Jim Olson is FLOW’s Founder, President, and Legal Advisor
By Jim Olson
I just finished immersing myself in global public-water activist Maude Barlow’s incisive new book, Whose Water Is It Anyway?: Taking Water Protection into Public Hands (ECW Press, 2019).Thanks to Maude and the publisher, I received an advance copy a few weeks ago on the promise of a book review, which remains a work-in-progress for next week.
But first, I couldn’t wait to share this article about the Vancouver Writers Fest and its feted authors Barlow, Canada’s leading world water leader, activist, and author of 19 books, and, then, Naomi Klein, equally visionary environmental, climate change, and green activist and writer.
Why my urgency to spread this coverage? Because the Vancouver Writers Fest has captured the urgency of the moment due to the changing climate and its implications for the future control of, and human right to, water.
It is notable that the famed fiction writers’ conference has elevated these two nonfiction writers, whose works herald the citizens of the world to leave the past, become fearlessly engaged in life, not accumulation and consumerism, and halt the privatization of the world’s water.
Those of you who follow FLOW’s Facebook page understand that water is public and held in trust for the benefit of citizens, that privatization is not only morally wrong, but also that when it comes to our public water, schemes to privatize water are, and should be declared, legally and constitutionally prohibited.
Thanks to Maude Barlow, Meera Karunananthan, Emma Lui at the Council of Canadians, the Blue Planet Project, the World Social Forum, and the dedication of so many other individuals and organizations, the United Nations in 2010 declared in successive resolutions that water is a human right. Barlow tells this quiet, heroic story in her new, Whose Water Is It Anyway? It’s a story that should be read by everyone who cares about liberty, dignity, harmony, and the common good of people and planet.
But the deeper, highly readable story she tells is of her own personal journey, and those of others, in a fierce dedication against private control of water on the planet—privatization—everywhere in now in ways both commonplace (for example, Nestlé’s extraction of public groundwater and spring water for billions of dollars in bottled water profit) and extraordinary (e.g. Bechtel’s attempted takeover of Bolivia’s water).
Then there is Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal (Simon and Schuster, 2019), a book that calls on all of us to step into the future now, by giving up rampant material consumerism that is killing the planet, and lighting the fire of a movement that turns on-end our gorging ourselves on the planet and each other—a movement in which we turn to each other and what is good for the planet.
Preachy? Not really. I’d call it a practical, common sense call to action for all of us to join in the creation by FLOW and the Council of Canadians of “Blue Communities” that put water first as if our lives depended on it: Good for all of us, especially children and grandchildren everywhere who will be facing the turmoil and dangers of an over-heating planet in 30 years from now.
So, read the article, and, yes, pick up a copy of these two books! Then take action, because these two authors help show the way. And dive into FLOW’s website for further insight and guidance on how to keep public water in public hands, and steep yourself in FLOW’s mission to defeat privatization and protect water as a commons through the public trust doctrine.
Flint is still dealing with the lead poisoning of residents’ drinking water. Residents of Detroit are once again experiencing water shutoffs. Ontario has the highest number of Drinking Water Advisories in First Nations out of all the provinces in Canada. All the while Nestlé is allowed to pump millions of litres of water from Ontario and Michigan every day to bottle and sell for profit.
I went to Detroit recently to meet with the Water Is Life coalition to talk about these and other water justice issues around the Great Lakes. Nearly 20 organizations gathered over two days to develop strategies to prevent the privatization and commodification of water, ensure affordable access to drinking water and sanitation, uphold Indigenous rights to water, protect the Great Lakes and implement the UN-recognized human rights to water and sanitation.
The groups included the Council of Canadians including the Guelph chapter, Detroit People’s Water Board, Flint Democracy Defense League, Flint Rising, Chiefs of Ontario, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Story of Stuff, Wellington Water Watchers, Corporate Accountability International, Great Lakes Commons and more. The coalition has continued meeting since the Water Is Life: Strengthening a Great Lakes Commons summit in Flint last fall to coordinate work and develop collective strategies to advance the human right to water around the Great Lakes Basin.
Nestlé’s bottled water operations in the Great Lakes Basin
In Ontario, Nestlé continues to pump up to 4.7 million litres (1.2 million gallons) of water every day on expired permits from its two wells in Wellington County, Ontario. Nestle has purchased a third well in Elora and could be given the green light to pump once Ontario’s moratorium on new and expanded bottled water permits ends in January 2019. The City of Guelph has raised concerns about the impacts of Nestlé’s water takings on the municipality’s future drinking water.
Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford becoming Ontario’s new premier raises serious concerns about the protection of water from Nestlé and other bottled water companies.
Council of Canadians’ Political Director Brent Patterson has noted, “Ontario PC leader Doug Ford does not appear to have issued a policy statement on the issue of bottled-water takings, but the Toronto Star has previously reported that clients of the Ford family firm, Deco Labels & Tags, include Nestlé Canada Inc., Coca-Cola, Cara Operations and Porter Airlines.”
Wellington Water Watchers and the Council of Canadians have been calling for a phase out of bottled water takings in Ontario. Recent surveys by both organizations have shown that the majority of people in Ontario want bottled water takings to be phased out and for water to be protected for communities.
Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation and the Grand Traverse Band of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians (GTB) both recently filed legal challenges against the Michigan government for giving Nestlé the green light to increase its pumping from 250 gallons (946 litres) to 400 gallons (1514 litres) of water every minute. GTB have consistently raised concerns that Nestlé’s permit approvals fail to consider the GTB’s treaty rights.
In May, there were 174 Drinking Water Advisories in First Nations across Canada, with 91 DWAs in Ontario alone. Some of these First Nations have been under DWAs for 5, 10 and some even nearly 20 years and rely on bottled water as a Band-Aid solution. The Mohawks of Tyendinaga on Lake Ontario have had DWAs since 2003 and 2008. Despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promises to end DWAs, the total number of DWAs has remained largely the same.
Different levels of government are responsible for different areas of water management. The provincial government issues Permits to Take Water to companies like Nestle while the federal government is responsible for water on First Nations reserves. But both levels of government have continued to approve projects without free, prior and informed consent as required by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and governments must coordinate to respect treaty rights and implement the human right to water.
Detroit water shutoffs is a violation of the human right to water
In Detroit, the fifth round of water shutoffs began this spring. 17,000 homes were earmarked for their water to be shut off this year. Roughly 80% of Detroit residents are black. Poverty rates are also at roughly 35%. Water rates have risen in Detroit by 119 per cent in the last decade and many residents are unable to pay the high water bills.
UN experts have made clear: “Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights.”
Council of Canadians Guelph chapter members Lin Grist and Ron East and I joined the Solidarity Saturday’s rally outside the Detroit Water Department to protest the water shutoffs. Participants at the rally connected the dots between water justice issues like Nestlé’s water takings, Flint’s water crisis, Indigenous water rights and the Detroit water shutoffs. Residents and supporters chanted, “Water for Flint, Not for Nestlé” and “Water is a human right!”
The Detroit Water Department now shares an office with the Great Lakes Water Authority. Food and Water Watch and other groups raised concerns about the potential for privatization with the regional water authority early on.
Flint’s water crisis is not over
The poisoning of the water in Flint over the last four years has led to urgent water and public health crises. The lead has resulted in an increase in fetal deaths and miscarriages, development impacts on children and a host of serious medical conditions.
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder ordered the last water pods to be closed in April stating that they have restored water quality and the need for bottled water has ended.
The corporate takeover of water by big water corporations like Nestle around the Great Lakes and the violations of the human right to water and Indigenous rights shows that access to water often falls along racial, class and other lines.
Economic globalization and unregulated market capitalism have divided the world – and the Great Lakes Basin – into rich and poor as at no time in living history and endangered the ability of the planet to sustain life. Tragically, most governments support an economic system that puts unlimited growth above the vital needs of people and the planet.
I am heartened and energized by groups and communities around the Great Lakes as we continue to build a world that protects the human right to water and protects water for people and the planet.
Emma is a FLOW Board Member and currently the national water campaigner for the Council of Canadians, Canada’s leading social action organization that mobilizes a network of 60 chapters across the country and advocates for clean water, fair trade, green energy, public health care, and a vibrant democracy. She has been with the Council since 2010 and has worked in the field of human rights and social justice for 15 years. She also holds an M.A. in Political Economy.
“My grandson that’s not here tonight, that’s twelve years old, he was to be an academic ambassador to go to Washington in the year 2014 and 2015. Well he was an A-B student but by the time the lead began to corrode his brain, he was no longer an A-B student. He was a D-E-F student,” said Bishop Bernadel Jefferson of her grandson, one of the thousands of children affected by the lead poisoning of Flint’s drinking water. Bishop Jefferson, who is with the Flint group CAUTION, was one of the speakers on the Friday night panel of the Water is Life: Strengthening our Great Lakes Commons this past weekend.
