ACTION ALERT: Only One Year Left: What We Must Do To Save California's Water
March 21, 2015
Zack Malitz / CREDO Action & Matt Stannard / Occupy.com
California's drought is a crisis. According to NASA scientist Jay Famiglietti, California has only one year of water left in its reservoirs. In addition to mandatory rationing, the State should order an immediate halt to illegal dumping of oil and tracking waste into our drinking water aquifers. Meanwhile, as portions of the US begin to exhaust available water supplies, powerful business interests are moving in to seal political deals that will "privatize" water as a commodity for sale to the highest bidder.
California's Last Gulp? Only One Year Left:
What Governor Brown Must Do To Save California's Water
Zack Malitz / CREDO Action from Working Assets
Tell Governor Brown:
"California's water shortage is a crisis. It's time for serious measures to save our water, which must include mandatory rationing and other water protection measures targeting all sectors including agricultural, industrial, and oil production, as well as residential use."
California's drought is a crisis. According to NASA scientist Jay Famiglietti, California has only one year of water left in its reservoirs. (1)
Incredibly, the state has no plan that even begins to adequately address a crisis of this magnitude. "California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain." wrote Famiglietti in his explosive op-ed published by the Los Angeles Times.
Governor Brown must act now to protect our water. That means working with the State Water Resources Control Board to take immediate and far more aggressive, mandatory measures to promote water conservation across all sectors. It also means taking emergency action to neutralize one of the biggest threats to the precious water we still have -- ending toxic oil industry waste water dumping that according to the EPA is today illegally endangering our state’s drinking water aquifers.
Tell Governor Brown: Enact emergency measures to protect our water, including mandatory water rationing, and an immediate halt to illegal dumping of oil industry waste water into our drinking water aquifers.
Today Governor Brown announced a bill to fund water infrastructure, but it does not mandate water rationing. And earlier this week, Governor Brown's State Water Resources Control Board announced a wholly insufficient plan covering lawns, hotels, and restaurants. (2)
Even though this has been incorrectly reported in the media as being "sweeping" restrictions, watering fewer lawns and giving diners water only on request doesn't even begin to address the crisis we find ourselves in.
What's clearly needed is mandatory water rationing across all of the state's water sectors, from domestic and municipal through industrial and agricultural, which itself accounts for 80 percent of California’s water use. (3)
With only one year of water left, we need to do more than mandate conservation. Brown has encouraged the permitting of illegal fracking and oil waste disposal into federally protected drinking water aquifers in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. (4) And state regulators recently "discovered” hundreds of dangerous, unpermitted open waste pits. (5)
Under Brown, California's regulatory agencies thoroughly failed to safely regulate these practices -- and even regulators admit it. In many cases, regulators may not even know where drilling waste injection or storage is taking place.
The Los Angeles Times reports, "The federal Environmental Protection Agency has called the state's errors 'shocking' and said that California's oil field waste water injection program does not comply with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act." (6)
We don’t have time to spare -- these dangerous practices of toxic fracking and oil waste disposal need to be halted immediately. It's important to show public support for more drastic measures. The truth is this is a crisis and in addition to our individual conservation efforts we need to organize to win comprehensive, mandatory, and long-term solutions to this epic drought that threatens life as we know it in California.
It is long past time for serious leadership to match the urgency of this escalating crisis. Click the link below and tell Governor Brown to take immediate action, and do everything in his power to save our water:
Zack Malitz is the Campaign Manager for
CREDO Action from Working Assets
1. Jay Famiglietti, "California has about one year of water left. Will you ration now?" LA Times, March 12, 2015
2. Paul Rogers, "California: New mandatory water conservation rules for lawns, hotels, restaurants," San Jose Mercury News, March 18, 2015
3. D. J. Waldie, "Drought by the Numbers: Where Does California Water Go?" KCET, February 10, 2015
4. Mike Gaworecki, "California's Wastewater Injection Problem Is Way Worse Than Previously Reported," DeSmogBlog, February 11, 2015
5. Julie Cart, "Hundreds of illicit oil wastewater pits found in Kern County," LA Times, February 26, 2015
6. Julie Cart, "Agencies admit failing to protect water sources from fuel pollution," LA Times, March 10, 2015
Justice Must Flow:
Economic Democracy and the Water Commons
Matt Stannard / Occupy.com
"Water is a very good servant, but it is a cruell maister."
-- William Bullein (1562)
(March 12, 2015) -- A game you could play with this article would be to substitute the word "air" every time you read "water." Commodification of water seems silly enough in the abstract. Now in the throes of artificial scarcity, US cities, counties and states are running out of water even as they turn control over managing water supplies to private corporations.
At the beginning of February, as chronicled by Victoria Collier, New Jersey authorized the fast-track sale and leasing of water utilities to private corporations "without public notice, comment, or approval."
As I write this, more communities in New Jersey are "studying water privatization, while the city council of Columbia, South Carolina is resisting business interests' pressure to privatize water there as well.
Last year, a private water utility in West Virginia poisoned the state, and afterwards fought against "disclosure of information about its preparedness for and response to a chemical spill that contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 people in its service area."
Later in the year, Detroit, having sold its water to private corporations, and living under an unelected "Emergency Manager," saw its water shut off at a rate of 3,000 families per week.
Businesses were exempted from these shut-offs, and all the while, the white-owned downtown commercial center of the city basked in billions of dollars it had received in investments. Eventually, the United Nations condemned the shut-offs that deprived tens of thousands of water.
The UN took special note of "large-scale retrogression or backwards steps" in US citizens' access to water; observers were shocked to see scarcity where there had once been abundance and mass access. "From a human rights perspective," one official said, "any retrogression should be seen as a human right violation."
