Who owns our water?
August 28, 2002 10:04 AM   Subscribe

Who owns our water? An interesting question considering the droughts going on and this lady has some good insight into where things might lead. Should a few large corporations be allowed to control our most important resource?
posted by Dr_Octavius (39 comments total)
I understand that desalination is viable but how will these plants be run and even then distribution is more of a problem. What about third world countries where these companies can, for the most part, exploit the people? Or am I just paranoid?
posted by Dr_Octavius at 10:10 AM on August 28, 2002

Unbelievable, I get to post the same comment in two different threads on the same day.

It's a privilege to pee
posted by dhacker at 10:12 AM on August 28, 2002

I am a Libertarian and believe there ought be no governement inteference. Let the free market workits way: then we might have water truly as a trickle down to those too lazy to buy up their own in bottles and store it.
posted by Postroad at 10:24 AM on August 28, 2002

That's a hot topic here in Michigan where Perrier was recently given the go-ahead to pump groundwater for sale. I don't know if that concession is even generating revenue for the state. Sale of Great Lakes water out of state has also been discussed. Even if it was a publicly run enterprise, I'd be very nervous. Is there enough water in Lake Michigan to irrigate the deserts of the Southwest?
posted by BinGregory at 10:29 AM on August 28, 2002

Haven't some bio-med companies already patented or copyrighted parts of the gene code? We don't even own the rights to our own DNA. Maybe some big corporation should copyright the chemical formula H2O and then own all the water in the world! Perhaps Evian has already done it.
posted by alou73 at 10:31 AM on August 28, 2002

Postroad: I consider myself a libertarian but I don't consider this a live and let live sort of issue. I view this as citizens using government to help them retain public resources. When everything becomes up for grabs life is sure to get a little interesting.
posted by Dr_Octavius at 10:51 AM on August 28, 2002

This is one of those issues where I flip over from my usual libertarian to my 'NO! NO! WTO!'itarian.

Next up: how I privatized the 'air industry' and my subsequent world domination.
posted by Ryvar at 10:58 AM on August 28, 2002

does this mean that we in michigan will have to go to war with canada? will Illinois drain the great getchagoome

Sale of Great Lakes water out of state has also been discussed i believe the issue is weither michigan can legally sell the water since a foreighn country and several states boarder the lakes. the internal tapping by perrier is legal i believe. (are they not up by iron mountain, left of Khalzud Dum) The enviromental record has been sporadic on the lakes. (Is there enough water in Lake Michigan to irrigate the deserts of the Southwest?) well drain one, kinda drain them all. and no, not enough water and the distribution of said water would be an emorous project, like claudian aquaducts in rome (ah, those where the days) De-sal plants require large amounts of energy and can be big polluters (though some of the newer plants have made progress in energy reduction and efficiency)
posted by clavdivs at 11:14 AM on August 28, 2002

I guess the definition iof a libertarian is If it is good for me, I like it; if it may cause me some harm, I like big governement and regulations.
posted by Postroad at 11:18 AM on August 28, 2002

Call Robert Urich, posthaste.
posted by delapohl at 11:20 AM on August 28, 2002

The International Joint Commission, a treaty organization between the US and Canada, would have to approve any water transfer out of those states; and the Council of Great Lakes Governors, comprising each US state and Canadian province bordering the lakes, has long been opposed to any increase in outflows beyond the needs of its members. Aside from the St. Lawrence, the major outflow is the Chicago River (which was reversed a century ago, flowing down to the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, in order to send the city's sewage away from its source of fresh water -- Lake Michigan). At the moment, they've been able to forestall most proposals, though you have to wonder what might happen in 50 or 100 years when the Ogalalla Aquifer starts drying up and the Plains States -- of both nations -- are thirsty.

