is a natural underground aquifer that services the drinking needs of the populace in the Mid Western Plains states. It also provides the sustenance for the bountiful crops of the region's numerous farmers.
A rupture of the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline could threaten the drinking water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Conceivably it could also adversely impact the North Dakota capital of Bismarck downstream from the tribe's community on the Missouri River.
Depending on location, type of oil, and geological conditions, spill residues are capable of contaminating fresh water sources for weeks, months, and even years.
Should the Sioux experience a spill in their vicinity, bottled water could serve as a community substitute for polluted river water for only so long. Who knows what would happen to the native Americans if by then, technology or natural processes had not restored the river water to a drinkable state?
A significant rupture of the Keystone pipeline that contaminated the aquifer would adversely impact agriculture. If the oil settled and buried in the sediment, it could present a long term water pollution problem for the region with devastating economic consequences.
The Sioux in ancient times did not have to contend with oil pipelines, but their tribal council got it right about the existential value of water. In their ancestral Great Law of Peace, it is written that the Council should "offer thanks to the Earth where men dwell, to the streams of water, the pools, the springs and the lakes...and to the Great Creator who dwells in the heavens above, who gives all the things useful to men, and who is the source and the ruler of health and life."
"Oil and water don't mix" is a more modern expression of ancient Sioux wisdom, and is not a trite slogan when you consider it has survival connotations.