Private Greed vs Public Good: Drinking Water

When I was very young, my mom would put Coffee-Time syrup in my milk-- sort of like chocolate syrup-- to entice me into drinking my milk. I hated the cloying, sweet taste and what it did was make me want to never drink milk or, as it turned out, coffee. Yep... I never had a coffee in my life. Nor a beer, which I could smell on my father's breath. Never had a coffee, never had a beer. I tried some kind of alcoholic beverage in college and puked and fell into a ditch walking back to the campus from a bar. Never tried that again. So what do I drink? Six big glasses of water a day (minimum). I love water.

I'm so thankful I'm not in Afghanistan again where I had to boil the water, let it cool down and then boil it again before drinking it. That couldn't happen here... right? Well, in a state whose political system is built to permit the public good to be subservient to the interests of a few wealthy families... anything could happen. This morning, Newsweek ran an OpEd by Riggs Eckelberry, founder and CEO of OriginClear, an outfit that wants to privatize drinking water. He describes a problem well... even if his solution is horrific. "The water shortage crisis," he wrote, "is set to be one of the greatest challenges presented by climate change. And while the shortage is getting worse in developing countries, those who live in rich nations must not be complacent. We are not immune, and our water supplies are far from guaranteed. We need to act now, and fundamentally change the way we value this scarce resource. That means locally recycling it properly, efficiently and crucially. We need to value water as highly as oil or gold, and create effective marketplaces for it. The water shortage crisis has been well documented in the developing world, with 1 out of 10 people in the world living without clean water. But water shortages are becoming more common in rich countries too. Take the example of Flint, Mich. In 2014, the city switched its water supply from Detroit's system to the Flint River in order to save public funds. Inadequate treatment of the water resulted in a series of major health issues for residents, including rashes, hair loss and itchy skin. In some cases, the incident led to a doubling of blood lead levels in the city's children. Flint is not a one-off. The U.S. government has recently declared a water shortage on the Colorado River, which is a source of clean water for millions of people across the Southwest."

He wrote about the urgency of the situation as Climate Change exacerbates the disaster-in-the-making and not solving it in 2050, solving it now. And then the pitch: less than half a percent of the water in the U.S. is recycled, unlike Israel where as much of 90% of the water is.

[M]unicipal services are responsible for water treatment. Funding is scarce, and there is often little political will to reform water treatment systems. While President Joe Biden's historic proposal for $111 billion into water infrastructure investment is impressive, there is no mention of the level of investment in decentralized water treatment supplies, meaning that the problem of low water recycling will remain intact, but just with cleaner pipes.
The water treatment system is broken. If we are to tackle this water shortage crisis, the responsibility for waste treatment needs to lie with the producers of waste water, not the councils and governments who funnel it away. That's why it's time to decentralize water treatment.
By building cheap, localized, low energy water treatment plants close to the sources of wastewater themselves, we can eliminate the news of expensive pipelining to distant plants.
...Decentralized water treatment infrastructure is the key to boosting our water recycling, and buffering ourselves against the impact of water shortage. It is by the right investments now that we can make sure that our children, and their children, have safe water to drink. The future of water treatment needs to be decentralized.

"Decentralized," I suppose, sounds better than privatized. Even if this guy is a huckster, he's certainly correct about the existence of an existential problem. Ellen Brown, wrote about the problem last week from a more public-- non-self interested-- perspective: A New Water Source That Could Make Drought a Thing of the Past. "Lack of fresh water is now a global crisis. Water shortages mean food shortages, with hunger creating death tolls substantially exceeding those of the current Covid-19 crisis. According to the United Nations, some 800 million people are without clean water, and 40% of the world’s population is impacted by drought. By one measure, almost 100 percent of the Western United States is currently in drought, setting an all-time 122-year record. Meanwhile, local “water wars” rage, with states, cities and whole countries battling each other for scarce water resources."


[M]ainstream geologists have long contended that water is a fixed, non-renewable resource-- and vested interests are happy to profit from that limiting proposition. Declaring water “the new oil,” an investor class of “Water Barons”-- including wealthy billionaire tycoons, megabanks, mega-funds and investment powerhouses-- has cornered the market by buying up water rights and water infrastructure everywhere. As Jo-Shing Yang, author of “Solving Global Water Crises,” wrote in a 2012 article titled “The New ‘Water Barons’: Wall Street Mega-Banks are Buying up the World’s Water”:
Facing offers of millions of dollars in cash from Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, UBS, and other elite banks for their utilities and other infrastructure and municipal services, cities and states will find it extremely difficult to refuse these privatization offers.
For developing countries, the World Bank has in some cases made water privatization a condition of getting a loan.
...The challenge is drawing this deep water to the surface, but there are many verified cases of mountaintop wells that have gushed water for decades in arid lands. This water, which could not have come from the rainwater of the conventional hydrologic cycle, is variously called “deep-seated,” “juvenile” or “primary” water. It is now being located and tapped by enterprising hydrogeologists using technological innovations like those used in other extractive industries-- but without their destructive impact on the environment.

