Image Courtesy Detroit Water Brigade
Image Courtesy Detroit Water Brigade

GreenWatch: What's in the Water #1

by / Feb. 7, 2016 10am EST

GreenWatch What is in the Water?

This is the introductory piece to the new GreenWatch Series “What’s in the Water?”  In this series we will explore the stability, conditions, and control of our waters, including the Great Lakes, regional and local ecosystems, watersheds, wetlands, rivers, creeks, pools, ponds, forests, and the headwaters forests. The premise of this series is that access to clean, drinkable water is vanishing and we can find ways to create better water security.


We are Flint-Who Owns the Water?

If you are surprised or shocked by the ongoing tragedy that has unfolded in Flint, Michigan and it’s contaminated drinking water, you probably should not be.  Although we live in a first world country where it seems that access to fresh drinkable water is an important right, the reality is that many are warning us that access to drinking water is not a part of our inalienable and common heritage. The control of our water resources is a hotly contested political and economic issue. The commodification of natural resources has long dominated our strategies to extract and create wealth. Now we are in one of the final frontiers. Control, access, use, and distribution of water.

Like any resource war, the fight for control of fresh water is dominated by big players and big scenarios. Commodification of waters is driven by free-market fundamentals and the hidden hands that are securing access for the economically privileged

Impoverished and abandoned communities such as Flint are forced to bear the disproportionate impacts and depredations of the resource wars. More often than not, these communities are dominated by First Nations people and people of color.  Flint has an approximate 60% African American population. During the past two years Michigan communities of color including Benton Harbor, Detroit, and Flint have been taken over by appointed political entities that represent “austerity” regimes that continue to rise in our political landscape. 80% of African Americans now live in Michigan communities that have been taken over by Emergency Financial Management Teams.

These political regimes focus on seizing public authority, downsizing government through privatization, eliminating taxes, regulations, and eliminating accountability including checks and balances that are built into the public domain.

These Governor appointed emergency “teams” have forced local elected officials out of fiscal decision-making roles, have the authority to void contracts, eliminate union influence, reduce wages and benefits, close facilities, and transfer public property and infrastructure to the private sector. People in these communities have lost their rights to elect local leaders and to determine their own futures.

While many of us have talked a good game about the issues of disproportionate impact of economic and environmental disasters on communities of color, Flint proves that it remains mostly talk.

Flint Council Vice-President Wantwaz Davis likened what has happened in Flint to genocide. 

At least for the moment, the crisis in Flint and our national and local political campaigns and debates are helping us to focus on these issues.

We hope that our GreenWatch series “What’s in the Water” will help to inform you and help to characterize our WNY discussions.


Global Water Perspectives

According to the United Nations, globally 800 million people lack access to clean drinking water, 2.6 billion people lack adequate sanitation, and 1.8 million people die annually of associated diseases. The world’s growing unrest is directly linked to water scarcity

Water scarcity is driving the sustainability of planet earth over the edge.

Climate change, growing industrial and agricultural consumption and pollution of freshwater resources, and development strategies linked to economic growth strategies are increasing those numbers. Local, regional, national and global economic disparity plays a critical role in how our future will work for us.

Although water is a central theme of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and climate change is a pivotal threat, water was hardly mentioned in the recent Paris COP21 Climate talks. 

No one on earth is immune to these evolving threats. Those of us that live in the Great Lakes basin have a special responsibility to make clean water a priority. We are on the front lines of this global and national issue. The Great Lakes contain ⅕ of the earth’s entire reserve of fresh surface water. 85% of North American’s depend on these waters in one way or another. And make no mistake. The condition and accessibility of these waters are in jeopardy. Pollution, privatization, and climate change coming from multiple sources and causes are threats that are changing the way we think, and must think about these increasingly valuable resources.  Flint Michigan is only the most recent and visible example of what we are facing in the Great Lakes and beyond.

It is time to loudly address our cultural responsibilities in the context of what is in our water, who does and or should control it, and how this will effect our stability as a region for coming generations.

How we act as a culture will be characterized by how we react to the Flint emergency. In a very real sense, we are all Flint Michiganders. And just to be clear, poison water issues in Flint are just the tip of the iceberg. 


The Michigander’s Dilemma

Privatization and Control If you don’t know the story, the politics of the Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder and his backers forced a change in water supply in 2014 from using water from the City of Detroit and the glacial Lake Huron, to sourcing from the highly contaminated Flint River. This strategy is a part of the water wars that erupted over Snyder’s support of the more corporatized (privatized) and new, Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), over the more public utility,  Detroit Water and Sewer Department  which had been providing Flint water from Lake Huron for decades. Snyder and his backers strategies focused on the establishment of laws that allow Emergency Financial Management teams that have taken over previously public systems including elected governments, school systems, and in Flint, the water system. Michigan communities and people including Detroit, Benton Harbor, and Flint, which are primarily minority and poor communities.  Governor Snyder’s and his backers initiatives have cost these communities their ability to elect their own leaders, and make their own choices. They have had their futures stolen. Despite the fact that some in politics want you to believe that it is “personal responsibility” that has make these communities and people poor, it is quite the opposite. Cultural responsibilities, including the economic mechanisms that continue to transfer wealth to the 1% are the collective responsibilities of all of us. You want to enforce personal responsibility? Look in the mirror. You may be responsible for this tragedy.

Austerity is the economic idol forced into our thinking by the “small government” movement.

This is part and parcel of the industrial age sourced privatization strategies that promote a redistribution of wealth away from the 99% and to the .01%. This has caused the vanishing of America’s middle class.

