Jaimien Delp is a lecturer at the University of Michigan and a contributor to FLOW (For Love Of Water)
Michigan citizens for more than two decades have witnessed the failure of government officials to meet their paramount duty under constitutional and common law to protect the life-sustaining resource of our watersheds, and therefore, the public health and the common good of the people.
This culture of government negligence, in which water, people and health are secondary to political and economic interests, has resulted in the devastation of lives and communities.
The state of Michigan in 2018 alone, and in violation of clear constitutional and legal mandates, has approved multiple permits allowing for the ongoing impairment of Michigan’s water and natural resources. State government allows Nestlé to continue pumping and bottling water from our Great Lakes Basin for private profit, while in Flint, citizens remain without clean, safe water in their homes. To survive, families are forced to support the very companies depriving them, and all of us, of our lawful public resources, while consequently facing eviction for unpaid water bills due to contaminated water.
Detroit Public Schools, as well as those in Ann Arbor, must now also rely on bottled water or “hydration stations,” large water coolers with filters, following the discovery of high levels of lead in their water supplies, all while water shut-offs to households in Detroit continue daily. Enbridge’s decaying Line 5 continues to pump crude oil though the Straits of Mackinac at the risk of unprecedented devastation to the health of citizens along up to 700 miles of coastline.
The list of failures on the part of government and elected officials to defend the right to clean, safe and affordable drinking water for citizens is long, but a few foundational facts bring clarity to the heart of the issue surrounding water injustice:
What is the average annual water bill a resident in Flint is required to pay for contaminated water? Based on a 2015 report from Food and Water Watch, $864.32, though we can accurately say current averages are significantly higher. In April of this year, resident Tunde Olaniran reported in an article for the Washington Post that her annual water bill, in a single-person household, was $1,800.
What is the average annual water bill for a Detroit resident, facing the shutoff of service? According to Marcus Hudson, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s chief financial officer, in early 2017 the average Detroit household incurred an annual bill of about $972. This is based on a three-person household that uses 4,800 gallons per month. More recent studies, however, have concluded that the average American home uses 7,000 gallons per month, suggesting this number is closer to $1,500.
What is Nestlé required to pay annually to the DEQ to withdraw water from Michigan? Nestlé pays $200 a year for taking more than 210 million gallons of groundwater a year, aside from a one-time administrative fee of $5,000.
What is the multi-generational cost to public health, in total, when government fails to protect the water, which, by law, belongs to the people?
One could never arrive at such a number. It is so high as to be incalculable.
It is the cost of life.
The key that is often lost in conversation about these issues is that the more than 40 million people who live in the Great Lakes Basin are the beneficiaries of these waters, with our state governments serving as trustees to protect these shared waters for current and future generations.
This is the essence of the common law known as the public trust doctrine.
You own the water. I own the water. Families in Flint who must bathe with cases of Nestlé bottled water own the water. Parents of children in Detroit who have no running water in their schools own the water. Americans and Canadians living in the Great Lakes watershed all own the water. And yet, we have witnessed state policy in Michigan act directly against the health and common good of its citizens when it comes to protecting this vital resource for us.
In response to mounting urgency, For Love of Water (FLOW) founder and President Jim Olson, a prominent environmental and water lawyer, went to work identifying the science and law governing these most critical threats.
This spring, he completed draft model legislation for FLOW to address the loss of access to and affordability of clean water for Michigan’s citizens, embrace the constitutional principle that water is public, and correct the injustice that large-volume bottled water producers pay nothing but token administrative fees for our public water that they convert for private sale and huge profits.
After consulting other respected water law attorneys and people and organizations involved in water and health issues across the Great Lakes Basin, FLOW’s team developed the final model legislation and a full report and summary – the Public Water, Public Justice Act, released in September – to bring these intertwined water and health crises under a comprehensive legal framework, and recalibrate Michigan’s priorities to protect its public water and its people.
In brief, FLOW’s Public Water, Public Justice Act: (a) affirms public ownership over water, (b) protects sensitive water resources, (c) prohibits the sale of water except for the sale of bottled water authorized by a royalty licensing system, and (d) recoups for public purposes royalties derived from these private bottled water sales. This model law places royalties into a public water, health and justice trust fund to serve people and communities for specific dedicated public purposes, such as replacing lead service lines or creating water affordability plans for disadvantaged people, cities and rural communities.
If a groundswell of people – our leaders, legislators, local governments, organizations, businesses and citizens from all walks of life – work together, there can be new hope for water, health and the common good in Michigan. All of us, beyond partisanship and self-interests, must now unite in our efforts to secure passage of a law guarding the life-affirming resource that is our Great Lakes watershed.