The Value of Water

We have been awash with an array of unhappy water stories in this region of late. On the surface they are unrelated ... scary fish ... E. coli contamination ... improperly regulated pesticides ... intentionally poisoned waterways .... But if you scratch below the surface there's a problematic narrative developing: the water rich communities of the Great Lakes region do not understand the nature, function and value of their most precious resource.

For starters, there was Charles Duhigg's devastating series in the New York Times about the state of water policy in the United States. His stories included the on-going poisoning of our waters with pesticides, manure from agricultural operations, and the water pollution coming from coal plants. The articles are full of shocking failures of state environmental officials to enforce the requirements of the Clean Water Act within their jurisdictions against the polluters who are destroying our waters. But what is also clear is that no one has fully quantified the burden that the public and our water resources take on as a result of this pollution.

There is also the continuing, wild tale of the slow and inadequate efforts of federal, state and local authorities to protect the Great Lakes from imminent destruction by voracious, invasive Asian Carp that have been making their way up the Mississippi and its tributaries since 1993. We know the value of the aquaculture industries that introduced this dangerous fish. And we know the ludicrous costs associated with the Army Corps of Engineers Rube Goldberg fish fence that might repel them---as well as what it will cost to intentionally poison a five-mile stretch of the Chicago Sanitary Ship Canal to kill off the carp (and any other fish actually native to the water way) when they take the fence offline for maintenance next month. But we don't know the real, full value of the already damaged Great Lakes ecosystem, and so an array of agencies dither and delay in taking action that would actually end this threat and protect the ecosystem permanently.

And now this week we saw a front-page Chicago Tribune article on city officials contemplating privatization of the municipal water system. The value of water is at the center of the issue---but not the real, full value of water as a public trust asset requiring stewardship and protection. The article treats the question of privatizing water as a limited inquiry into a "dollars and cents" revenue and service issue. It is as if such a decision is actually analogous to leasing toll bridges and parking meters---which are exclusively part of the man made, civic economy, bought and owned by a municipal corporation. In focusing narrowly on the per gallon costs that might be associated with the Mayor selling our water supply, the Tribune presents no discussion of what the water is actually "worth" or the many services it provides to the web of life that depends upon it. And who can blame them? We don't look at that issue anywhere in this region. Water is treated as an abundant resource that we assume will always be there when we need it.

An aide to Chicago's Mayor Daley said that, though the Mayor has said that "all things are on the table," the issue of privatization was being "blown way out of proportion." I hope that is true and that before there is any proposal to privatize Chicago's Lake Michigan water, there will be a full review and transparent discussion of the key issues at stake. We don't have all the answers to the relevant questions; the problem is the key questions themselves have not been recognized by many of the region's stakeholders. The issues of infrastructure, cross-community water sales and pricing, and constraints on access to Great Lakes water are complicated here. But smart questions have to be raised, probed and addressed transparently, not simply raised in order to derail the conversation and protect the unacceptable "business as usual" exploitation of our resources. At the heart of the discussion must be the recognition of the nature and value of water, framed by an understanding that water is a Public Trust asset.

All of these news stories, coupled with some of the other cases that NRDC is working on in the region, spell out the wasteful way that the Great Lakes region treats its water. The stories and cases include the ongoing fight over ballast water laws to prevent the spread of invasive species which have already fundamentally changed the ecology of the Great Lakes and our ongoing fight to force an end to dumping of "un-disinfected" human sewage (that's intestinal miasma, folks!) into the Chicago River by the government body with oversight of the issue.

It is time to get re-acquainted with the fundamental value of water as an irreplaceable, essential resource, and support the services it provides: sustenance, beauty, indeed life itself.

About the Authors

Henry Henderson

Director, Midwest program

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