On the first page of Iowa author Jennifer Wilson’s new novel, Water, reporter Freja Folsom is assigned a story about a man who is illegally pumping his own water from a city aquifer. Freja is incredulous.
“Water is free. Stories about nature are boring. And I fell asleep for a second when you said the word ‘aquifer,’” Folsom says.
Many people, even in our post-Flint world, can probably relate. Water quality isn’t typically the stuff of go-to conversational fare. So that’s why Wilson, a former investigative journalist, has set her depiction of one state’s struggle for safe water against the backdrop of a “sexy romp.” Consider it Erin Brockovich meets Fifty Shades.
Sex scenes aside, the fictionalized struggle has roots that are very real. Last month, the Des Moines water utility announced that it will cease dumping the nitrates it removes from the area’s drinking water back into a local river. The utility is also in the middle of a controversial lawsuit that has targeted upstream farmland communities as responsible for the buildup of nitrates in the first place.
The problem isn’t limited to Des Moines either. Some 60 Iowa cities and towns have dealt with excessive levels of nitrates in their water in recent years, a problem that has been linked to health issues such as “blue-baby syndrome” among infants in particular.
So, can a sexy thriller help turn more readers onto water activism? The Huffington Post recently spoke with Wilson.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This is an unusual approach to a subject that can get pretty wonky. Given the seriousness of this issue, what do you say to folks who might say it’s a bit silly?
I think you have to read the book to see that fictionalizing the issue is not muddying the issue. By any means necessary, I want you to know what this is all about. I used to be a high school English teacher and I thought my goal, as a journalist, was to make sure people understood things. So what is it going to take? A really nice love story sells. I thought if I can put together two things that are unlikely bedmates, if you will, maybe it will seduce people into understanding probably the biggest issue of our time in the Midwest. I feel like we’re fighting for the soul of our state here and I don’t think anybody else takes this that seriously. I want them to take it seriously.
I think when issues have even a little bit of science involved with them, people feel they don’t know enough to have a say in it or to ask questions. So, I thought, what is the easiest method to administer a science lesson? Maybe it’s silly to pair a super serious issue with something that is sort of dramatic and interesting and enjoyable, but I don’t think so. You don’t have more basic of a need than water. You can’t live more than three days without it. This is our day-to-day survival and it is as essential as love itself. We can’t live without these things ― food and water, shelter and someone to love us, you know?
What inspired you to tackle nitrate contamination in Iowa in particular?
I think, like most places in the country right now, we’re struggling with our water quality. It’s such a universal issue. I’ve been a journalist for about 20 years and I also write books. I’ve never really seen somebody follow a news story and let it set the pace of a novel as it unfolds. I was literally matching headlines from the Des Moines Register with some of the plot lines that were happening.
What fired me up was that Iowa should be leading the pack in how to manage wastewater from farms and agricultural areas. It’s one of our main industries and it’s what makes Iowa a very independent-minded state. I have a lot of respect for farmers ― I come from a farm family on my dad’s side ― but I felt there wasn’t enough of this debate happening in a reasonable way. I didn’t feel like anybody was understanding each other.
There has been a solution squired out here and there, but it doesn’t feel like there’s any commitment to going forward with respect to the land or water. So I deliberately chose a reporter with an old-school embrace of complete fairness, who would sit down at every table and hear what Iowans have to say, for the main character, Freja. Midwesterners are really good at hearing every side of this, or we used to be. So I wanted to sit everybody down at the table in the way I was hoping would happen in real life.
“"I thought if I can put together two things that are unlikely bedmates, if you will, maybe it will seduce people into understanding probably the biggest issue of our time in the Midwest."”
Freja is very skeptical of whether anyone will care about this story when she is assigned it. Do you think that apathy is still pretty common among the general public on this? Do you relate to it?
I really wanted her to speak for the people. To be as bored with the topic as I first felt when I started seeing it in the newspaper. Environmental stories are really tough as a reporter when you get one. Like, OK, I have to talk about chemicals probably and words that are hard to pronounce. So Freja is a stand-in.
It feels to me that your first instinct when you’re faced with a new thing is to run or shut down. But she kind of works through it. She has to face what is going on and she faces it very fairly and with an open mind. I hope that readers join her on that journey and end where she is. It’s not judgmental, it’s not trying to ruin anyone, but it’s about making progress and staying healthy and keeping our communities healthy.
Do you think, after what happened in Flint, more people are catching on?
The American people tend to like to panic a little bit. We all do, I guess. But I think that when the panic goes away, I hope our concern turns to understanding the “What can I do?” The answer is you can learn about the water quality issue in your city, because I guarantee there is one. And then you watch it and let the people in the position of decision-making know that you’re watching and have opinions on it.
Your voice really does matter and it matters especially if you have a grasp on what’s going on. I think it would be unrealistic in a state like Iowa to say people need to stop farming so we can have clean water. It’s not like putting on a carburetor and solving an air quality problem with a $40 fix. This is millions of dollars of equipment built to put nitrates in the soil. It’s a colossal fix and a taxpayer investment and it’s requiring responsibility from the people who make a living from the land that they have to leave it the way they found it.
And the topic of water safety has come up in the two most recent presidential debates as well. Do you think people are becoming more aware on this? Is there reason for optimism?
I’m not getting any of that yet. I’m getting people getting concerned. But I think too often we think someone else will fix the problem for us and we underestimate the power for our own voice or we turn it into a political issue.
There can’t be anything less political than water. We all need it. It’s easy to say we’re victims of a system that’s screwing us over, but it’s more intelligent to ask, “What can I do to make my community a better place?” I vote for that mindset and I think people ultimately are good and hopefully are going to move more in that direction once they have the facts.
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.