Tag: World Water Day

Michigan Water Day resolution 2024

For the fourth year in a row, FLOW has helped author and worked towards a House of Representatives resolution declaring March 22 as Michigan Water Day, and resolving that water is a human right. The resolution was introduced by Rep. Rachel Hood (D-81) and co-sponsored by Betsy Coffia (D-103) and 22 additional House representatives.

Michigan Water Day coincides with the international World Water Day, an annual United Nations observance honoring the importance of freshwater.

Michigan House of Representatives Resolution:

Download the resolution text as PDF

World Water Day: Water Unites Us All

The 8 billion people of this planet are almost unfathomably diverse, but have one thing in common. We need water to survive, and we consist of water – 55 to 60% of the adult body is water.

Recognizing the universal human need for water, the United Nations has declared the theme of World Water Day, March 22, as Water for Peace. There are few better examples of peaceful, harmonious international water stewardship than the cooperation of the U.S. and Canada in using and guarding the waters of the Great Lakes.

Since 1909, when the two nations agreed in the Boundary Waters Treaty to prevent and resolve disputes over water straddling their shared border, Canada and the U.S. have been viewed as pioneers in peaceful, joint water governance. For the Great Lakes, this has meant coordinated attacks on harmful algae blooms, toxic substances and the invasive sea lamprey; restoration of contaminated connecting waters and harbors; and planning to assure the quality of the Great Lakes continues to improve in decades to come.

Still, the two countries, like the rest of the world, have more work to do. Although abundant water characterizes the Great Lakes region, thousands of people are unable to count on clean, fresh and accessible drinking water due to crumbling infrastructure and water services shutoffs. Globally, more than 2 billion people lack access to clean water.

If water is to unite humanity, then access to it must be provided to all of humanity.

World water facts

  • The Great Lakes contain about 20% of the available surface fresh water of the world and 95% of the available surface fresh water of the U.S.
  • Roughly half of the world’s population is experiencing severe water scarcity for at least part of the year.
  • Water-related disasters have dominated the list of disasters over the past 50 years and account for 70 per cent of all deaths related to natural disasters.
  • Transboundary waters account for 60 per cent of the world’s freshwater flows, and 153 countries have territory within at least 1 of the 310 transboundary river and lake basins and inventoried 468 transboundary aquifer systems.

The Kids are All Right: FLOW Partners to Lift Up the Youth Water Movement

Photo: (L-to-r) Rachel Roberts and Bebe Schaefer, co-founders of “Water&” — a Wash., D.C., nonprofit water advocacy group

By Jacob Wheeler

Too often we hear that members of Generation Z, those born between 1997-2012, mistrust government, worry about the future of democracies, and feel overwhelmed by the weighty burden of climate change they are inheriting. But from the depths rise the leaders of tomorrow—our beacon of hope.

“The vibe of the youth climate movement,” writes The New York Times, is “powered by rage and distrust, it is decentralized, and it is increasingly focused on the inequitable effects of global warming.” Case in point, on March 25, the “Friday for the Future” global youth movement is organizing protests around the world to call for climate reparations and justice.”

You’ve heard, no doubt, of Greta Thunberg, the 19-year-old Swedish environmental activist. But you have probably not heard yet of Bebe Schaefer and Rachel Roberts, two students at American University in Washington, D.C., who recently launched the nonprofit organization Water&, on a “constant journey of collective action.”

We at FLOW are thrilled to join hands with Water& and other young adult-led organizations in the Great Lakes Basin, and in our nation’s capital, to expand hope and leadership in the protection of our public waters. We intend this effort to support not just the youth climate movement, but also help feed the emerging “youth water movement” focused on a clean environment, public health, and equitable outcomes.

To celebrate World Water Day, the annual United Nations event that this year focused on “Groundwater: Making the Invisible Visible,” Water& produced incisive infographics, a legislative advocacy campaign, and a powerful and inspirational video titled, “G is for Groundwater,” which weaves together a narrated poem with hand-drawn, digital imagery of gray, blue, and green colors seeping across the globe. Watch that video here:

FLOW interviewed Bebe and Rachel about their inspiration for launching Water&, their connection to FLOW, and what campaigns and initiatives we’ll see from them in the weeks and months to come.

