Nancy Ray talks about her concerns about a recent boil water advisory to Columbus City Utilities Director Keith Reeves, left, during a Columbus City Council meeting at Donner Center in Columbus, Ind., Tuesday, June 20, 2017. Reeves addressed the recent problem with the city's water supply. Last week a city water well tested positive for E. coli. A boil-water advisory was issued late Friday afternoon. Residents voiced their grievances about the time it took for the advisory to be issued. Mike Wolanin | The Republic

By Aaron Miller

When I turn on the faucet, I trust that clean, abundant and inexpensive water will always pour out of the tap. Although it appears now that the recent boil order was a precaution due to a false positive and the city’s water was not in danger, the brief episode serves as a reminder of how precious clean water is.

There are many places in the world where people spend hours and walk miles obtaining water, if it is available at all.

Water is a driving force in history. When people think of the past, they often think of wars or politics. But the discipline has long embraced environmental history. Historians study how the climate and environment have influenced the past, impact our lives today and will determine our future.

As an historical agent, water is both a precious resource as well as a destructive force. Of course, Columbus’ own history with flooding is a dramatic example of the power of too much water.

The lack of water can be just as destructive. During the 1930s, agricultural techniques and drought led to the Dust Bowl in Kansas, Texas, Colorado and Oklahoma. In the 1940s, people living in the Great Plains turned to the Ogallala Aquifer, a massive underground water source stretching from South Dakota to Texas. But the Ogallala Aquifer may be depleted within a few decades.

In parts of the western United States, water is such an invaluable resource people were willing to spill blood to control it. In California, politicians and engineers diverted water to insure that growing cities such as Los Angeles could survive. The infrastructure necessary to bring water to cities sometimes fail — often with deadly results. The collapse of the St. Francis Dam in 1928 killed more than 400 people.

But diverting water also changes the environment. Some states like California grow water-intensive crops such as nuts, corn and cattle in dry places. In many places in the United States, we make choices between preserving ecosystems, growing thirsty crops or supporting large cities. Ultimately, there may not be enough water to do all of the above.

Currently, we face a gamut of other water issues. There are ocean deadzones near our coasts. Ocean deadzones are areas of low levels of oxygen due to agricultural runoff and waste water. Aging infrastructure will make it more difficult to control flooding. Rising ocean levels threaten coastal populations as well as the existence of some island nations. The lead contamination in the water of beleaguered Flint, Michigan, is a frightening story. Now there are also concerns about the lead levels in the urban areas of northwestern Indiana.

The Great Columbus Boil Order of 2017 was a minor inconvenience. We put a few pots of water on the stove or went to the grocery store to buy a few gallons. Within a day, we were back to life as usual. It was really no big deal; it will soon be forgotten.

But, it made me grateful to have easy access to clean and safe water. It also reminded me of water’s impact on the past as well as the future.

Aaron Miller is one of The Republic’s community columnists and all opinions expressed are those of the writer. He has a doctorate in history and is an associate professor of history at Ivy Tech Community College — Columbus. Send comments to