Meanwhile, China is planning a water diversion on an imperial scale, taking billions of gallons of Yangtze River water north to Beijing and other areas that are hitting the ceiling of available supply. There's a really good flash sidebar to check out; and the story's part of a multi-part series on the so-called water crisis.
posted by dhartung at 11:36 AM on August 28, 2002

Clavdivs - That giant sucking sound is coming from Mecosta County, home of Big Rapids/Ferris State U.
posted by BinGregory at 11:36 AM on August 28, 2002

CGLC's "out-of-basin" policy must be pretty narrowly defined. There's no question Michigan's groundwater is hydrologically connected to the Great Lakes.
posted by BinGregory at 11:40 AM on August 28, 2002

I'm still amazed at how everyone's talking about the need for water conservation, yet it's heavily subsidized and very cheap for most of us. Skip the subsidies or even apply an extra environmental fee. That would make it worthwhile to conserve water and it would save the government some money. And the lunacy of golf courses and wheat fields in the desert might stop.

delapohl: Ah, Ice Pirates. Such fond memories from the 80s. I hesitate to rent it again as it might appear dumber now and ruin those memories.
posted by Triplanetary at 11:44 AM on August 28, 2002

I keep telling people we are a corporate oligarchy parading about as a democratic republic, but no one listens. *shrug*

And then people act surprised at stuff like this. Who owns our water? The same people who convinced us to pay for their bottling it for our convenience and directing it to our homes & offices. Technically we're not paying for the water itself, but for the convenience of not having to dig our own wells and carry it by the pail full to the wash basin.

I'd picket the water company, but honestly I'm too spoiled and would hate to pump my own H2O, so the heck with it.
posted by ZachsMind at 11:49 AM on August 28, 2002

Water must be the meme of the month; I keep seeing more and more articles about (the world's lack of) it. It's certainly something we should be thinking about, instead of wasting a lot of time (and billions of dollars) over whether Saddam Hussein maybe/might/could perhaps cause us a lot of grief.

I am a Libertarian and believe there ought be no governement inteference.

It's too late for that since, as Zachsmind points out, the corporations already own the government. (Their motto: let the public pay all the costs, and we'll take all the profits.) And they're not going to agree not to interfere.
posted by LeLiLo at 12:37 PM on August 28, 2002

Yeah lelio, I've noticed that too. Water issues are popping up everywhere, as evidenced by this thread. Alternet, NYTIMES, Common Dreams. And yes, I realize these are all liberal sites, but if every liberal site starts writing about the same thing, you have to wonder. Of course, I think a large part of the rise in interest in water has been the drought over the US this summer.....
posted by pjgulliver at 12:52 PM on August 28, 2002


hmmm, actually, yes, call Robert. He had a cottage off Lake Ontario/Bay of Quinte during the 80's (not sure now, but I know he was close by, you could see if from my place.), maybe he would drum up "celebrity" interest...
posted by jkaczor at 12:56 PM on August 28, 2002

"In 1999 there were more than $15 billion worth of water acquisitions in the US water industry alone, and all the big water companies are now listed on the stock exchanges. "

Hhmmm. This article is a deeply one-sided view of things ... though naturally the "all corporations are evil" crowd must love its conclusions.

I liked the line above, because in 1999 I actually did some contract IT work for a large private water company who's business model was to buy small rural systems around the country ... i.e., I was part of that "$15 billion". Oddly enough, the results - for human beings drinking the water - were far different than what the article implies.

In most instances, we bought water systems from small municipalities, or bought small privately held companies. We'd go in, centralize billing, and capture efficiencies of scale that these small systems couldn't even think about. The odd thing is, however, that in almost all instances, the result for consumers was a significant increase in water quality. The EPA loved our company. The way water works right now - especially in much of rural America - is that small firms, or MUDs (Municipal Utility Districts) run most of the systems. Contrary to what the article says, there are very low margins on water - there is a lot of revenue in it, but very little profit. The EPA does regulate water, and has minimum levels of water quality it insists upon. However - if it is a small firm, or municipality that it is looking at, it has no effective recourse if the standards are not met. They cannot take the system over (the EPA is just not in that business), nor can they demand that a small company spend the (often large amounts of) money required to come into compliance ... especially if the company flat out doesn't have it.