FLOW: What inspired you to launch Water&, and why now?

Bebe Schaefer: We were inspired to launch Water& because the next generation should play a direct role in preserving our shared water resources for future generations. We have seen many youth-led organizations that focus on climate change; however, many did not encompass water’s importance within their initiatives. Growing up in Michigan, I was always surrounded by the beauty of freshwater, and moving to Washington, D.C., for college provided me with the opportunity to delve into policy solutions to protect it. However, I also noticed that we are simply not doing enough to protect water when juxtaposed with the bulk of attention on climate. We are at a turning point in our society where our freshwater resources are being bought and sold by companies that aim to make a profit off of water, instead of protecting it. We see this as an injustice that must be solved, and Water& is intent on building a movement to reverse this growing problem.

Rachel Roberts: What inspired us to launch Water& initially were discrepancies we saw in other initiatives that did not ethically and morally align with the goal of protecting and respecting water as our most crucial element. I have always had a passion to help others and create positive change in the world for future generations, and this opportunity to advocate for water rights fell into place with both my beliefs and my incentive to help our planet. We took the leap to start Water& in our second year of college, which was a lot to take on as full-time undergraduate students, but we are persistent and quite stubborn, so we have gotten incredibly far in less than a year.

FLOW: Tell us about the name. (You didn’t get cut off before registering a third word in the name, did you? LOL)

Bebe: Haha, no, but it would be quite funny if we did.

The name Water& came out of understanding water’s unique role in sustaining life. Everything comes back to water. When we were going through the names we thought “&Water,” but we recognized that water is not an afterthought. The ampersand represents futurity and connectedness. Water always has been, and will continue to be, our future, and it is connected to everything else in humanity, so it made sense to juxtapose “water” next to “&,” showing that it is water and all that water provides for humanity. As a result, the name Water& was born.

Rachel: Right, we didn’t get cut off, but more left it open-ended. While designing our initial branding, I wanted to utilize the meaning of the ampersand because it is so reflective of the mission we are on. The ampersand represents connection, community, and is an indication of the future, an expectation for something more, and excitement for what is to come. This symbol represents our mission and our vision for the future, and worked beautifully when thinking about names for initiatives as well, (for example “Water& You”). 

FLOW: What connected you to FLOW? And what resonates with you about our work?

Bebe: It was actually a funny story. It was 11 p.m. one night, and I was sitting in my bed scrolling on my phone and randomly thought to look up “public trust solutions” to water problems. At this point we had been building out Water& for seven months and were looking for ways to engage with other organizations. I realized that our values closely aligned with FLOW’s, and we were eager to partner with another organization that values water in the ways that we do. We believe that water needs to stay in the hands of people and the communities that enjoy it, and not under the control of private companies that profit off of it. We loved that FLOW had waged a direct battle with Nestlé and their goal to privatize our Michigan freshwater. We also loved that FLOW expressed perspectives on water through art, policy, and community building, which is exactly what Water& does. We saw this as a perfect partnership because, as young people, we can reach an audience that FLOW might not normally resonate with as much, and vice versa.

Rachel: We connected with FLOW initially because of how aligned our organizations were together, with both our initiatives and with the things we wanted to do in the future. We kind of stumbled upon FLOW after looking into public trust solutions, and we both recognized how connected our mentalities were and decided to work together for this year’s World Water Day.

FLOW: What campaigns and initiatives might we see from Water& in the months to come?

Bebe & Rachel: Water& is working on a bunch of initiatives coming up. On April 7, we will be celebrating our one-year anniversary by unveiling an incredible art piece done by our Artistic Director Aubree Frost, announcing our Next Gen coalition spearheaded by our Director of Advocacy Kendall Kalustyan, and coming out with our “She is Water” poem by our Director of Research & Creative Expression Kaylin Lemajeur. We will also be announcing our online art gallery with features of artists who share their perspectives on water with the theme of “Repair & Restore.”

FLOW: What’s your personal call to action to protect freshwater? How do you connect with fresh water on a daily or weekly basis?