Bishop Jefferson has been a pastor for 27 years and an activist for 25 years. She is married with ten children and ten grandchildren. She was one of the first signers of the emergency manager lawsuitagainst Michigan Governor Rick Snyder in 2013. Her passionate talk brought tears to many eyes of the 200 people gathered at Woodside Church for the summit. At the same time her talk energized the audience. Her message of doing this work for all children and the importance of coming together reverberated among the crowd. Bishop Jefferson said of the gathering, “Tonight we make history. We did something they didn’t want us to do and that was to come together.”
Water justice for Great Lakes communities
Maude Barlow gave an important keynote speech on Friday night on water justice struggles around the world and her work with other water warriors to have the UN recognize the human rights to water and sanitation. Jim Olson from FLOW gave an impassioned talk about Nestle in Michigan and the importance of the public trust. Indigenous lawyer Holly Bird talked about her work with the legal team for Standing Rock, water law from an Indigenous perspective, that governments need to honor the relationships that Indigenous people have with the water and how that can be done without someone controlling or owning water.
(Photo above by Story of Stuff: Maude Barlow from the Council of Canadians)
Lila Cabbil from the Detroit People’s Water Board, who many affectionately call Mama Lila, talked about how the water fights are racialized in Michigan. “The fight we have in Michigan is very much racialized. We need to understand that truth and we need to speak that truth. Because what is happening even as we speak in terms of how Flint and Detroit is being treated would not happen if it was a white community.” She pointed out how the crises are being condoned by the silence of white people. She took a moment to remember late activist Charity Hicks who was a leader in the fight against the shutoffs and who encouraged people to “wage love”.
(Photo right: Lila Cabbil from the Detroit People’s Water Board)
In Canada, the lack of clean water is also often racialized. There are routinely more than 100 drinking water advisories in First Nations, some of which have been in place for nearly two decades. At the start of her talk on Saturday, Sylvia Plain from Aamjiwnaang First Nation taught the audience how to say “aanii” which is “hello” in Anishinaabe. The Great Lakes region is predominantly Anishinaabe (Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatami). She talked about how Aamjiwnaang First Nation has had methylmercury in the sediments in their river for a couple of decades. Plain also talked about how the Anishinaabe have cared for the waters and land for thousands of years.
Wearing a Flint Lives Matter t-shirt, Saturday’s keynote speaker (starts at 23:00) Claire McClinton from Flint Democracy Defense League, further described the water crisis in Flint. She pointed out, “In Flint Michigan, you can buy a gallon of lead free gas, or a gallon of lead free paint, but you can’t get a gallon of lead free water from your own tap.”
(Photo above by Story of Stuff: Claire McClinton of Flint Democracy Defense League)
Rob Case from Wellington Water Watchers of Ontario and Peggy Case of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservationboth talked about their grassroots organizations and the local resistance to Nestle’s bottling operations. Peggy Case pointed to the larger issue of the privatization and the commodification of water. “The dots have to be connected. We can’t just look at bottled water. The right to water is being challenged everywhere. The privatization of water is a key piece of what’s going on in Flint,” she explained. The state of Michigan is suing the city of FLint for refusing to sign a 30-year agreement that requires the city to pay for a private pipeline to Detroit that will not be used by residents.
In Evart, Michigan, two hours northwest from Flint, Nestlé pumps more than 130 million gallons (492 million litres) of water a year from the town to bottle and sell to consumers across the state and country. Last year, the corporation applied to increase its pumping by 60 percent. Nestlé’s current pumping and proposed expansion threatens surrounding wetlands and wildlife in the region, which at the same time violates an 181-year-old treaty that requires Michigan state to protect the habitat for the Grand Traverse Band and Saginaw Chippewa tribal use.
Nestlé continues pumping up to 4.7 million litres (1.2 million gallons) a day in southern Ontario despite the fact that both of its permits have expired – one permit expired in August and the other expired more than a year ago. The Ontario government is required to consult with communities on Nestlé’s bottled water applications but still has not done so. The Ontario government recently made some changes to the bottled water permitting system including a two-year moratorium on bottled water takings and increased bottled water taking fees (from $3.71 to 503.71 per million litres) but local groups and residents want more. They are calling for a phase out of bottled water takings to protect drinking water. The Council of Canadians is calling Nestle’s and other bottled water takings to be an election issue in next year’s Ontario election.
Summit speakers and participants were outraged that governments allow Nestlé and other water companies to take, control and sell water for a profit while failing to secure clean water for residents in Flint, Detroit, and many Indigenous nations.
