Now, instead of that ice-cold drink from the refrigerated dispenser, imagine the worst thirst you have experienced in your life. Feel the last mile of a marathon, the last hour of a desert hike, or quitting time after a day spent on a road crew or out bringing in a field of dry corn.
Bring to mind the dryness in your mouth and the taste of salt. Now imagine that it is your children experiencing this thirst, and not just briefly. They stand before you the skin around the jaw line is shriveling just a little from dehydration and their lips are ringed with powdery white.
Then it hits you; where does my water come from? How can I get it back?
Unless you are among the 15% in the US who use private wells, the fresh water you use for drinking, bathing and washing dishes and clothes comes from a water utility.
Our sewage treatment and fresh water are delivered by either a public, municipally controlled system, (for example, City of Madison Water Utility, in my city, Madison, WI) or a privately owned, for profit company (for example Aqua America in Fort Wayne, IN).
Water Utilities and How They Work
Public water utilities: They are democratically controlled and open to participation by anyone in the governing municipality. For example, Madison, Wisconsin is serviced by the Madison Water Utility. The utility is governed by a board with members appointed by Madison’s mayor. The utility is under supervision and control by a general manager who is appointed by the mayor and the common council. The services are funded by a combination of federal funding, tax dollars, and charges to consumers.
Private water utilities: Utilities that are owned by corporations are accountable only to themselves and the minimum standards of the Clean Water Act. For example; the Aqua America system serving Fort Wayne, IN is controlled by a president and managed by a general manager, but if you have a problem or concern you are asked to submit it through an on-line form or by calling a national toll-free phone number.
Public: All the people living in the municipality have a say in how their water is managed and how much it costs. If you are unhappy with management or charges you can work to change them through the democratically established process. The utility is responsible to you, the people.
Private: Private corporations have access to large pools of funds to rehabilitate failing water systems in economically depressed areas and search for new water sources in areas blighted by drought. Private corporations could offer long-term financial stability.
Public: Effectively functioning water systems will always be dependent on their local economy for a tax base and ability to pay. In 1977 a local municipality could count on 63% of needed dollars being provided by the federal government. By 2014 only 9% of a local water budget was covered with federal money. In addition to threatening water quality, less money in a municipality threatens it’s ability to search for new water sources, and passes cost along to consumers by taxes or increased rates. This could result in economic water rationing.
Private: A corporation’s primary responsibility is to deliver a profit to its shareholders. That margin of profit for shareholders is paid by the water consumers in the form of increased rates for sewage treatment and water consumption. There is no possibility of local control. In areas of South Carolina owned by Aqua America, when complaints about water quality were raised they took months to resolve, leaving consumers in the situation of paying for water to the corporation and buying safe drinking water from another source. Private corporations frequently push long-term contracts with municipalities to allow them to continue to raise rates and improve profit margins. As of February 2016, Illinois municipalities with privately owned water systems were paying twice as much for water and sewer as those under public control. Although there are no examples of overt, arbitrary water rationing at this time, there is always the possibility of a corporation restricting access to water in an area to force a political or corporate agenda.
A separate but equally important issue which affects us all: Have you ever wondered where the water comes from that fills all the little plastic water bottles? Nestle, one of several major bottled water providers, owns 15 brands in the US and 52 brands worldwide. Problems arise when any region in the world are forced to drink bottled water. People pay for their water based on a company’s need to make a profit instead of an affordable price for a natural resource which the UN has declared is a fundamental human right.
Residents in Michigan, where the price of water through water utilities is already one of the highest in the nation, rose in protest as their natural water resources were drained away and bottled in to Ice Mountain water, a Nestle brand. Removing water from a public trust to water as property of an individual landowner also opens up a region to environmental disaster as wetlands lose their resiliency and wildlife leave the area. In this approach to water management the area residents can no longer have any impact in the issues water mining causes.
Before your eyes glaze over with the apathy that accompanies, “That is all good to know, but what can I do about it?”
Remember; you are the expert. You don’t need to know exactly how water gets to an aquifer or the number of particles of contamination that will harm you.
You are water.
You need water to live.
It is your fundamental human right.
- Educate yourself. When you have time, google water, water rights and your state or region, and find out what issues are going on. Read about aquifers, groundwater, and water mining.
- Contact your local water utility and find out who owns your water. Compare the cost of your water to a national average of $1.50 per 1,000 gallons. Learn about the steps you would need to take if the water coming out of your faucet was suddenly brown and foul. Are you satisfied with your conversation?
- If there are water issues in your state or region, don’t be intimidated by executives and scientific experts. Get involved, at whatever level of participation you can. Residents of Wisconsin, in a grassroots campaign, recently defeated a bill which would have allowed for privatization of water and sewer utilities without a public referendum.
- Advocate for citizen representation on your state water regulatory boards.
- Educate your family and friends. Help them think about what they could do if they were faced with a similar situation to the people in Flint, Michigan.
So that no one need feel helpless,
and you never face the situation where you
turn on the tap and nothing comes out.
Remember: It’s your water, it’s your world.
References are extensive and can be provided on request.
Next up and last in the water series: Storm water harvesting solutions. Easy water conservation.