Thursday, August 19, 2010

Water is Life (August 8, 2010)

Who owns the water? It sounds like a rhetorical question, doesn’t it. Like “Who owns the air?” or “How can you hold a moonbeam in your hand?” But as a culture that takes private property seriously, people know what I mean when I say that I own a little piece of land, of earth, on the south side of Ithaca. It means that I can say who comes and who goes, I can dig it up and move it around. I can plant herbs and harvest them, and no one will challenge me about whose herbs they are. So what about the rain that falls on my land? What about the wells that provide drinking water to residents of the city of Ithaca?

The water system is one of the most profound ways that we are connected one to another as living beings on this planet. We learned as children the science of the water cycle, that the water from the glaciers melts and runs down into creeks, and then rivers, into Marshes and lakes and oceans. We know that all water exposed to air evaporates and becomes the moisture in our air, clouds, rainfall, frost and the snow that melts in the spring to feed our creeks. You look at a weather map and see the great sweeps that air makes, carrying the water that evaporated off the Great Lakes, and off of my back eastward toward the Atlantic ocean. And so water is a profound metaphor for inter-connection. This is one of the reasons our annual water communion is so powerful. Once again this fall we will each pour our own portion of water into a common bowl as we regather in our sanctuary in Athens. And once those waters mingle, the nutrients, the organisms, the toxins that were brought by each become part of the whole.

I first became concerned about water justice when I was volunteering with The Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry in California which has embraced Water as one of their key for the past few years. They adopted a set of 7 principles to guide their work that I think will be helpful in organizing our thinking about this crucial set of issues.. The first is this:

• Water is essential for life, and holds spiritual meaning for many.

Every living being in our biosphere needs water, is in some part made of water. It is written in the Koran "We have made of water everything living." Water is such a fundamental building block of life, that every religious tradition that endeavors to sorts the world into its most essential elements includes water among them. It’s a powerful part of story, ritual and archetype in all cultures whether island or desert peoples.

Is water sacred to Unitarian Universalists? We might as well ask ourselves “is life sacred?” because water is the source and substance and sustenance of all life as we know it. Surely we must treat with reverence anything that sustains life, treat with respect that which when withheld causes life to wither and die. This year we have decided to include some earth science in our children’s Religious Education program. When our children here at church have a lesson about their local watershed, we should be ready to explain what is sacred about water, why we would spend time at church thinking about it, because water is so completely ordinary. But I believe that the ordinary everyday life is sacred, and worthy of our awe and our respect. I want our children to experience the joy and wonder of water, whether that comes from unlocking its scientific mysteries , or by running under a sprinkler. And I want them to respect water, because it cannot be separated from life -- our lives and the lives of the other beings who share this biosphere with us. I know of nothing more sacred than life.

A Second principle of water justice is that:

• Access to clean water for basic human needs is a fundamental human right and is essential for human health and dignity.

Just a couple weeks ago, on July 28, 2010, the United Nations adopted a nonbinding resolution that recognizes the human right to water and sanitation. The resolution “declares the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” Proponents of water rights were very careful to not allow the phrase “access to water” into the resolution, because that could imply that as long as water is for sale in your area the government has done it’s job. Instead they pushed for water itself as a human right.

The resolution passed by a vote of 122 to 0 with 41 countries, including the United States, abstaining. In a recent interview after the passage of the UN Resolution, Maude Barlow, director of the Council of Canadians, a citizen’s organization which has been a long time supporter of the right to water, spoke about the politics around those 41 abstentions this way: “…really, what you’re seeing is a split between those countries that see water as a public trust, although that wasn’t in the language of the legislation, but that see water as a public trust and a human right and that should belong to all, as opposed to those who are going to move to a market model. And I think that’s the truth behind what happened.”

Which leads us to our third principle:

• Water is a public trust and part of the global commons; it should not be treated as a commodity.

Are there some things so basic to life that they should be governed by different rules than those of private property? Like air? Like sunshine? Like water? Like our genetic code? I believe there are. The phrase that is used to describe this idea is “reclaiming the commons.” has argued that water isn’t a private good and shouldn’t be in any trade agreement.”