Thomas Stevens of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management sees privatization-induced water retrogression as "the product of militant late corporate capitalism, racism and the unreasoning commodification of the means of life itself." Victoria Collier writing for Truthout warns that "JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, the Carlyle Group, Allianz and many others are aggressively buying up the world's declining fresh water supply and infrastructure in what is being called a ‘liquid gold rush.'"
Meanwhile, the southwestern quadrant of the United States is running out of water entirely.
Give Away the Commons
The water crisis has nothing to do with the actual availability of water. Instead, the culprit is local communities' inability to control their wealth, their common resources, their institutions of lending and credit. The drive to privatize our water supplies, Collier points out, is a direct result of "the intentionally crippled tax base of American states . . . . Cash-strapped governments can finally no longer repair crumbling infrastructure or meet future development needs.
"Offering to 'fill the budget gap,' the private sector is grabbing public assets and resources, particularly water, blinding public officials to the consequences of long-term contracts with substantial up-front payments."
Detroit's elite-engineered bankruptcy provided a justification for its unelected emergency government to contract with a demolition and logistics company, Homrich, to shut off the water of any private resident (they exempted businesses) who were over 45 days late in full payment. Some of those who had their water shut off had been paying down their bills.
As Thomas Stevens of DREM explained: "Giant corporate contractors, from Infrastructure Management Group (IMG) thru EMA and now to Veolia have bit off more and more of the system and its lucrative contracting and community economic benefits and powers for decades."
This kind of privatization results from local governments going broke -- in debt to big banks, regulated by unfunded mandates from an aloof and cronyist federal government, unable to finance their own control over water, or raise the capital to design and implement their own sustainable water systems.
Armed with arguments carefully constructed by pro-privatization think tanks, private sector lobbyists exploit the often-unquestioned rhetoric of "market correctness" to conclusively assert that privatization will be more efficient than public management.
In fact, privatized water systems are no more efficient than publicly run systems -- a conclusion confirmed last May by Food & Water Watch, which cited extensive review of empirical studies and analysis based on transaction costs, efficiency, and political costs. Private corporations are not subject to state-level open records legislation.
This was an issue, for example, in the discussion about the 2014 sale of Haddonfield, New Jersey's water and sewer systems, to New Jersey American Water, a subsidiary of the nation's largest private water utility corporation.
As private corporations, water utility companies are under no legal obligation to respond to data requests from consumers or safety and environmental advocates. As Food & Water Watch pointed out last year:
"Water service is a natural monopoly. If the utility company increases rates dramatically or if service quickly deteriorates, a customer cannot simply select another provider without moving to another community."
In contrast, when water is publicly managed and democratically controlled, "consumers can exercise their power at the ballot box when elected officials oversee their utilities."
For corporations performing in the service of their shareholders, profitability eclipses all other concerns. Private corporations weigh potential shortages, cut-offs and even contamination risks only in relation to their effect on profits.
But profitability is not an appropriate criterion for deciding water rates, system improvements, or safety measures. Instead, we ought to view water as a common resource, subject to democratic self-management and diligent public monitoring of treatment and distribution.
Such a revolutionary approach to water policy requires strong and autonomous local communities, which in turn requires self-managed economies: public banks and local control of utilities, ideally within a framework of a democratic commons.
Water Justice Requires Economic Justice
Following Maude Barlow of On the Commons, water "belongs to everyone and to no one exclusively, and must be passed on to future generations in sufficient volume and quality." Both watersheds and water itself should be treated as commons.
Importantly, we should provide water to all "as a basic principle of justice, not as an act of charity." Charity operates from and reinforces material hierarchy, while economic justice recognizes that there are some public goods to which everyone is entitled.
Many progressives laudably call for the formal, political recognition of water as a human right. This is necessary, but far from sufficient. There is a strong legal basis for extending the public trust doctrine to water access. Legal scholarship on public trust doctrine demonstrates a sound basis for guarding against the "privatization of important public resources."
Some courts, such as Hawaii's, even extend a "precautionary principle" to water management, including groundwater, "in order to encourage resource protection in the absence of conclusive scientific proof."
Courts in some other countries have more robust public trust doctrines. But legal recognitions only have teeth when accompanied by material control by the people.
Likewise, the promise of federal legislation is shaky and inconsistent. Until leaders from outside the corporate duopoly occupy national posts, we can expect little from the federal government in response to the seizure of public water and resulting environmental and humanitarian impacts. The Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), signed by President Obama, expanded private financing of water projects.
In rejecting the corporatist myth that privatization facilitates efficient or just water distribution, we should not be blind to the role of "big government" water protection policies in forcing urban municipalities into desperation and consequently surrender to corporations.
"Ever since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1970, and the immense costs it imposed for protecting Great Lakes resources," Thomas Stevens told me, "the increasingly isolated, wealthier and white supremacist suburbanized region has fought as much as possible to impose those costs on the City and the People of Detroit."
Federal mandates that rely on local resources make privatization seem very attractive, he added, because at present many state and local governments are in the red.
Nor do international institutions offer a solution to privatization in the US Although United Nations officials visited Detroit and issued sobering proclamations, there was little they could actually do.
The United States has traditionally taken the position that no "right to water" exists under international law. Current international institutions realistically can't pressure the United States to modify that position.
Instead of relying on federal or international monitoring, local communities need economic autonomy -- the ability to create and nurture their own wealth -- in order to exercise autonomy over their water and to sensibly plan the use and sharing of that water with other communities.
As long as states and municipalities are held hostage to too-big-to-fail financiers, neoliberal-minded policymakers, and the illusion that privatization leads to fiscally and morally correct outcomes, our commons will continue to face depletion, and local officials will shift the consequences to their most vulnerable citizens. A public water commons requires a public economic commons.
Matt Stannard is policy director at Commonomics USA and a researcher at the Public Banking Institute.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.