These strategies evolved in recent decades in the “smaller government” movements that advocate less or no taxes, less or no regulations, and less or no oversight and accountability as guaranteed in a democratic and publically held system of checks and balances. These strategies are relentlessly pushed by political extremists including Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, Grover Norquist, and the deep pockets of the propaganda arms of the Koch Brothers, their dark money group “Americans for Prosperity”, and the ubiquitous American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). 

Mother Jones magazine reported recently 

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder was elected in 2010 on a platform of fiscal austerity. Snyder, the former head of Gateway computers and a darling of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, promised to run the state like a company, complete with “outcomes” and “deliverables.” In 2011, he introduced a signature piece of legislation, Public Act 4, which expanded the state’s authority to take over financially troubled cities and school districts. Similar laws exist in about 20 states, but Michigan’s is the most expansive: Emergency managers picked by the governor have the power to renegotiate or cancel city contracts, unilaterally draft policy, privatize public services, sell off city property, and even fire elected officials.”


The Michigan laws that allowed the creation of Emergency managers, School District dissolution, and Local Emergency Financial Assistance Loan Boards were repealed by Michigan voters in November of 2012. However the Governor’s party rewrote the Bill, attached it to an appropriations Bill which is cannot be repealed by voter referendum, and is was enacted that December, just a few weeks after the voters rejected the original law.

The Mother Jones piece continues:

Since 2011, 17 municipalities or school districts in Michigan have been assigned emergency managers. The majority of them are in poor, predominantly African-American communities that have been hit hard by depressed economies and shrinking populations. Some EMs have worked with communities to generate local buy-in, but their outsider status, lack of accountability, and propensity for cutting public services to save money have generated harsh criticism. As Michael Steinberg, the legal director for the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said a recent statement, “Flint is Exhibit A for what happens when a state suspends democracy and installs unaccountable bean counters to run a city.”


The Flint Austerity “Emergency”

In Flint, the takeover by the Emergency Management laws involved targeting the control and  profitability of the water system. A new water system (KWA) with a focus on a privatized anti-union, and anti-regulatory agenda for the region was proposed and developed. 

The language of austerity became a feature of the attack on the public water system. In what has only recently been revealed (and this continues to develop), the austerity agenda was a political fabrication designed to transfer profits to the private sector. 

Who would be the beneficiaries of these increased expenses?

The construction of a new pipeline for KWA and it’s probable private partners is a big part of the mix. An independent audit commissioned by Michigan State Treasury argued against its construction. The Flint Emergency Manger was a strong advocate of the pipeline and pushed through approvals. According to a variety reports, JP Morgan and UBS, two companies associated with municipal securities fraud are involved in the financing of the pipeline.

There is an evidence trail linking the KWA pipeline project to Hydro-fracking operations along the route. Hydrofracking requires billions of gallons of water and creates waste that is not inexpensively or adequately treatable. Access to water from a new pipeline would prop up the opportunties for hydrofracking operations in Michigan.

In addition, it was revealed last week that Governor Snyder’s administration is deeply linked to Nestle, a big player in the privatization of water schemes.

Emails recently revealed show that the switch to the Flint River was not about saving money. In fact the switch to the Karegnodi Water Authority would cost taxpayers and waters users much more, and that includes more in cash payouts for direct access to water. 

It now appears that was once argued by the state that a switch to KWA from the Detroit Water and Sewer Department to be a savings of a few million dollars will cost billions in damages.

Austerity politics has conclusively supported disinvestment in communities and people and blamed the disinvestment on the people and communities abandoned. 


Left Behind

The people of Flint are in poverty and receivership because when businesses including General Motors, which was anchored in Flint for almost a century, lost profits in the economic recessions in the 1980’s-1990’s, they fled. GM took advantage of global trade agreements that made offshore labor and offshore production cheaper. Workers with less rights, and countries with far less environmental regulation made it more profitable for GM to abandoned Flint. And they blamed the workers, the unions and regulations.

Left to the people of Flint is the legacy liabilities of pollution, poverty, and increased despair. Poisoned water is making thousands of people sick. These are lifelong illnesses. The social and environmental catastrophe has and will cost billions of our tax dollars to repair, at least that which can be repaired. The lead poisoned children of Flint will never be repaired. Black lives matter.

Privatization and the elimination of accountablity with public systems is the kind of redistribution of wealth, and the implementation of corporate welfare and socialism that ALEC politics believe in. They have their hands in your pocket. This is not an unusual circumstance; it is rather the way of a broad spectrum of an extractive and globalized business culture. It is what runs Wall Street. If the extraction of wealth from a community is no longer viable, then communities must be abandoned in the name of the shareholders and in the name of profit. The only thing trickling down the leg of this bloated and malformed elephant in the room is our vanishing opportunity to participate in an economic system. What collective resources we have left includes money which we the taxpayers must spend to try to stabilize the situation. GM got out of town without conscience, without plans for the community it had relied on, and without concern for the people left behind.

One of the most significant things that you should know is that “what is in the water” is a war for control and access. Is that a good thing? As we continue down the path of natural resource commodification, unchecked, unbalanced, and unaccountable economic development, we continue to “sustain” growth that exploits natural resources as a target of wealth strategies. Is it working? It is apparently working for GM. This week GM announced that its 2015 pre-tax earnings are $11 billion. And they do not pay Federal Taxes.

Read More: 

Soul Crushing Facts About American Income Inequality

How Income Inequality Makes a Mockery of the American Dream


Coming Next: We are Flint/Part II -Western New York Connections.