When a big firm comes in, however, there are deep pockets involved, and considerably more environmental expertise. Almost invariably, my company wound up investing serious money to bring systems up to standards - including many systems that had not met EPA standards for a long period of time.

The article's authors get particularly interesting with: "For them, the debate is closed. Water, say the World Bank and the United Nations, is a "human need," not a "human right." These are not semantics; the difference in interpretation is crucial. A human need can be supplied many ways, especially for those with money. No one can sell a human right."

Interesting because the distinction seems to ignore the earth itself. Large amounts of this planet have no drinking water fit for humans. I suppose one could sue the Planet Earth for not acknowledging this "human right", but collecting might be a bit difficult.

My company looked at a number of systems - looked at what it would take to bring them up to spec, and concluded that it was simply impossible. Not just expensive, mind you, but impossible. Often for reasons having nothing to do with human impacts. Everything from heavy metals to all manner of biological nasties. Water contains pretty much everything that is in any particular ecosystem.

Water is still a fundamentally mysterious substance, unique in dozens of ways (if anyone is interested in a fascinating book, try: Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water).

The point is, however, that the authors imply in the "human need vs. human right" argument that it is wrong for water to be owned and disseminated by large companies, on the basis of who has money and who doesn't. Who can argue, when it is framed in that fashion? But what are they really saying? If it is a "human right", that means everyone deserves it simply by virtue of being born. Good. Expect that many humans are born in places where no drinking water exists. Significant resources are required to render existing water drinkable, or to ship water in. Do the authors intend to pay for this? Of course not. Presumably the "rich" should be taxed. Or if big corporations are permitted to enter the equation - they should do so just because they are goodhearted - they certainly should have no right to expect a profit.

While the authors state that private industry is looking to move into the water business, and then piles fact upon fact to demonstrate how terrible that is, they don't even mention the benefits (that are also there).

While I am (mostly) a libertarian, in this case I happen to believe that dealing with water and wastewater will only be effectively accomplished with the sort of joint public-private partnerships that are now forming. Corporations do, naturally, work for profit. Governments, however, are not exactly known for creating highly efficient distribution systems (for anything), and quite often don't have nearly the R&D labs that private industry does (this is an example of what industry can produce - and what governments rarely do ...).

Water is essential to life - and it is one of those rare things that is right and proper for government to be involved in ... but individual governments (or transnational NGO's) alone are not the answer, and are likely to cause as many (if not more) problems as corporations alone would.

The situation is not helped, however, by extremely one-sided, alarmist and polarizing articles like the one in question. Nor is it helped by implying that there was, is, and always will a fundamentally asymmetric distribution of fresh water around the globe. Governments should be involved with health standards and distribution - but are not capable of the efficiencies and science private industry is. It is very easy to say that everyone on earth should have a plentiful supply of clean drinking water, and very easy to bop corporations over the head for wanting to make money providing it. Actually solving the problem itself, however, is another story.

The author's solution is this: "The antidote to water commodification is its decommodification. Water must be declared and understood for all time to be the common property of all. In a world where everything is being privatized, citizens must establish clear perimeters around those areas that are sacred to life and necessary for the survival of the planet. Simply, governments must declare that water belongs to the earth and all species and is a fundamental human right. No one has the right to appropriate it for profit. Water must be declared a public trust, and all governments must enact legislation to protect the freshwater resources in their territory. An international legal framework is also desperately needed."

Lovely words, but no solution at all. Ignores the most basic facts about governments (whose nearly total control of water has gotten us in the current mess), science, and indeed, of water itself.

(Sorry for the long post - just so happens I'm a bit interested in the subject).
posted by MidasMulligan at 12:58 PM on August 28, 2002

ahhh, so it may be illegal. those darn dwarfs. great links (as usual) dhart. so, i guess the reprective governments agree to have a system for disbursal if needed and has decided to not channel off water to others.

