Misguided priorities, contradictions and benign neglect plague water management

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Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson

These are chaotic times for water:

  • California is in the midst of a significant drought that prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency.
  • Detroit is cutting water service to thousands of residents who can’t, or sometimes won’t pay their water bills.
  • The dumping of 24 billion gallons of sewage into the Great Lakes continues every year, according to Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk.

What causes these events to be chaotic are the contradictions that surround them.

While Gov. Brown is “calling all Californians to conserve water in every possible way,” Nestle Water continues to pump water out of a desert spring and bottle it. And, it has the audacity to justify it as sustainable during the drought.

“We proudly conduct our business in an environmentally responsible manner that focuses on water and energy conservation,” a spokesman told the Desert Sun. Nestle said its operations are sustainable “particularly in light of California’s drought conditions over the last three years.”chicagoview

Detroit is losing desperately needed population. Cutting off life-supporting water service hardly seems likely to retain citizens and build neighborhoods.

A federal program will have spent nearly $2 billion in five years to restore the Great Lakes. Yet little if any of that money has prevented the need to dump sewage into them.

That’s curious.

“(Sewage) discharges to the Great Lakes continue to be one of the biggest challenges we face as cities,” says long-time Great Lakes executive David Ullrich. Ullrich leads the U.S and Canadian group of mayors who focus on Great Lakes issues. Cities are the source of most of the sewage dumping.

I realize I’ve taken complex problems and simplified them to make a point.

In its defense, Nestle Water has said that it complies with applicable laws in its water operations. Here’s what’s implied: If you don’t like what we do, change the laws.

Detroit’s trying to emerge from bankruptcy and can’t unless it demonstrates financial viability. Sewage systems in cities are complex and expensive and have deficiencies that aren’t easily remedied.

There, the waters have been muddied. There are no simple solutions to these problems. At least as long as we take water for granted. Here are examples.

The current drought isn’t California’s first, yet the state appears unwilling to deal with reality.

News reports quote experts saying that “Californians don’t get the drought” and that most communities are falling short of meeting the governor’s call for a 20 per cent reduction in water use, according to a McClatchy News report.

And why was Nestle allowed to set up a bottled water operation in drought-prone California anyway?

Detroit is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t when it comes to water distribution.

It desperately needs the revenue from delinquent water bills. But when it cuts off service, citizens and human rights advocates excoriate the city for denying what is a basic human right based on United Nations action.

So far Detroit is willing to take the heat and continue the shutoffs. But is that sustainable?

Images of poor, mostly minority Detroit residents denied water for drinking and basic sanitation in the most-water rich region of the world are powerful. Technical arguments pale compared to the realities of people without access to water.

Missed opportunity for “meaningful debate”

When the framework for Great Lakes restoration was drafted in 2005 it excluded sewage infrastructure from its mission. Instead it decided to spread limited resources across the basin on a multitude of projects.

Something for everyone was the watchword making sure that legislators and multiple federal agencies got their cut. Pet projects like creating an ecotourism site on Chicago’s Northerly Island — it also has a 30,000 seat rock ‘n roll venue –may not be the norm but they are evident.

What if restoration had taken a different path and attacked one of the Great Lakes’ biggest problems — like sewage dumping?

In fact, Echo editor David Poulson asked that very question in a 2009 commentary.

Poulson wrote it after attending a public hearing about how to spend the newly provided $475 million for the lakes.

He found the hearing dominated by group-think without serious consideration of differing opinions. The plan presented was a fait accompli and the hearing was more cheerleading than debate and discussion.

“Why not focus this money in a way that truly demonstrates a significant piece of environmental protection or cleanup?” Poulson asked. He continued taking the bureaucracy and hearing attendees to task saying, “we lose when we fail to engage in meaningful debate.”

Meaningful debate didn’t happen and Great Lakes restoration remains a mile wide and an inch deep.

Accomplishments are mostly at the margins and sewage continues to flow into the Great Lakes to the tune of 24 billion gallons a year, with no remedy in sight.

And while Detroit struggles to provide physical security for its citizens — police, fire and lighting — it should at least find a way to provide water. There’s no shortage of it in Michigan.

Criticism is easy, what about us?

It’s easy to chastise California for not embracing the need to conserve water, even in a drought. Or Nestle Water for its brazen pumping of water during a drought and calling it sustainable.

But who are we in the Great Lakes region to criticize?

We’ve spent billions of dollars on a project here and a project there but have no viable plan to stop sewage dumping into our drinking water — or algae blooms or Asian carp for that matter.

And will we take a position on cutting off basic water service — drinking and sanitation — to the citizens of Detroit who are smack dab in the middle of the most water-rich region of the world?

Surely the Great Lakes water intelligentsia — councils, coalitions, commissions and NGO’s — has an opinion on poor people being denied water.

Remember, these are the folks who either approved of or looked the other way when the Great Lakes Compact included a diversion exception for bottled water.

Say you’re for the shutoffs or against, but say something. To say nothing is benign neglect.

These are stressful times for water. But much of the stress is of our own making.

Despite recent well-intentioned efforts, we’re still in our infancy when it comes to dealing with water issues in the Great Lakes region. More substantive work will be left to subsequent generations.

I hope they learn from misguided priorities.

One thought on “Misguided priorities, contradictions and benign neglect plague water management

  1. We would like to respond to your story by saying that we carefully
    monitor our water withdrawals to assure the surrounding environment remains
    protected and has no adverse impact. This enables us to provide a safe,
    clean beverage option that people need or choose. We invite people to read more about our water practices at our Cabazon operation in California as well as
    our overall commitment to maintaining a long-term sustainable water
    supply at http://www.nestle-watersna.com/en/nestle-water-news/statements/nestle-waters-north-america-cabazon-facility-water-use-q-and-a.

    Jane Lazgin, Nestle Waters North America

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