The idea of a commons arose in counterpoint as an increasing number of countries are moving towards water privatization, including New Zealand and Australia. In the United States a number of local communities fight the drawing down of their aquifers by water bottling companies like Nestle. according to The Economist (August 27, 2008) “Nestlé, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch and Danone consume almost 575 billion liters of water a year, enough to satisfy the daily water needs of every person on the planet,” Across the globe the world Bank makes water privatization a condition of loans and debit relief, and encourages sale of public water utilities to private corporations rather than helping fund public utilities. Between 2000 and 2003, 94% of World Bank loans for water and sanitation required recipients to sign contracts with private companies. As of 2006, Three European corporations: Veola, Suez and RW Thames controled over 70 percent of private water systems worldwide. Water has been removed from the “essential services” category and made a commodity available for profit.

This is what happened in Chualar, an agricultural community in Monterey County. There the California American Water Company (owned by RW Thames, one of those giants I mentioned before) bought the town’s water system in 2001. Local residents had been paying a flat rate of $21, but then bills jumped as high as $400 a month. Rebecca Trujilo, a local resident, reported that “All of a sudden we got a bill for over $100. Now our wages are pretty low. We earn $280, or at most $300 a week. If we have t o pay a bill of $280, will that’s a week during which we can’t eat, we won’t have money to buy food” Community members rallied, and presented community demands to the California Public Utilities Commission. As a result of this mobilization, Cal-Am went back to a flat rate, and CPUC supervised the private utility more closely with local community advocates.

Each time you or I buy bottled water, we are passively supporting water privatization. And if we’re buying it in the little sport-sized bottles we are paying more per gallon than we pay for gas. Companies like Nestle and Coke a Cola are buying public water rights (that’s my water and your water). They are within their rights as private property owners to overdraw the ground water, emptying local wells which provide drinking water to local residents, and then selling our water back to us at seriously inflated prices, in plastic bottles that some say will make us sick if we re-use them.

So what’s a thirsty citizen to do? Go back to your tap. That’s what most bottled water is anyway- tap water. Reconnect yourself to the water that comes out your faucet- each time you bottle your own you are making a political statement. It’s your right as a being on this earth to have access to clean drinking water. Do you have confidence in your tap water? A few minutes on-line at the EPA website could help. Find out where it comes from. If you don’t like what you find out, remember your right to have a vote and a voice- assert and reclaim that right.

This leads us to a third of the basic principles of water justice that :

• All people, including those in low-income and marginalized communities, must have meaningful input into water management decisions in their own communities.

Currently water is governed in very different ways across the country. In some states they are governed by “Special Districts” which are often controlled by real-estate developers and corporations. In some districts called “landowner districts” property owners are entitled a number of votes based on the number of acres they own. This means that while we all need water to survive, we can only participate in the democratic process if we own land, and our vote counts more depending on how much land we own. So next to the loud voices of industrial agriculture and developers, homeowners speak in a whisper and renters have no voice at all.

Here in Bradford County, I know that decisions about our water are made by the Susquehanna River Commission, and the Conservation Commission, but I’m going to admit my ignorance about where the water that flows out our taps at the Athens church comes from, and which public agency is responsible. So I hereby issue a challenge to you all here- the first person who can explain the source of and governance over the water that ends up in our church building gets a dozen homemade cookies. I will also award a cookie to anyone who can tell me the story of the water that comes out of the tap at your own home.

That will help us better ensure justice for our families and our neighbors, as Thomas Jefferson said “An Informed citizenry is the Bulwark of democracy” But what other beings who need water to survive? They also have no voice unless we give them one. There is a movement afoot to give rights to local ecosystems. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, was founded right here in Pennsylvania, and is helping local governments all over the country pass laws granting rights to Mother Nature. In 2006 Tamaqua in Schuylkill County was the first in the nation to pass such an ordinance. Executive Director Thomas Linzey put it this way: "What we're advocating is a wholesale paradigm change: that Nature is not just property. We're saying natural communities have an inherent right to exist and flourish.”

This leads me to a 4th guiding principle that:
• The health, integrity, and stability of ecosystems must be respected and preserved.