Days before the summit, the Guardian reported that Nestle only pays an administrative fee of $200 in Michigan while Detroit resident Nicole Hill, a mother of three, has her water shut off every few months and has to pay “more than $200 a month” for water.
During the summit, participants took a pledge to boycott Nestle and single-use bottles of water. Immediately after the summit, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation announced the organization was joining the boycott. To join the boycott, click here.
As a tradeable good, NAFTA dramatically limits a government’s ability to stop provinces and states from selling water and renders government powerless to turn off the tap. Removing water as a “service” would help protect water as an essential public service. When services are provided by private corporations, NAFTA provisions limit the involvement of the public sector. Removing water as an “investment” and excluding NAFTA’s Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions would make it much harder for foreign corporations to use trade treaties to sue governments for laws or policies that protect water. Canada has already been sued for millions of dollars for laws protecting water.
A vow to end to Nestlé water takings
Over the weekend, participants of the summit listened to these moving and inspiring presentations and participated in workshops on Blue Communities, challenging the corporate control of water, the colonial enclosure of water and more. The gathering included local and Great Lakes residents as well as water justice, Great Lakes and grassroots organizations including our Guelph and Centre-Wellington Chapters of the Council of Canadians.
One thing was clear at the end of the summit: participants were ready to take action to end to Nestlé’s bottled water takings in Great Lakes, work to have the human right to water implemented and bring water justice to all who live around the lakes.
Guest Blogger and FLOW Board Member Emma Lui is the Water Campaign Director for the Council of Canadians. She shared her recent blog post with us about her recent trip to Kalkaska, MI. Read the original post on canadians.org
Driving into Kalkaska County, the welcome sign displays a picture of an oil well which is indicative of the history of oil and gas drilling in the county.
FLOW’s Communications Director Eric Olson and I drove 30 minutes outside of Traverse City Monday afternoon to the neighbouring county of Kalkaska. Kalkaska is an economically depressed community and many closed stores on Kalkaska’s downtown are a stark indication of that.
We met with Paul Brady, a ‘fracking watchdog’ according to media reports, who took us to see some of Encana’s well sites. The first well site we visited was the Excelsior 1-13 well in Excelsior Township, one of Kalkaska’s twelve townships. The site stores equipment and produces gas but minimal compared to some of Encana’s other well sites. But Encana has plans to expand the number of horizontal wells at this site. The development of the original site destroyed wetlands and some residents are concerned that Encana’s expansion will further destroy wetlands in the area.
Michigan may soon be the state with the most fracking within the Great Lakes Basin, making Kalkaska County the centre of fracking in the Great Lakes Basin. Ohio and Pennsylvania are Great Lakes states with a significant amount of fracking but most of the fracking within these states occurs outside of the Basin.
Next we drove down a dirt road called Sunset Trail and arrived at what Paul calls “Michigan’s first superpad,” known as the Oliver pad. The pad currently has three wells, which were completed in November of 2011 and are now producing wells. There are five more to come, for a total of eight wells. Standing on a small hill just outside the Oliver pad, we saw Encana’s holding tanks of condensate and brine. The site is clean, neat and almost sparse, with no traces of the toxic mixture that Encana used to frack the three wells on site – a very different picture from when the wells were being fracked. But the real threat is what can’t be seen above ground. Encana will draw groundwater in Kalkaska resulting in the loss of approximately 1.1 billion litres from the North Branch of the Manistee River. The North Branch of the Manistee River, a coldwater trout stream, is roughly 1400 feet from where we stood looking at the fracked wells of the Oliver pad.
As we walked on Sunset Trail which is in the Pere Marquette State Forest, Paul tells us the story of how back in May 2012, Team Services, a company contracted out by Encana, sprayed over 150,000 litres of fracking flowback on the very road we were walking on.
We drove down a few roads and arrived at the North Branch of the Manistee River. It looks small and unassuming but is a tributary to the Manistee River, which itself is a winding river of over 300 kilometres that eventually snakes its way to Lake Michigan. As mentioned, Encana’s fracking projects will result in the loss of approximately 1.1 billion litres from the North Branch.
Encana has other well sites in the county including the Garfield well in Garfield Township which used 45 million litres of water in December 2012 as well as the Westerman well site in Rapid River Township where residents have raised concerns about water well failures after fracking began.
The Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan has begun a statewide ballot initiative to “prohibit the new type of horizontal fracking and frack wastes in Michigan.” 258, 088 signatures are required in order for Michigan to hold a referendum on the issue in 2014. Click here to endorse this initiative.