Technically we're not paying for the water itself,
paying for the clean water, costs money to stir that stuff up. If anything, it seems that the corps are taking money away from treatment plants. The Culligan man been around long time, but economics and cheap manufacturing and distribution make indivdual bottles of water inexpensive (bottling plants already in place) which makes little sence to someones who is poor, a buck or more for a bottle? If anything, i'd be worried about all that plastic being used...but we have recycling for what it is worth. (if anything, deposits on containers has given the homeless sector {sarcasm, cause i've been dirt poor} a new economic base)...er, geez, thats kinda true.
posted by clavdivs at 1:03 PM on August 28, 2002

Midas, I love your name (so much more original than choosing Hank Reardon or John Gault,) and that post was really informative. Thanks.
posted by pjgulliver at 1:10 PM on August 28, 2002

Folks, we can wring our hands about leaky faucets, take shorter showers, stop watering our lawn or whatever - all that is a drop in the ocean compared to the overwhelming factor that determines why the supply of clean water is dwindling: The production of animal-based food first takes around 100 times more water (or, in some cases, 100,000 times more) than does plant-based food, and then the animals' waste goes back into the stream, often at dangerously illegal levels, further reducing the clean water supply. Wanna do something? Stop supporting this waste with your grocery money!
posted by soyjoy at 1:16 PM on August 28, 2002

Midas, that's a good post, and you raise a lot of good points, but, why should water be placed at the mercy of the market? The point is, everybody does need water; if upgrading infrastructure is capital intensive, then governments and non-profits with deep pockets should get involved. Some things just shouldn't be tied up with a profit motive.

"the Bush administration not long ago moved to allow mine tailings to be put into streams in wetlands."

You guys really need to do something about your president..

posted by slipperywhenwet at 1:55 PM on August 28, 2002

PoastRoad's "I'm a libertarian/no government" is a classic illustration trying to apply a concept beyond its intended purpose. If I don't have enough purchasing power to buy a CD player, I don't listen to CDs. If I don't have enough to buy water, I die.

Market forces aren't designed for this - they assume the existence of a stable society in place within which viable markets can be sustained based on discretionary purchase.

By all means, once a viable infrastructure is in place, seek to optimise resource allocation through a market. But don't let Vivendi loose in Africa just yet...
posted by RichLyon at 1:57 PM on August 28, 2002

A number of years ago the great scientist E.O. Wilson wrote in his masterful book Consilience, at the end of the work, that the two big issues soon to confront the world would be a huge water shortage and a massive immigration problem of those seeking to leave countries unable to support and sustain life for families to those able to...and they would do anything and everything to get to those countries.
Wilson pointed out that the shortage of water would soon lead to a great dealof warfare and also within the US to fighting (the courts etc) between and among the states.
Clearly he is right on both issues. But then there seems a big gap between those who "work" for us in govt and those who are specialists and knowing in a variety of fields.
posted by Postroad at 2:05 PM on August 28, 2002

And the lunacy of golf courses and wheat fields in the desert might stop.

What, you mean get rid of Furnace Creek?
posted by moonbiter at 3:25 PM on August 28, 2002

I fall along the side that says that some things should not be put up to the profit motive for management. Some things cannot/should not be regulated by the market. Government management may not be perfect, but there are some things that the profit motive can do no better: they just manage to privilege a different group.

Wow, that was wonderfully UNhelpful to the current situation, was it not?
posted by tgrundke at 3:29 PM on August 28, 2002

Everything is for sale.

Deal with it.
posted by larry_darrell at 4:23 PM on August 28, 2002

soyjoy, I'm not attempting to quibble with you on this...BUT...I would think that the total amount of water utilized for various purposes would be more of an issue than which purposes it is utilized for or how relatively efficient those uses are.

