Who owns the water?

The answer from the perspective of U.S. law is that those who live around it along with future generations do.  This is the central premise of Public Trust Law that holds local residents to be the owners of surface water and their elected officials as the trustees of this valuable legacy.  The decisions that elected officials make about shared water should benefit the public and ensure its viable future.

Indigenous traditions do not see water as something that can be owned by the public or by anyone else.  Instead water is a life-giving mother and a relative who sustains you and whose health you treat with great care.  From this perspective, water, fish, trees and other living things are relatives who should not be harmed or commodified.

Whatever your perspective on water, it is something on which your life depends and your community requires for self-protection and future possibilities.  By reclaiming it, you can assert your right or your relationship with water and engage ways of preserving it and adopting practices of mutual benefit.

Keep water public

We are witnessing two broad trends in municipal water systems. The first is disenfranchisement of the public from its drinking water and sewer infrastructure. This occurs through water shutoffs to homes for non-payment; lack of bill affordability; the contamination of drinking water; unpublished and incomplete water quality reports; deregulation of water pollution; and crumbling water infrastructure. The second trend is privatization in which the municipality and the public loses control over their water systems. This occurs through the bottling of water by global corporations and selling it back to residents at inflated prices. It also occurs when corporations take over water and sewer systems. Most municipalities privatize because federal funding has been slashed by 74% since 1977 and because they do not claim ownership of the revenue streams from public water.

The tragedy is that private corporations tend not to fix the sputtering systems.  They often run them into the ground leaving residents with higher bills, less public accountability and lead pipe crises (often from transitions to ‘cheaper’ sources of water, as happened in University Park, Illinois in 2019). Worst of all, the municipality loses significant revenue as the corporations reap record profits. For example, as the State of Illinois faces massive budget shortfalls, the private corporation (Illinois) American Water has achieved an all-time high of profit shares.  This is, in part, due to laws that enable water corporations to increase their profits by acquiring new water and wastewater systems. Listen to The Water Chronicles podcast for a deep dive into water privatization in Illinois.

Keeping water public involves ensuring that water is affordable. Advocate for a water affordability plan in your city or town. We the People Detroit, US Water Alliance, Food and Water Watch can all help in understanding and creating a water affordability plan.

Freshwater Lab alum Karen Yates created this storymap to understand The Water For All Ordinance in Chicago.

Chicago residents: See if you qualify for billing relief program.

If your town, city or region’s water is run by a private corporation, then you can join the push to remunicipalize water systems, which means bringing  them back under public control. This has been done successfully in cities around the world, consistently leading to savings for both municipalities and their water customers. It often brings other social benefits, including improved public accountability and transparency, more equitable water access and increased investment in water system safety.

Keep water clean

Lake Michigan and sources of drinking water across the planet face three main perils:

1. Industrial pollution (also known as point source pollution): pours in through a pipe or when a factory or refinery malfunctions and spills.  The Clean Water Act limits the piped pollution that factories can dump in water.  Although we are rarely informed of them, spills are fairly frequent.  This can lead to chemical exposure and public health risks about which the public knows little.

A group of Lake Michigan surfers, for example, became sick through exposure to hexavalent chromium from an U.S. Steel factory spill.  They took matters into their own hands and initiated a struggle with the corporation to limit its pollution of Lake Michigan.  

2. Runoff (also known as non-point source pollution): You may have noticed the changing nature of rainstorms.  Due to climate change, precipitation can take the form of a rain event in which a high volume of rain falls in a short period of time and overwhelms the built environment.  Think of the trash and the oil slicks on the street, rain can wash this into your drinking water. 

An even more serious form of runoff comes from agriculture.

Most farming currently takes the form of industrial agriculture which looks to eke the highest yield and profits out of the lowest investment.  This occurs largely through the application of fertilizers that spur growth with concentrated nitrogen and phosphorus.  As the building blocks of life, nitrogen and phosphorus cause plants to grow rapidly.  When the rain carries them into bodies of water, they fuel harmful algal blooms that can make water undrinkable and inaccessible.

Food and water are an inseparable pair.  We need to make sure that what we eat doesn’t poison what we drink.  Insist that the farms whose runoff flows to your water use cover crops, new techniques for applying phosphorus and rotating crop mixes. In particular, encourage farmers around you to be certified as responsible stewards by programs like the 4-R Nutrient Stewardship Certification in Ohio or the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP), which are designed to certify farmers for using practices that protect water quality and environmental quality.

When it comes to animal agriculture, we are seeing the rise of Combined Area Feeding Operations (CAFOs) where meat and dairy products are produced by concentrating the highest number of animals in the smallest area.  In order to keep yields high, these animals are often pumped with antibiotics and steroids.  Furthermore, untreated animal urine and feces run into rivers and lakes, contaminating drinking water and contributing to harmful algal blooms.  Consider adopting a plant-based or vegetarian diet or reducing the amount of animal products that you consume.  You can also learn more about CAFOs and advocate to keep CAFOs out of your watershed.

3. Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO): Rain meets underground with the water used in homes and businesses when there is a combined sewer system like in Chicago.  When all the water sent down the drain meets with water from a rain event, it can quickly exceed the caverns and quarries built to hold it.  There is nowhere else for the water to go but up into streets and basements or out through outfall pipes into the river and lake.  During severe rain events, a plume of untreated sewage feathers out from the Chicago River into the Lake Michigan water supply.

We treat rain like waste, flushing it into bulging pipes and swollen rivers.  With nowhere to go, water backs up causing costly flooding and FEMA claims. We could direct this water to recycling plants, treat it to drinking-water standards, then supply it to American farms, factories and data cooling centers in the regions that need it most.  We can join flooded cities and struggling farms together in a common solution.  We can create tens of thousands of jobs not only in building the plants and the supply pipes, but also in clean industry.  Recycling water can generate clean energy and make minerals available that can be turned into usable products.

You can work to prevent this flooding at a few different scales:

  • Hold off on running water at home or work during the rain
  • Plant deep-rooted trees and plants to absorb water
  • Catch rain in a barrel and consider discounting the downspout of your home
  • Support water recycling and The Freshwater Lab’s Liquid Gold plan

Keep water here

There are a number of ways that we describe where we live: our neighborhood, our city, our state or our country.  Such descriptions of place follow lines of property, zoning and transportation. You might also consider your place in terms of watershed.  A watershed or basin is the interconnected water, land, species and cultures defined by the way rain drains across landscapes. Residents of a given watershed have shared interests in keeping their drinking water as safe as possible, ensuring the health of their soil and protecting the survival of species.

You can explore your watershed by using The Freshwater Lab’s Source-Path-People tool.

Across the globe, we are seeing the collapse of watersheds due to climate change and over extraction.  Along with keeping an eye on the quality of your water, pay attention to water quantity.  Which sectors receive the biggest piece of the water pie? Which communities receive the least amount of water at the highest cost?  If water use persists at current rates, then how much will be left in five, ten or fifty years?

The Great Lakes basin contains over 20% of the world’s fresh water, but it is not immune to depletion.  The Great Lakes Compact oversees how much water is allowed to leave the Great Lakes basin.  The Compact is a vital piece of legislation that protects the interests of Great Lakes residents.  It requires support and engagement as water continues to leave the region in plastic bottles that benefit large beverage corporations rather than local communities and climate emergency leaves a growing number of people with unstable water supplies.

Learn about the Great Lakes Compact and share how it can be implemented and improved in the future.

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