Bebe: When I was younger, going to the Great Lakes was always something I looked forward to. At the time, we had a house in Benzonia, Michigan, and whenever we faced external stresses in our life, my family would pack up the car and drive up to the Great Lakes. As I got older, I learned to appreciate water in a different way. Rather than basking in the sun on the lake, I realized that there are people who cannot enjoy water in the ways that I do. When I was in high school, the Flint Water Crisis captured the attention of everyone in the nation, and the only thing I remember thinking was, “Why do I have clean tap water while people that live 40 miles from me do not?” This realization propelled me to take political action to change the way that water is respected and valued in the eyes of the law.

Connecting with water for me means taking the time in my day to reflect on how grateful I am for water. When it rains, I take the time to thank water for nourishing the earth. I take time out of my day to recognize that I exist because of water, and it is my purpose to protect our water and its role in sustaining life.

Rachel: Growing up I spent my summers in upstate New York on a beautiful freshwater lake, and those memories of the natural beauty of the water and of the land around it always stuck with me. Knowing fresh water is largely unprotected and has faced the brunt of the poor treatment of our earth, and having core memories take place surrounded by freshwater systems, I am more drawn to working towards protecting it. I try to take time out of my day, as I am using the water resources that I have access to, to think about those who do not have the accessibility that I do, and how I can work to change that, for both the betterment of humanity and the betterment of our earth.

FLOW: Since you’re in the Beltway, what’s your read on how people in Washington, D.C., understand water protection issues in the Great Lakes Basin? And what do they misunderstand?

Bebe: When I discuss this issue with people in D.C., people’s minds often go to the Flint Water Crisis. I don’t think that people are aware that 20% of surface freshwater in the world is held in the Great Lakes. Further, the majority of people are not aware of the rapidly growing problem of water privatization. In D.C., people move so quickly and I have noticed that although people care about water, the majority of people are not acutely aware of the toxins being dumped into our water supply. Further, people do not know how to get involved to protect water and keep this shared resource safe for future generations.

Rachel: People in Washington, D.C., recognize the water protection issues that have been so prevalent in the media, for example, the coverage that Flint received on the lead-exposure crisis due to corrosive water. I do believe there is a lack of understanding, as well as misunderstanding, in D.C., of both the gravity of the water crisis and the expansiveness of the lack of water accessibility that is facing the Great Lakes Basin, not just Flint. 

FLOW: What proactive role can the federal government play in helping us all understand the fragility of the Great Lakes? What gives you hope?

Bebe & Rachel: We believe the federal government has a major role to play in protecting the Great Lakes. However, we also believe that recently the U.S. has made steps in the bipartisan infrastructure law giving a billion dollars towards the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Further, Senator Gary Peters in late October 2021 announced new research facilities at Lake Superior State University geared towards responding to freshwater oil spills. [Editor’s note: Bebe Schaefer serves as an intern in the Wash., D.C., office of Sen. Peters].

Organizations and people that love and care for the Great Lakes give us hope for the future. It gives us hope that we have a team of incredible people that also support this goal and want to ensure the safety of the Great Lakes and all water resources across the globe. It gives us hope that policies and people from opposite sides of the aisle can come together and work towards a common goal as shown through the bipartisan infrastructure law and other initiatives to regulate PFAS and other toxic chemicals in our water supply.

Groundwater, though Invisible, Is Critical for Our Survival

Groundwater painting by Glenn Wolff.

What’s the natural resource that is critical to the survival of billions of human beings but invisible to the vast majority of them?

The answer is groundwater, both in Michigan and globally. Out of sight, but not detached from our economy and health, groundwater plays a critical role in Michigan communities, supplying 45 percent of Michigan’s population with drinking water. Yet groundwater is a neglected and much-abused part of our state’s natural endowment.

This year, groundwater will be in the spotlight on the annual World Water Day, March 22. Since 1993, World Water Day has underscored the importance of safe, clean, and affordable water, and the threat to human health and survival among the two billion people on Earth who lack access to it.