As Maude Barlow points out in her report Our Great Lakes Commons: A People’s Plan to Protect the Great Lakes Forever, while there are many political jurisdictions governing the Great Lakes Basin, it is, in fact, one integrated watershed and needs to be seen and governed as such. We need to work towards banning fracking around the lakes in order to protect the entire Great Lakes Basin.
To read background information about fracking in Michigan, click here.
To view more pictures from this trip, click here.
Guest Blogger and FLOW Board Member Emma Lui is the Water Campaign Director for the Council of Canadians. She shared her recent blog post with us about Maude Barlow’s speaking engagement in Rochester, NY.
I just got home from an incredible event in Rochester, New York, the fourth Great Lakes tour stop. Maude Barlow, National Chairperson for the Council of Canadians, has been touring around the Great Lakes speaking out about threats to the Great Lakes and what we need to do to stop them once and for all. We began the Great Lakes tour last year where we visited eight cities and continued the tour this year with events already in Duluth, Milwaukee and Grand Rapids.
Wayne Howard, Linda Isaacson Fedele, Kate Kremer and Peter Debes of Rochester Sierra Club, Eric and Jim Olson from FLOW for water along with the support of Cool Rochester, Monroe Community College and Rochester Institute of Technology, did an incredible job organizing an thought-provoking and inspiring event.
On Thursday night Maude gave a riveting talk to a captivated audience of 300 about the serious threats plaguing the Great Lakes including fracking, pollution, low water levels and inequitable extraction. Recognizing the amazing work that groups have been doing to protect the lakes for decades, she outlined a needed shift in decision and policy making around the Great Lakes and outlined a framework on how to effectively address the threats to Great Lakes, so we’re not simply fighting one fight after another.
Barlow addresses the audience in Rochester, NY
Maude put forward a vision of the Great Lakes that protects a community’s right to say ‘no’ to projects harmful to water sources, incorporates community input into decision making and prioritize communities’ rights to water over private interests. These ideas form the basis of the notion that the Great Lakes are a commons and public trust. The notion of the commons, a very old concept, states that certain resources – such and air and water – are shared resources which people within a community have the collective obligation to protect. The public trust doctrine outlines governments’ obligations to protect these shared resources for community use from private exploitation.
After Maude’s talk, she was joined by Jim Olson from FLOW, Roger Downs from Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter and David Klein from the Nature Conservancy for an engaging panel discussion and to answer the audience’s questions. Jim Olson, an expert in the public trust doctrine, stressed that private rights cannot subordinate public rights.
Rochester was an important community to host a tour stop because of the water issues they’re facing. There are plans to ship fresh water by train from the region for fracking projects in Pennsylvania. Mountain Glacier, a subsidary of Nestle, is bottling water from Lake Hemlock as well as the municipality’s water. Similar to what happened in Niagara Falls, there is talk about the possibility of Monroe County, which Rochester is a part of, treating fracking wastewater.
New York anti-fracking activists share knowledge and ideas at the NY forum
Communities in New York state are incredibly active in the fight to protect water sources, public health and the environment against fracking. With approximately 200 municipal resolutions, New York state has by far the most resolutions on fracking in the US. Community groups and fracking coalitions have been successful in keeping a moratorium on fracking in New York state where delays in a health study are stalling Governor Cuomo’s already delayed decision on whether to lift or continue the moratorium. There have been recent calls for the environmental impact assessment to be scrapped because of Ecology and Environment and other consultations links to the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York.
Yesterday morning Maude and Jim outlined the principles of the commons and public trust respectively and set the context for the day-long workshop where 50 engaged participants applied them to local issues. I gave short presentation of examples of our work on the commons and public trust. An ongoing case with Nestle, of which we’re parties to, is an exciting opportunity for the public trust doctrine to be recognized by the Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal. I also talked about two municipal resolutions in Burnaby and Niagara-on-the-Lake that respectively recognize water as a commons and the Great Lakes are a shared commons and public trust.
I am heartened and inspired by the enthusiasm and openness of the people we met in Rochester to embrace the needed shift in the framework governing the Great Lakes, one that will rightfully prioritize the protection of the lakes above all else. With many governments failing to protect community watersheds, the commons and public trust principles are crucial to changing people’s relationships to water to one of responsibility and stewardship and holding our governments to account so they protect water sources for today’s and future generations. People within communities like Rochester are the catalysts for this change and it is them that I place my faith and hope that we will save the Great Lakes.