Sure an animal may require 100 times the water a plan requires to produce the same amount of food. I wonder though, if we would not save by far and away more water by improving our irrigation systems for those plant crops than we ever would by ceasing to raise food animals.

Running millions of gallons of water in an open, unlined ditch...through a desert...full of undissolved naturally occurring chemicals....in an arid climate with lots of heat for hundreds and hundreds of miles seems pretty damned inefficient and wasteful. Then only to spray the water that actually makes it into the arid air, in the heat of the day, onto crops using a method of irrigation known to be inefficient and less effective than other available methods...

...seems like it takes a lot more water total to grow our crops than it does to feed a cow or chicken or pig and clean up after it.

The problems we are having and anticipating in the western united states regarding groundwater supply would be much better addressed by improving our methods of irrigation than by reducing the number of animals we raise. It is not the efficiency per pound of food that appears to be the problem here, but the total amount of water consumed.
posted by ruggles at 4:55 PM on August 28, 2002

those who "work" for us in govt

Hey, as someone is works in the U.S. govn't I resent that! Well, not really. But it's strange being so many people's "them".

So, should we have govn't ownership of key industries then? I mean, all corporations are are people in large, highly structured groups. Same thing with govn't. Both wish to ensure their own survival. Yeah, sure, there is this "ethics" thing and the whole "public trust" thing both should have, but I don't see the govn't ownership of water any better than corporate ownership.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 5:04 PM on August 28, 2002

michigan collectively flexes its muscles and growls "step AWAY from the LAKES."
posted by quonsar at 5:21 PM on August 28, 2002

No doubt American beef consumption is way out of whack, soyjoy. But typically in traditional agriculture livestock is raised on land too marginal to support crop farming. There is a place for meat animals in sustainable agriculture. So I don't agree when that particular argument (acreage/water to pounds of production) is used to bludgeon meat eaters (not that you were doing that).
posted by BinGregory at 6:19 PM on August 28, 2002

Postroad, your trickle down argument *might* (tho I doubt it) make sense if there really were such a thing as a free market. But there isn't, and those with their hands on the strings like it that way (and they like it even better that so many people seem to think there is in fact a free market).

Water is getting lots of attention this month because of the ongoing Earth Summit II in South Africa.

I'm becoming increasingly obsessed with water issues. Here in the southwestern U.S. it is an issue that is already hitting us in the face. Granted, this is a desert region and that makes it more of a limited resource. But the problems point to patterns of consumption and human stupidity, just the same. I mean, people here still utilize FLOOD irrigation to grow water intensive crops! If you add up all the water rights, water rights to the water Rio Grande already exceed by half the estimated average flow of the river!

Even in water rich states, overuse is a problem. As U.S. farmers in places like Nebraska, Kansas, the Texas panhandle, and eastern Colorado increase their irrigation, they are drawing water from the Ogallala aquifer, a gigantic underground reservoir that contains as much fresh water as Lake Huron -- and the main groundwater source for much of the United States. Water is now being taken out of the aquifer, for irrigation and other uses, faster than the aquifer naturally refills. If present rates of overuse continue, the Ogallala aquifer will be drained down to unusable levels within a few decades.

I'm tremendously concerned about the increasing trend towards handing control of water over to corporate interests. One of the main arguments in favor of doing so is that they're the only ones that have the capital to make the needed upgrades to water delivery systems (for instance, in northern Mexico, where water loss due to seeps and evaporation in cities and the country side can approach 50%, the estimated cost of necc. upgrades is something like $60 billion).

But those who think that yes, corporate control / water markets are the solution might do well to read an article that appeared in the New Yorker this Spring (William Finnigan, "Leasing the Rain," April 8, 2002). In addition to providing a number of very interesting general facts about the emerging water crisis, it is a very enlightening case study of what can happen when control over drinking water is handed over to corporate interests. Unfortunately, the New Yorker website is lousy and you can't access the article online.
posted by Kneebiter at 7:21 AM on August 29, 2002

Kneebiter:I could not agree more with the "free-market" not really being free. Companies tend to want it both ways, huge subsidies but with no obligations toward consumer interest.