In the buildup to March 22, groups around the world will hold events and launch projects on the groundwater theme. On World Water Day itself, the United Nations World Water Development Report will be released, recommending policy direction to decision makers. A United Nations Groundwater Summit will take place in December 2022.

The UN catalogues the following global groundwater challenges:

Agriculture: About 40 percent of all the water used for irrigation comes from aquifers. Especially in water-scarce countries, the provision of cheap energy for pumping groundwater for irrigated agriculture can lead to groundwater depletion and declining water quality, with potentially severe consequences for those who now depend on groundwater irrigation. Furthermore, the use of fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture is a serious threat to groundwater quality.

Borders: Most of the world’s large aquifers cross international borders. Some 468 transboundary aquifers have been identified worldwide; hence, most countries share groundwater resources. Globally, of the eight largest aquifers under stress, six are transboundary.

Finite: There are limitations to groundwater use, such as groundwater quality and high costs of abstraction (from deep aquifers). Furthermore, groundwater is not always available in sufficient quantities in the places where there is the highest human demand for water. For instance, the Asia-Pacific region has the lowest per capita water availability in the world, with groundwater use in the region predicted to increase 30 per cent by 2050.

Natural and Human Pollution: The potential threats to the quality of groundwater are natural contamination and contaminant sources from land use and other human activities. Two of the most widely spread natural contaminants are arsenic and fluoride. Naturally occurring arsenic pollution in groundwater affects millions of people on all continents. Therefore, groundwater quality needs to be assessed and monitored regularly. Human-caused contamination includes the effects of agricultural intensification, urbanization, population growth and climate change.

World Water Day’s groundwater focus is timely observance for Michigan, which faces a groundwater crisis. Consider:

  • There are an estimated 26,000 contamination sites needing state funding for cleanup, and at the current rate of remediation, they won’t all be addressed for decades.
  • Although 1.25 million private water wells supply drinking water to more than two million Michiganders, there is no regular safety testing of that water.
  • High-risk toxic chemicals, including TCE, which has contaminated groundwater in more than 300 known Michigan locations, are still in widespread use.
  • Michigan is the last holdout among the 50 states in protecting groundwater and surface water from failing septic systems, of which an estimated 130,000 exist in Michigan and whose pollution has been linked with disease.
  • Michigan laws protecting groundwater are fragmented.

FLOW’s commitment to educating Michiganders on the importance of protecting groundwater and encouraging them to act reaches back several years. In 2018, we published our first groundwater report, The Sixth Great Lake: the Emergency Threatening Michigan’s Overlooked Groundwater Resource. In 2021, we published a second, Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake: Spotlighting and Solving Michigan’s Groundwater Emergency. We also built a groundwater story map and posted fact sheets about the value of groundwater. And we hosted a groundwater webinar.

In addition to pursuing policy reforms strengthening groundwater protection, FLOW is currently involved in two major groundwater projects. We have formed and convened the Michigan Groundwater Table that includes experts and advocates from a cross-section of interests. Members of the table are reviewing groundwater issues and attempting to identify common findings and recommendations.

FLOW also is a partner with Michigan State University’s Institute of Water Research in a project commissioned by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy to assess the economic impact of state policies that leave contaminated groundwater in place rather than cleaning it up. At such locations, responsible parties restrict access to drinking water and exposure to contaminated soils, meaning contamination remains and, because it is out of sight, such pollution may spread.

There is much more to do to protect Michigan’s groundwater, and World Water Day is a good opportunity to learn about that.

Valuing Water: It’s More than How Much Surrounds Us

Michigan’s history teaches cautionary lessons about humanity’s hunger for consumption of natural resources.

Our state’s white pine forest, stretching over two-thirds of the state, was expected in the 1860s to withstand logging for 500 years—but the timber industry cut nearly the whole thing down in 50 years.  

Michigan’s vast wetlands, at first considered nuisances that needed to be eradicated, declined by 4 million acres over a century—and now we know how valuable wetlands are for flood control, fish and wildlife habitat, and pollution filtering.

The waters of the Great Lakes were once considered so abundant that they could assimilate any volume of pollution society could discharge into them—and then thousands of people started dying in the early 1900s from typhoid and cholera resulting from the dumping of human wastes upstream from drinking water intakes.

