Watershed politics unite clean water advocates



Rachel Havrelock, is an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and founder of The Freshwater Lab.

by Rachel Havrelock

We are wrong to think of the threatened cuts to the EPA as aimed at something external called ‘the environment.’  Instead, we should imagine the impacts on our bodies and consider the toxins we will ingest through our drinking water.  This act of imagination is necessary to both mobilize action and to rally our neighbors, but also must lead to a new paradigm for managing water.

Even with a robust EPA and Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s success in securing this year’s Great Lakes funding, local residents need to assume jurisdiction over their water and ensure that its quality and delivery supports the health and human dignity of everyone in their watershed.

We can call this watershed politics or an updated form of bioregionalism.  A watershed provides the perfect form of social organization because, rather than dividing people according to straight lines or gerrymandered districts, it follows the path of the rain as it falls and is absorbed into bodies of water.  Every person who draws from one of these interconnected bodies of water is a member of a distinct watershed.

Whether they are aware of it or not, all these people share a common interest in having clean drinking water in amounts that can sustain them and future generations.  Everyone in a given watershed also shares an interest in reducing flooding, allocating water to produce food and support local business, and avoiding overloads of pharmaceuticals, household cleansers, and industrial waste.

As assuring as it may be to envision lazy streams running into rushing rivers that end in still blue lakes, in truth our water largely moves through human produced systems of pipes, dams, and treatment centers.  In order to sufficiently manage our watershed then we also need to know about our water infrastructure, who runs it — utility, local government, or private corporation — and what our pipes are made of.  These factors determine how much we pay for water and who benefits from our payment, facts that often rouse people more than the invisible contaminants in their daily intake.

To summarize: we need to know the source of our water, the main risks to its viability, as well as how it reaches our homes and workplaces and what sort of agency manages its path.  But we cannot forget that our watershed and its infrastructure serve people —all the people supported by the water source.  Understanding this requires investigating which neighborhoods or communities suffer from the most impaired water and the sources of the damage.

If, for example, one part of town swallows the Erin Brokovitch contaminant hexavalent chrominum, then addressing this pollutant will potentially save your life along with theirs.  Even the quickest engagement of this sort reveals that low-income people and communities of color are the most exposed to industrial pollution.  But if we believe that toxins adhere to socio-economic boundaries, then we are tragically mistaken.

Because watershed politics necessarily includes everyone, it marks the perfect way to work for the tangible collective good.  Therefore, it cannot stop with vital knowledge about water alone but must continue with local water boards, regional water councils, even watershed governments that can protect humans, animals, ecosystems, and the collective future.  At a moment in which private interests look to capitalize on the people’s water and the American federal government seems indifferent to water poisoning, we need to scale politics down to the local and material flows of water.

Rachel Havrelock, associate professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, is founder of The Freshwater Lab and an expert on how water management plays in economic equality and diplomacy. More than 200 leaders and activists, including the mayors of Milwaukee, Racine, Toledo, Gary are gathering at The Freshwater Lab Summit 2017 May 10-11 in Chicago.

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