Do we believe that other beings have rights? I do. I believe that water is not only a right for humans but for all beings. We have lived long enough with our 7th principle to know that the decisions we make about the path of a river effect more lives than our human lives. We also know that Our fate is inexorably intertwined with the other beings with whom we share this eco-system, but our laws do not reflect this reality.

For example, the California Water Code’s definition of “reasonable and beneficial use” acknowledges no intrinsic worth to such beings as the Salmon of the Klamath river. Hydroelectric dams along the river block salmon from 350 miles of spawning habitat. The once abundant Klamath salmon runs have now been reduced to less than 10% of their historic size. Some species, such as Coho salmon, are now in such low numbers in the Klamath River that they are listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). As the health of the salmon population is threatened, so is the health and viability of the Karuk tribe of Northern California who have lived in and with the Klamath Basin for thousands of years.

A fifth of the basic principles of the Legislative Ministry’s water justice work is that :
• Public control and regulatory oversight are necessary to ensure the public's interest is protected.

Let’s go back to the water that falls on my yard. That doesn’t have anything to do with you, does it? It’s my land! But of course, all the water in this watershed, and in fact on the planet, is interconnected. This leads to 2 different kinds of concerns. First, anyone can put a well on their private property- ‘cause, hey, it’s my land. But the groundwater doesn’t pay attention to property lines. When we pump groundwater to sell for bottled water or to turn into fracking fluid, it can lead to an “overdraft” of groundwater- meaning that more water is pumped out of the ground than is replenished by rainfall or runoff.

Second, what you do to the water on your property doesn’t stay on your property. There are many examples of this, but one that has so many of us worried right now is what happens to the water used in hydrofracking. I just don’t feel confident that when known carcinogens and endocrine disrupters are pumped into the ground in the hydrofracking fluids that they will stay where we put them. Many of us in the congregation went to see Gasland over at the Elmira Theater and were shocked by film footage of folks lighting their water on fire. Apparently just a few days ago the cap blew off a water well in Monroe Township, and subsequent tests found methane in 3 wells at the private residence less than a mile away from a natural gas drilling pad. The DEP has investigated, and Chesapeake Energy is taking remedial action.
This is why we need to keep working to close the Halliburton Loophole by keeping the pressure on our federal legislators to pass legislation such as H.R. 2766/S. 1215 “The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act of 2009 which has been stuck in committee for over a year. We have a right to clean, drinkable water, and need oversight to make sure our watershed stays pure.

The last of the UULM guidelines is this:
• Water conservation, responsible use, and stewardship should be a top priority for all.

This summer my son and I have taken every chance we could get to swim in the gorge at Treman State Park- it’s a favorite place of his. Last week as we were swimming there a worried look came over his face: “Mom, is the water from the Gulf Spill going to get in this water?” “No, honey” I assured him “That is very far away from us, it’s in a different watershed” (I didn’t want to worry him too much by talking about how water from the gulf would certainly evaporate and join the weather systems that move around the planet) “But let’s work to keep this and all the other creeks and lakes near us safe and clean” I replied.

Water is not a commodity, it is the very substance of life, it is sacred, and it is precious. We study our watershed, our water cycle knowing it offers as much wisdom about sustaining life as a sacred text. Let us make sure that justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

1. For a discussion of some water rights in Pennsylvania see: “FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS Public Rights in Pennsylvania Waters” by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat commission
2. The Koran (21:30)
3. “General Assembly Adopts Resolution Recognizing Access to Clean Water, Sanitation as Human Right”
4. Democracy Now July 29, 2010 “In Historic Vote, UN Declares Water a Fundamental Human Right”
5. Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry, California, “UULM-CA Water Justice Guiding Principles”
7. UUSC,Right to Water.”
8. The Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, Thirsty for Justice: A people’s Blueprint for California Water p. 50
10. Ibid p. 47
11. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review “Ecosystem rights move forward in Washington County” by Mike Cronin, June 19, 2007. More about CELDF can be found at
13. Ibid p. 22
14. Thirsty for Justice p. 48
15. “Methane found in well water in Monroe Twp.” The Daily Review. BY JAMES LOEWENSTEIN.August 12, 2010

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