The latest NGWA fact sheet explicitly confirms that water is a renewable resource. It states:
About 90 percent of our freshwater supplies lie underground, but less than 27 percent of the water Americans use comes from underground sources, which illustrates the under-utilization of groundwater.
Groundwater is a significant water supply source — the amount of groundwater storage dwarfs our present surface water supply.
Hydrologists estimate, according to the National Geographic Society, U.S. groundwater reserves to be at least 33,000 trillion gallons — equal to the amount discharged into the Gulf of Mexico by the Mississippi River in the past 200 years.
At any given moment, groundwater is 20 to 30 times greater than the amount in all the lakes, streams, and rivers of the United States….
Groundwater is a renewable resource. [Emphasis added.]
Based on the NGWA’s figures, AquaterreX CEO James D’Arezzo, writing in July 2021, estimates that the Earth has enough water to supply consumption needs for 6,000 years at today’s rates of use.
If primary water is ubiquitous and the techniques for locating it are available, why aren’t policymakers pursuing that alternative already? Burr says one major problem lies in regulation. Because all groundwater has been considered a derivative of rainfall, public policy has generally focused on restricting water usage or moving massive amounts of water from wet areas to dry areas, without considering deep drilling as an alternative. Water is considered a limited, non-renewable resource, so new wells are thought to infringe on the water rights of neighboring properties. But “primary water” can be tapped without causing subsidence (the gradual caving or sinking of nearby land), showing that it is independent of the existing hydrologic cycle.
In some states, such as Texas, property owners have the right to capture the water beneath their property (called the “Rule of Capture”), but this is not true in other states. California, for example, has a complicated system of regulation requiring costly and laborious permits. Granting property owners the right to drill wells on their own property, particularly where the water has been tested and shown to be “deep” or “primary water,” could be a major step toward turning water scarcity into abundance.
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the U.S. needs over $500 billion in infrastructure investment just for drinking water, wastewater, stormwater and dams. But legislators at both federal and state levels have been slow to respond, chiefly due to budget constraints. One proposal is a National Infrastructure Bank (HR 3339) constructed on the model of Franklin Roosevelt’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation (discussed in my earlier article here). When allocating funds for water usage, however, policymakers would do well to consider investing in “primary water” wells.
Tapping into local deep water sources not only can help ease pressures on debt-strapped public treasuries but can bypass the Water Barons and relieve territorial tensions over water rights. Water sovereignty is a critical prerequisite to food sovereignty and to national and regional independence. As noted in a recent Water Today article, quoting James D’Arezzo:
“The fact is, we do not have to severely restrict water usage, if we leverage all the tools at our disposal. There is plenty of water available on the planet and we now know how to find it. We also have newer best practices that can make a dramatic difference in total usage…. If we start acting now, in a short time the headlines about ‘water restrictions’ and grotesque pictures of dead animals and starving children can be replaced with headlines about more food production, smarter use of water and less conflict.”

Two extraordinary Blue America-endorsed congressional candidates from Western states, Mark Gamba and Jason Call, are both talking about water scarcity as part of their campaigns. Gamba, who is campaigning for an Oregon seat held by neoliberal Blue Dog Kurt Schrader, told me this morning that "Water is one of the most basic human needs, it is what future wars will be fought about, and it is something giant multinational companies are currently, quietly attempting to control. Oil companies among others like Vivendi and Nestle are buying up water rights. Already in drought torn countries, people are paying more for clean water than for gasoline. It SHOULD NEVER BE PRIVATIZED. Water should remain a public utility in the places it still is and efforts should be made to claw it back where it isn't. Access to water should be protected for both human and non-human beings. No one should ever be allowed to profit from water. As a mayor I have advocated for years that heavy industrial users of water should pay more for their water, not be given a discount because they use so much. Basic survival access to water must be protected. Those profiting off of the use of water should both bear a higher responsibility not to pollute it, and pay a premium for its use in the first place. As a congressman I would advocate for these things and work to pass laws to protect this most precious of resources.

Jason Call is running for a seat north of OR-05, in the northwest corner of Washington state, a seat held by status quo New Dem Rick Larsen. "Water is Life, said Call today. "What more needs to be said? Well, because we live in an era when everything is fair game for privatization, it seems a lot more needs to be said. I’ve heard for them last twenty years that the next world war will be fought over water. As things are going with world population in no way slowing down, and with world governments under the thumb of their capitalist owners, I’ve no reason to think this won’t be the case. But it can be avoided if people (you and me) are willing to stand up to the privatization interests and demand stewardship of our natural resources. It has been done globally and it has been done locally here in Washington State. In the early 2000s, following privatization of local water supply in Bolivia (by war profiteering construction company Bechtel), the working class of Cochabamba began protesting the rising rates of water and the fact that privatization brought no inherent benefit to the people, only profit to the owners. The Bolivian army violently suppressed these protesters, but they did not back down, and eventually these contracts were cancelled and a public utility established. These water wars fostered national anti-capitalist sentiment and in part paved the way for the election of Evo Morales. In Washington State, local activists in Lewis County find themselves embroiled in a battle to prevent Crystal Geyser from bottling hundreds of thousands of gallons of water daily from the Cowlitz River. This follows a recent fight across the Columbia River in Oregon where activists were successful in preventing Nestlé from setting up shop. Last year we even had a bill introduced by progressives that would not fully prevent privatization, but would take steps to ensure no harm done to the local community and environment. While that bill passed the WA Senate virtually along party lines, it died in the Rules Committee and never got to the House or Governor Inslee. We must continue to follow the lead of our local water protectors to preserve the most basic of resources. Water is life."