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Henry Henderson’s Blog

The Value of Water

Henry Henderson

Posted November 19, 2009

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We have been awash with an array of unhappy water stories in this region of late. On the surface they are unrelated ... scary fish ... E. coli contamination ... improperly regulated pesticides ... intentionally poisoned waterways .... But if you scratch below the surface there's a problematic narrative developing: the water rich communities of the Great Lakes region do not understand the nature, function and value of their most precious resource.

For starters, there was Charles Duhigg's devastating series in the New York Times about the state of water policy in the United States. His stories included the on-going poisoning of our waters with pesticides, manure from agricultural operations, and the water pollution coming from coal plants. The articles are full of shocking failures of state environmental officials to enforce the requirements of the Clean Water Act within their jurisdictions against the polluters who are destroying our waters. But what is also clear is that no one has fully quantified the burden that the public and our water resources take on as a result of this pollution.

There is also the continuing, wild tale of the slow and inadequate efforts of federal, state and local authorities to protect the Great Lakes from imminent destruction by voracious, invasive Asian Carp that have been making their way up the Mississippi and its tributaries since 1993. We know the value of the aquaculture industries that introduced this dangerous fish. And we know the ludicrous costs associated with the Army Corps of Engineers Rube Goldberg fish fence that might repel them---as well as what it will cost to intentionally poison a five-mile stretch of the Chicago Sanitary Ship Canal to kill off the carp (and any other fish actually native to the water way) when they take the fence offline for maintenance next month. But we don't know the real, full value of the already damaged Great Lakes ecosystem, and so an array of agencies dither and delay in taking action that would actually end this threat and protect the ecosystem permanently.

And now this week we saw a front-page Chicago Tribune article on city officials contemplating privatization of the municipal water system. The value of water is at the center of the issue---but not the real, full value of water as a public trust asset requiring stewardship and protection. The article treats the question of privatizing water as a limited inquiry into a "dollars and cents" revenue and service issue. It is as if such a decision is actually analogous to leasing toll bridges and parking meters---which are exclusively part of the man made, civic economy, bought and owned by a municipal corporation. In focusing narrowly on the per gallon costs that might be associated with the Mayor selling our water supply, the Tribune presents no discussion of what the water is actually "worth" or the many services it provides to the web of life that depends upon it. And who can blame them? We don't look at that issue anywhere in this region. Water is treated as an abundant resource that we assume will always be there when we need it.

An aide to Chicago's Mayor Daley said that, though the Mayor has said that "all things are on the table," the issue of privatization was being "blown way out of proportion." I hope that is true and that before there is any proposal to privatize Chicago's Lake Michigan water, there will be a full review and transparent discussion of the key issues at stake. We don't have all the answers to the relevant questions; the problem is the key questions themselves have not been recognized by many of the region's stakeholders. The issues of infrastructure, cross-community water sales and pricing, and constraints on access to Great Lakes water are complicated here. But smart questions have to be raised, probed and addressed transparently, not simply raised in order to derail the conversation and protect the unacceptable "business as usual" exploitation of our resources. At the heart of the discussion must be the recognition of the nature and value of water, framed by an understanding that water is a Public Trust asset.

All of these news stories, coupled with some of the other cases that NRDC is working on in the region, spell out the wasteful way that the Great Lakes region treats its water. The stories and cases include the ongoing fight over ballast water laws to prevent the spread of invasive species which have already fundamentally changed the ecology of the Great Lakes and our ongoing fight to force an end to dumping of "un-disinfected" human sewage (that's intestinal miasma, folks!) into the Chicago River by the government body with oversight of the issue.

It is time to get re-acquainted with the fundamental value of water as an irreplaceable, essential resource, and support the services it provides: sustenance, beauty, indeed life itself.

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Dr. James SingmasterNov 20 2009 01:21 AM

Mr. Henderson has hit on the water problems around the Great Lakes with many agencies not doing their jobs. But the problems exist throughout the country as well. While most of what he outlines concerns indirect routes of contamination, two direct routes of contamination of drinking water need to be investigated.
In 1993 Oakland Ca area papers reported on the local water district finding PCBs at very high levels, when workers went to check why consumers in one area were complaining of bad tasting tap water. The storage tank supplying treated drinking water for the area was checked to find that very high levels of PCBs were present due to a sealant formulated with PCBs applied in the tank. In a spill out mess in doing the cleanup, PCB levels were 100 or more times above accepted levels requiring considerable hazardous waste cleanup. No report came out on what levels were in the water itself, and the water district released a statement that checking other such tanks would be done as its records show that 116 out of 176 such tanks in the district got some kind of sealant treatment during the 50s & 60s. That suggests that the sealant treatment was a common practice for water districts to do. In 2000 my letters pointing out this mess to EPA officials finally got a response admitting that water testing was being done at treatment plants, and water passed on from the plants to the tanks was not being tested. So the PCBs in the tanks would not be spotted. I do not know whether EPA did much to get testing shifted to check with sampling of water in homes or got after water districts to check for PCBs in tanks and have tanks cleaned out if found with the PCB containing sealants.
The other problem is the use over the last ten years of chloramine for disinfecting water. Some people found themselves suddenly having very discomforting itchy reactions on showering immediately after water districts switched from the straight chlorine disinfecting process. The reaction is now in the medical literature as being due to chloramine, and some people can not wear clothes washed in chloramine treated water without having a reaction. But what may be worse is that chloramine easily reacts with dimethylamine to form the Alar alarm chemical, UDMH, and dimethylamine is a very available trace chemical released in the decaying of most biota. It is also used in many drug and pesticide products so drinking water may have UDMH or it might be formed when certain other chemicals are taken into the body with chloramine treated water.
NRDC members ought to be checking with water districts to find out what may be coming directly into their drinking water from programs that the districts have or had for handling the water supply. Dr. J. Singmaster

Beth NordNov 21 2009 12:15 PM

Chloraminated water not only causes itchy skin, it can cause severe rashes, as well as digestive and/or respiratory problems. I had eczema, which neither my dermatologist nor my allergist could diagnose the cause of. Only after I went off our tap water completely did my skin clear up. Chloramine also creates disinfectant byproducts that are proving to be MUCH worse than those created by chlorine. Please see for more info.

Curtis BlackNov 21 2009 07:22 PM

Readers might want to check the article at Community Media Workshop's Newstips which originally brought this issue to local attention – it also covers how water privatization has played out in other localities, with links to several important reports on the issue, and it reports on an effort by Illinois PIRG and Ald. Waguespack to increase accountability and transparency in these leasing city assets – here:

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