Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Bishop William Skylstad sets down Northwest bishops' principles for water use and conservation.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Bishop William Skylstad sets down Northwest bishops' principles for water use and conservation.
As a boy in north central Washington state, a future bishop and his brothers would sleep under apple trees, lulled by a rushing river that eventually flowed into the mighty Columbia.

"We take water for granted sometimes," said retired Spokane Bishop William Skylstad, addressing hundreds gathered in Portland Jan. 28 for a summit on faith and care for water resources. Bishop Skylstad led the Catholic bishops of the Northwest in writing a 2001 pastoral letter on care and human uses of the Columbia River watershed.

The Columbia watershed includes an array of uses, including farming, fishing, industry, barges and wind surfing. The region depends on the river for hydropower.

On its banks sits some of the world most dangerously polluted land — the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, with 1.5 million gallons of highly radioactive sludge. And now, the bishop said, Northwesterners need to decide if they want the river to be a conduit for coal being mined in the mountain west and shipped to Asia.

Bishop Skylstad has noted progress in work on Northwest water policy, noting that the region's tribes and businesses now are included in the environmental discussion.

"Have we fully implemented the letter? No," Bishop Skylstad said. "We keep working at it."

He told the crowd that the bishops decided not to take a stand on breaching dams because the subject was so volatile and time-sensitive that the long-term meaning of the pastoral letter would have suffered. As it is, the pastoral is still being used because of its principals and ethical norms.

The bishop's reflections on the Columbia River moved to a global view when he reported that more than 3,000 children in the world die each day because of unsafe water. He called clean water a "human right."

About 2.5 billion people live without sanitation, meaning human waste flows into waterways. Catholic Relief Services, the bishops' overseas aid project, works to bring toilets to locations in Central America. The good news, Bishop Skylstad said, is that about 2 billion more people on the planet have safe drinking water now than did in 1990. But more needs to be done, he said, noting Ecuador, where oil exploration has fouled streams of an entire region.

"We are our sisters' and brothers' keepers," he said, highlighting the faith community's duty to promote the common good. "As a human family, we are profoundly connected with the world, but we are also connected with each other."

During a small group seminar, the bishop said, "We need a lot of work internally in our church on these issues."

The conference, held at St. Andrew Lutheran in Beaverton, was sponsored by Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon's Interfaith Network for Earth Concerns. Co-sponsors included the Office of Life, Justice and Peace of the Archdiocese of Portland and the advocacy group Our Oceans.

Among the speakers were members of Northwest tribes.

"From the time that our people talk about, from time immemorial, our people valued the attributes of water," said Wilson Wewa, a spiritual leader from the Columbia Plateau. Wewa explained that in tribal creation stories, there is nothing at the beginning except water.

Dominican Sister Kathleen McManus, a theologian at the University of Portland, told a group that the way we use water puts us in relationship with others.

"The idea is to be conscious of those people who can't trust that water will come out of the faucet but have to seek it out in the wilderness," Sister Kathleen said. She suggested that deepening communion with "those who thirst" will lead to a transformation of thinking.  

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a longtime Oregon Democrat, told the group that water issues can bring Democrats and Republicans together for the common good. The point of contention will be funding for clean water projects in the U.S. and abroad.

"I would settle for a fraction of what we provide for military assistance around the world," Blumenauer said. Helping with water projects in developing nations would not only save lives, but would create good will for the U.S., Blumenauer said.

The greatest need for water help in the U.S. is in rural areas, where there are too few people to share the cost, he explained.  

To help pay, Blumenauer suggested taxing drink companies that profit from clean water and pharmaceutical firms, whose products tend to pollute supplies.