By Shea Howell
The water crisis is accelerating. Access to safe, clean water is becoming difficult around the country. All signs are that situation will get worse before it gets better.
Detroit faces as many as 30,000 residential shut offs this summer. Flint water is undrinkable and makes residents sick. Hamtramck and Highland Park face shut offs and exorbitant fees. Plymouth, Shelby and Washington Townships faced Do Not Drink the Water days. Baltimore is shutting off water to 25,000 residents. Last year 400,000 people in Toledo could not drink their tap water. The winter before 300,000 people along the Elk River in West Virginia lived for months with poisoned water. The entire state of California is in a water emergency.
We can no longer assume that water will come from our taps. When it does, there is no guarantee it will be safe to drink. It is becoming more and more expensive.
The causes of this crisis are complex. Infrastructure has been allowed to deteriorate. Agricultural run off has been too unregulated. Regulations have been unenforced. Aging storage sites of toxic wastes are crumbling. Policies and practices protecting agriculture and industry put clean water and residential uses at a disadvantage. More and more people are facing limited resources in the face of ever escalating bills.
Contradictions abound. The water used to produce almonds in California is greater than that consumed by the entire population of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Water is shut off to residents while corporations run up massive unpaid bills. Limiting consumption increases the price of each unit of water, forcing prices up. Golf courses dot desserts.
Small, incremental changes only makes the problems worse. For example the Mayor of Detroit established an emergency fund to deal with the shut offs last year. The program is a massive failure, helping only 300 of the more than 24,700 homes enrolled in his plan. Nearly everyone is once again more than 60 days behind in bills.
It should be obvious that we need a serious reassessment of how we are providing stewardship of the waters that sustain life.
For more than a decade community activists in Detroit have advocated for imaginative policies based on two simple principles: Water is a public trust and water is a human right. These principles begin with the recognition that we have a collective responsibility to protect our waters not only for ourselves but also for future generations. Moreover, we have a responsibility to ensure that all people have access to fresh, safe water. These principles are woven into the Peoples Water Affordability Plan, adopted by the Detroit City Council nearly a decade ago. Such a plan offers a clear path for keeping water flowing while providing for the development of infrastructure. It has never been implemented.
This plan is an important beginning in solving a national water crisis. We in Detroit and Michigan could be drawing on our vast experiences to bring fresh ideas to this evolving water crisis.
Instead, our Mayor and Governor seem incapable of recognizing that we are facing a serious problem. Locked in old ideas, they dither over eligibility requirements and income tests.
In hopes of expanding our thinking about water, Detroiters are hosting an International Legal and Legislative Summit on Water Affordability and Housing on May 29-31. This will be in conjunction with an international gathering of Social Movement Activists. People will discuss practical, effective policies for this growing water crisis. There is a clear path forward to protect water as a public trust and a human right. The gatherings in Detroit will help create the political will to follow it.