A reasonable answer would be to keep it more or less like the pre-deregulation power infrastructure. And for god sake stop watering desert golf courses. (Also in my area private sports fields can water enough "to prevent injury", which seems wasteful to me.)
posted by Dr_Octavius at 7:38 AM on August 29, 2002

Classic example of the "free market" not being really free would be the petroleum business. While the numerical figure escapes me at the moment, the amount of federal dollars that go into the petrol business in the US is astronomical.

This is why Europe and Japan lead the development in alternative-fuel technologies: they have an INCENTIVE with $5/gallon prices at current. Remove the federal subsidies for petrol and you're damned right that someone will find an alternative to petroleum use.
posted by tgrundke at 8:15 AM on August 29, 2002

Wow, pretty good discussion. Nice spread of ideologies.

MidasMulligan's very erudite post was as informative as they come, but fell prey to the very bias s/he decried in the FPP article (but in the other direction). The central argument, in my eyes, against commodification and/or privatization comes straight from the heart of capitalist theory. It is essential to the working of the really free market that there be no interference with the operation of mechanisms like marginal costs/pricing, and, especially, equilibrium pricing. Unfortunately, equilibrium pricing guarantees that there will always be some portion of the potential customer base which is unable to meet the asking price of a given commodity. When the commodity is at once part of the commons and also essential for the sustaining of life, this is unacceptable to many of us.

I'm not trained as an economist, so that explanation probably blows. I am pretty sure that I understand the underlying principles, however poor my exposition of them.

RichLyon and tgrundke - the points you raise are also valid criticisms of commodification of the commons.

ruggles and BinGregory-- while the points you raise in re: the relative water intensive natures of animal and plant sources of food are sensible as far as they go, the issue is more usefully reduced at least a step further: however efficient we may become in the irrigation of our crops, it still takes all the water needed to raise several tons of cattle feed for every ton of beef produced. I don't want to insult your statements, but I feel strongly that you have both in some way missed important parts of the issue. You both use what seem to be unsupportable assumptions about the high levels of water used in plant agriculture, and the adaptability of animals to land unsuited for crops, but where do you think the feed for those animals is produced? They eat (mostly) grains that are grown on land suitable for the production of grains. I think you forgot to check the math behind your ideas.

Shameless plug for some guy I don't know but his website is pretty good and includes some very good info on global water issues: Politics in the Zeros
posted by Nicolae Carpathia at 8:57 AM on August 29, 2002

ruggles, I agree that improving irrigation should also be undertaken in order to conserve water. But remember that crops that are irrigated don't just go directly to people - according to the USDA, most of the grain grown in the US goes to feed livestock. So when you say

...seems like it takes a lot more water total to grow our crops than it does to feed a cow or chicken or pig and clean up after it

it's necessary to keep in mind that most of those crops are going to feed a cow, chicken, & pig.
And BinGregory, certainly forage-based agriculture would be a big improvement. One study says that if we (US) ate only grass-fed beef we'd free up enough grain to feed 800 million people - imagine how much water is involved in producing that much food. Obviously, we're not going to change to a sustainable model overnight, but the livestock/water connection is an area where our decisions as consumers can actually have a large impact, unlike our decisions as lawn-waterers. That's all I'm saying.
posted by soyjoy at 9:04 AM on August 29, 2002

The acquisition of water rights for resale is not that new of an idea. The Salon article puts forth that corporations might see this as a new revenue stream, but that is already a gleam in the eye of Monsanto.

The difference between the ideas in the Salon article and the Monsanto model (as I understand them) is that Monsanto is acquiring "rain rights" as opposed to "water rights.
posted by StormBear at 1:21 PM on August 29, 2002

There's still plenty of water in Cleveland - and office space, too.
posted by sheauga at 2:54 PM on August 29, 2002

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