Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Access to Water is a Human Right. But …

The story of the New York City water supply is actually one of the Great True Stories. The quest for good drinking water is as old as the city (approaching the end of its fourth century) and involves Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, banking law, Irish immigrants, transported communities and abandoned villages, wile, guile, imagination and ingenuity. Photo at left: Many homes from old Katonah were moved to a new site a mile away, to allow for the construction of the Croton reservoir.

And as a resident of Westchester County, New York City’s water comes out of my taps — and it’s probably the best municipal drinking water in the world. Why any of my neighbors wants to buy bottled water is beyond me! Our water really does come from giardia-free crystalline mountain streams and is rigorously protected, not just by the city but by the people who live in the hundreds of square miles of the watershed. NYS DEC map at right: You can be hours from New York City (shown in purple) deep in the mountains and still have an NYC reservoir nearby.

The UU Service Committee is promoting a movement for water rights in California. And that's a grand idea ... but wait a minute. What does California do with the water it's got? Does California -- do most communities in the arid southwest use water wisely? Why should UU energy be directed toward providing more water to people living in a part of the country that cannot support the population it had forty years ago, much less today?

This question has several parts. One relates to public policy about a part of the United States that has far exceeded the carrying capacity of the land it occupies. One of the parts relates to public policy that continues to promote settlement there. And a third part relates to the goals of the UUSC. Yes, I believe that access to drinking water is a human right. But before we encourage Californians to take to the streets and the airwaves to demand more of the world's resources -- and given that nobody is lying dying in a dusty Marin street as I write -- why not assess the true starting and ending points of any suggested policy change?

In the first place, why should our denominational energies go to supporting anything as unsustainable, in any guise, as development in the southwest? Here we have a direct collision of long-term goals. The western and southwestern states need a water policy that goes further than water. The UUSC should be lobbying for a clear-eyed evaluation of today's real water management in the southwest in terms of future water needs across the continent.

Here's what I believe the UUSC should be working for. 1) Acknowledgement that access to clean, drinkable water is a human right and a government responsibility. 2) Therefore, government provision of trucked-in (if necessary) water to communities that lack other access to it. 3) Making equitable distribution of existing water a first step in any water-provision plan. As long as existing water supplies are unfairly priced and inequitably distributed, no state should be looking beyond its own borders for water. 4) Making desalination of sea-water the second step in any large water-provision plan, rather than a someday step. 5) Acknowledging that the abandonment of existing communities in unsustainable locations will happen, and plan for it -- starting now -- as a rational solution.

It's been only a year since the Great Lakes Compact was finally signed. The eight states and two provinces that surround the Great Lakes agreed on their management, today and into the future. There have already been legal challenges to companies wishing to bottle water from the GL watershed and sell it outside the watershed. It's hard for me to believe that politicians in the arid southwest don't have their eyes on GL water as a solution for their own foolish overdevelopment and bad management. The Compact pledges the signers to wise management (which includes effective use, reuse, and even re-reuse) and I predict that it will come under pressure from the arid southwest. Sending Great Lakes water south and west is not good management, wise use, or sustainable. I also believe the UUSC should have, as a goal, support for the Great Lakes Compact.

Which is the story of a large international community that made a good-faith, successful plan for resource management long into the future. It's kind of like the story of New York City's water supply! And nothing at all like the we'll-think-about-it-tomorrow greed that has characterized planning in the southwest.

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