Breaking News: Traverse City Unanimously Approves Resolution Affirming Public Ownership of Our Water as a Human Right, Public Trust, and Defense against Privatization


Photo of Grand Traverse Bay by Jerry Stutzman

By Liz Kirkwood

Breaking News: The Traverse City Commission on December 6, 2021, unanimously approved a Resolution Proclaiming Water and Sanitation as Basic Human Rights, and that Water Shall Remain in the Public Trust. The resolution was advanced by FLOW and in comments to the City Commission, FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood said, in part, “By protecting water as a human right, this resolution provides clear foundational principles to guide public policy and investments in water system infrastructure priorities in our community. It also promises to be a milestone in the growing debate over the creation of water futures markets.”

Water is life. It is the resource that not only keeps us alive, but also powers everything we do on this small blue water planet. Living here in the Great Lakes, we are stewards of some 20 percent of the planet’s fresh surface water. It is an enormous gift and an enormous responsibility, particularly in the face of the global water crisis

Water access and equity issues are striking the poorest communities the hardest, leaving 2.2 billion people worldwide without access to water and 4.2 billion people without sanitation. The United Nations estimates that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under water-stressed conditions.  

FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood

Water insecurity and climate change, in turn, are fueling the increased economic value of water supplies, an alarming interest in the financialization and commodification of water, and accelerated privatization of public water infrastructure. 

For the first time ever, in December 2020, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) listed California water futures as an investment to be bought and sold like grain or oil. In 2021, a private equity hedge fund called Blue Triton purchased all of Nestlé’s U.S. water bottling operations except Perrier. These and other privatization efforts degrade the singular importance of water, risk what is essential to all life on this planet, and exacerbate growing global and regional inequities between rich and poor to access potable water supplies. 

To counter this privatization trend, the UN’s recent report titled, Risks and impacts of the commodification and financialization of water on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, recommended “that States take urgent legal measures to prevent water, as a public good, from being managed in the futures markets as a financial asset under the speculative logic that presides over these markets, thereby avoiding the risks of price volatility and speculative bubbles that threaten the human rights to drinking water and sanitation of those living in conditions of poverty and vulnerability, the sustainability of aquatic ecosystems and the most vulnerable economies.” 

States and communities can accomplish this by resolutions, declarations, statutes and laws, or constitutional enactments or current ones, properly interpreted so that water remains in the public domain protected by public trust and commons principles.

In June 2021, the Board of Commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) unanimously approved a resolution affirming water as a human right and expressing concern about the trend toward treating water as a commodity. The resolution also affirms that “the water of the Great Lakes … shall remain in the public trust for the people of the Great Lakes region.” Read FLOW’s coverage here.

This resolution promises to be a milestone in the growing debate over the creation of water futures markets and to establish clear principles to guide public policy and investments in water system infrastructure priorities in communities across the Great Lakes Basin. The issue of ownership and sale of Great Lakes water is not on the horizon; it is already here at our doorstep.

FLOW seeks to promote and extend this affirmation in Michigan communities and others across the Great Lakes watershed. Water-related problems are complex and include sewer overflows, E. coli contamination closing down city beaches, flooding, unaffordable water bills, failing septics, and more. The growing affordability problem and the unconscionable practice of water shutoffs is not just a Detroit and Flint problem. “Rural areas, small towns, and suburbs have also seen costs rise,” according to a new U of M report. “The number of Michigan households paying more than 5 percent of income on water and sewer services grew from 1.6 percent of households in 1980 to 6.7 percent in 2018,” reported Circle of Blue. In sum, water insecurity and the lack of access to safe and affordable water and sanitation has devastating long-term public health impacts as underscored by the current pandemic. 

On December 6, Traverse City adopted the resolution to join the movement to assure public ownership of water. The opportunity lies in securing newly available federal funding to beef up our public water infrastructure and to ensure clean drinking water, eliminate sewage overflows, protect shoreline and prevent beach closures as a result of E. coli contamination and other contaminants, flooding, and unaffordable water bills. The responsibility lies in demonstrating stewardship by avoiding the trap into which other communities have fallen by privatizing ownership of water services. This has led to dramatically higher water rates for customers and deteriorating maintenance of infrastructure. Keeping water public provides avenues for accountability and keeps decisions in our hands as residents and voters.

Now is the time to clearly articulate our community values and principles around protecting our water as a public commons as  we prepare to make long-term water infrastructure investments and build climate resilience in communities across the Great Lakes.


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