We live in the Great Lakes State, surrounded by four of the largest lakes in the world. As we gaze out at the blue horizon, it’s tempting to think that there’s no way humans could significantly diminish them. On World Water Day, it’s important to recognize that seeming inexhaustibility is a myth.

Although the Great Lakes have declined only slightly from record water levels, this doesn’t mean we can expect surplus water in the long run. Climate change may ultimately prove the biggest Great Lakes water diversion of all—by driving population away from the arid Southwest and elsewhere, placing unprecedented demand on this region’s waters. Should this happen, as recent signs have suggested, we will need to conserve water more than ever before even though encircled by these Great Lakes.

Tribal leader Frank Ettawageshik put our Great Lakes in the proper perspective: “One hundred and fifty years ago, we had a resource in the Great Lakes region that was considered inexhaustible. It lasted barely two generations. This was the White Pine forest. The White Pine of this century is water.”

Embracing and Protecting Great Lakes Water Before It’s Gone

By Liz Kirkwood, FLOW Executive Director

“We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.”Thomas Fuller

“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“We have a saying—any decision we make today should take into consideration the next seven generations.”Tribal chairwoman and attorney of Bay Mills Indian Community, Whitney Gravelle

On United Nations’ World Water Day, it’s worth asking this question: Why is it that we only begin to understand what we have at the very moment it is gone? This question defines the crisis around water in the Great Lakes. The stories and statistics around water poisoning, pollution, and scarcity are staggering.

Recent water disasters have been all too common: the Flint lead-in-drinking water tragedy, the thousands of residential water shutoffs in Detroit and beyond, the 2014 toxic algal bloom that shut down the Toledo drinking water system, and the countless other community water supplies poisoned from chemical contamination from PFAS and other pollutants.

Time and time again, the reaction from residents is: How could this have happened in America? 

A look at the last 50 years reveals how our lack of investment in water infrastructure paved the way for Michigan’s and America’s water crisis. After passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the federal government fulfilled much of its promise by funding sewage treatment construction with grants comprising 75% of the cost. But in the 1980s, Congress significantly cut back on sewage treatment grants, replacing them with revolving loan funds that are much less helpful to communities.

It’s time to reverse this disinvestment to assure clean, safe, and affordable drinking water, and to protect individuals and families and make more of our lakes and streams fishable and swimmable. Here’s how:

  • Prevent and Protect Water—First, we must prioritize the protection of our freshwater surface and groundwater supplies. Prevention is the most effective way to protect this precious and finite resource. It’s common sense to avoid a problem before it arises. Protective water quality standards and strict enforcement against violators are absolutely essential.
  • Plan with Nature-Based Solutions in Mind—Second, we should engage in coordinated smart land use planning to anticipate demographic growth, cultivate green spaces, and avoid destruction of wetlands, flood plains, and aquifers. Planning is hard and requires coordinated community engagement, compromise, and vision.
  • Invest in Water Sustainability and Affordability—Third, we need to recalibrate the financing of our water systems so we achieve sustainable municipal operations and affordable rates for customers. This recalibration necessarily depends upon increased, consistent financial investment in our water infrastructure. It can’t be one and done.
  • Place Water at the Center of Decision-making—Fourth, underlining all this collective work, we must embrace a sincere water ethic that respects and honors the fundamental role water plays in all life. In practice, this means that we can no longer view unbridled economic growth and prosperity as separate from the natural world. Externalities must be internalized so that we finally prioritize sustainable healthy ecosystems as the key building block for securing healthy communities and economies.

We know that our current poor policies and practices are unsustainable and that they are accelerating water contamination, overdevelopment, climate change, and harmful agriculture dependent on chemical fertilizers and fossil fuels, while woefully underfunding of environmental agencies.

The world’s stores of groundwater, which accumulate over millennia in aquifers, are vanishing at an alarming rate. The result is diminished reliable sources of clean, safe, and affordable water.

We say we value water—but our governments often don’t act like it. It is time for us to hold them accountable, and to practice good water stewardship ourselves.