When I was growing up, my brother, sister, mom and dad would go every other Sunday or so to the beach. As a boy, I remember watching the white sails of boats hover over Lake Michigan’s hazy blue water. I was transfixed because I felt I was watching angels dance in heaven’s infinite horizon.
Today, as a 35-year public-interest clean water advocate, I know Lake Michigan isn’t infinite. Though the lake looks like it might go on forever, it can’t just take everything we throw at it. Or dump in it.
Like Lake Michigan and other waterways, the Chicago River system also is limited in what it can absorb while still providing us with healthy drinking water, safe recreation and jobs.
This month, my colleagues and I on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to declare water and sanitation as a basic human right. We also reaffirmed that our water should be held in trust for the public.
That’s not to say that private services can’t help treat, design and implement clean water plans. It is to say that our water can and should never be sold.
Why should we be concerned about this now? After all, we recently experienced record-high monthly lake levels. True. But I thought this measure was important right now because I give a lot of speeches and presentations. And I’ve noticed I’m getting more questions about “monetizing” our water. In fact, last December in California, water became the subject of the first futures market in the country.
I am concerned about the “commodification” of water, the assigning of a dollar value to our invaluable waterways. Once a dollar value is placed on our water for buying and selling, that becomes the first step toward privatizing our water. Once water becomes disconnected from our collective stewardship, we lose connections we can’t get back. As my friends in the Native American community say, when I worked with them to protect the Great Lakes during my time in federal service, “water is life.”
The United Nations estimates that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living under extreme water stress conditions. Just a few years ago, we saw Cape Town, South Africa, narrowly avoid “Day Zero” — the day when the water supply would be shut off. In the United States, much of the west is experiencing a megadrought that threatens to trigger automatic water usage reductions in several states due to water resource depletion.
Here, closer to home, cities like Joliet and University Park have seen what it’s like when access to clean water becomes difficult. With more than 90% of the nation’s fresh surface water supply, the Great Lakes make our region the most water-rich region in the world. Yet in places like Toledo, Ohio, Flint, Michigan, and Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, fresh, clean water supplies have been disrupted with painful consequences.
Access to clean water and sanitation is not a future problem. It is here and now and will exponentially increase in severity if we do not address it head-on.
The value of water transcends dollars and cents. It provides us with opportunities for swimming, fishing, health and times with family, like I was lucky enough to have growing up and now with my children. Unlike a gallon of gas, these memories don’t have a price. And only our waterways can provide them.
Cameron Davis is a commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. He served as President Barack Obama’s Great Lakes “czar” from 2009 through 2017. He is a public interest Clean Water Act attorney and from 1998-2009 served as president and CEO of the Chicago-headquartered Alliance for the Great Lakes.
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