Last week, 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.” This resolution promises to be a milestone in the looming controversy over the creation of water futures markets.
Water is now traded on Wall Street as a futures commodity, attracting investors to hedge market risks and profit from increasingly limited water supplies. One of the dangers of attracting hedge funds into a water market arena is that their profits, not the public good, will be their top (if not only) priority. FLOW’s fundamental tool, the public trust doctrine, will prove to be indispensable in combating the risk of water commodification.
MRWD treats wastewater and provides stormwater management for residents and businesses in its Greater Chicago service area, which includes 5.25 million residents. The author of the board’s resolution is Commissioner Cameron Davis, former Great Lakes program coordinator in the Obama Administration. FLOW asked him to explain the story behind the resolution.
“The right to water and sanitation is every bit as critical as the right to free speech. Or the freedom to worship. Or the freedom of association.”
What prompted you to author and introduce the resolution?
I started to connect the dots in my mind. I do a lot of speeches and am starting to get questions about “monetizing” Lake Michigan water. Then, this past December, private entities established the world’s first water futures market in California. That, and having worked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the Toledo and Flint drinking water crises, suggested to me that the Midwest is going to keep enduring greater water stress. Which is ironic because we’re the most freshwater-rich region in the world. It was time to get out front of these potentially troubling trends.
What do you see as the threat posed by water markets, specifically to the Great Lakes and Chicago region’s freshwater? How serious is it?
The threat is in thinking about water as if it were any ordinary raw material. The reality is, we need water to survive and thrive. Even in our water-rich region, it’s taken for granted, so I thought a strong statement through the resolution would help articulate that water—before, during, and after we use it—deserves special attention.
It’s serious. Not long ago we saw a small Ontario business propose to sell Great Lakes water overseas. They almost succeeded. These threats will continue to come and go because history is cyclical.
The bigger threat is to think that our water isn’t at risk in our region. We are fortunate that the public trust doctrine (a law that holds that Great Lakes water, lakebeds, etc., are held in trust for the people of the Great Lakes states) provides a strong protection. But laws are just words on a page unless we have a strong, vibrant, active citizenry defending them and making them mean something.
What can citizens and communities do to deal with the threat? Do you think more resolutions like yours could have some impact?
Yes. Groups like FLOW have continually helped educate the public about this. My colleagues on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s Board of Commissioners voted unanimously for this resolution. It is one more tool to help educate the public.
We can also recognize that our public water utilities are like our public libraries. They provide immeasurable support for our communities, so they deserve support back.
The concept of the human right to water has not always met with a receptive audience from governments and the private sector. Why do you think that is?
Different reasons for different sectors. Governments are reluctant because they do not want to commit to the establishment of rights that they can’t defend. What we’re saying with this resolution is that the right to water and sanitation is every bit as critical as the right to free speech. Or the freedom to worship. Or the freedom of association.
What implications do the policy directions in your resolution have for both governments and citizens in the future?
Increasingly, our region realizes that protecting our waterways isn’t just important because of what they provide to us, but because it’s the right thing to do. Articulating these values—building words around them—is important because it is an expression of what is important to all of us who are fortunate enough to live, work, and play around the Great Lakes. Other regions may want to buy and sell their water like pork bellies or crude oil. But our region increasingly recognizes that monetizing our water devalues and demeans its significance to us and to future generations.