Jay Z is Wrong, Water Service Is Not Free
Last week while promoting his new music service, Tidal, Jay Z made a well intended but nonetheless tone deaf statement, gushing about the beauty of supposedly “free” water service. While tap water may seem free to a rap mogul, those in Detroit who have been living without this essential service because they cannot afford to pay their water bills are singing a very different tune. In a seemingly unrelated development, the New York Times published an editorial that day claiming that water isn’t priced highly enough and thus isn’t properly valued. Both statements were wrong, and reflect some fundamental misconceptions about how our society views and values water.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
While many of us are conditioned to turning on the tap and always finding water flowing from it, it’s crucial to note that water is a finite resource. We may pay fractions of a penny for a glass of tap water, but that water doesn’t magically find its way to our homes—it gets there through a complex infrastructure system that requires billions of dollars a year for upkeep.
Many of these systems were built around the same time that Henry Ford developed the first Model T, are reaching the end of their lifespans and are in desperate need of costly upgrades. In 2014, the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (SRF), which provides federal funding to maintain safe drinking water, received $907 million in federal funding—enough to finance only 5 percent of what is needed.
While it’s easy to assume that raising water rates might compel consumers to conserve more, the reality is not so simple. According to Food & Water Watch analysis of water rates and usage, people do not drink less water or wash their clothes significantly less when their water rates increase. That’s because short of buying a new water-saving appliance, it’s just not possible to use significantly less water for basic health and sanitation. What’s more, when household consumption is only eight percent of total U.S. freshwater use, it is a red herring to suggest that raising household rates will solve our water crisis.
Moreover, doing so would place a disproportional burden on consumers when the actual source of the problem lies chiefly with corporate water abusers.
In the U.S., 52 percent of freshwater is consumed by industrial and commercial users, particularly for mining and energy production. Another 40 percent of that freshwater is used for irrigation, raising livestock and aquaculture facilities, according to 2005 U.S. Geological Survey data. Clearly, any realistic measures to conserve water should focus on these sectors.
We must find ways to cut back on industrial water consumption. To do so, the U.S. needs to develop and implement comprehensive watershed planning policies that prioritize water for local residents. Rather than building expensive pipelines to supply water for agribusiness to grow export crops like almonds and soybeans, or draining the Ogallala Aquifer to produce corn ethanol, we must ensure that water is not removed from watersheds faster than it can be naturally replenished. A comprehensive, sustainable water management plan would prevent the corporate export of water for profit—especially during times of drought when households are being asked to ration their use.
Just last week, protesters shut down the Nestlé water plant in Sacramento because it was bottling during a drought. California is, of course, suffering from the worst drought in recorded history, and consumers are being asked to cut down on their own water consumption, while industrial users continue to suck the land dry. Gov. Brown announced measures this week to curb the water crisis, but they do not address the state’s most egregious water abusers. When you consider the fact that residential water use is a mere drop in the bucket compared to industrial water habits, it makes absolutely no sense to expect households to solve this crisis.
It’s time for a reality check. Water service is not free, low prices are not to blame for the water crisis and climate change alone is not causing drought. The real culprit is a failure to align our water management policies with environmental and human needs.
We cannot price away our water woes. Instead, we must restore aging, leaking infrastructure systems and better regulate industrial and agricultural water takings to prevent chronic over-extraction. We must recognize the impact of all water use—including industrial and domestic needs, and we must demand collective responsibility.
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By Christina Gish Hill
Historians know that turkey and corn were part of the first Thanksgiving, when Wampanoag peoples shared a harvest meal with the pilgrims of Plymouth plantation in Massachusetts. And traditional Native American farming practices tell us that squash and beans likely were part of that 1621 dinner too.
Abundant Harvests<p>Historically, Native people throughout the Americas bred indigenous plant varieties specific to the growing conditions of their homelands. They selected seeds for many different traits, such as <a href="https://emergencemagazine.org/story/corn-tastes-better/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">flavor, texture and color</a>.</p><p>Native growers knew that planting corn, beans, squash and sunflowers together produced mutual benefits. Corn stalks created a trellis for beans to climb, and beans' twining vines secured the corn in high winds. They also certainly observed that corn and bean plants growing together tended to be healthier than when raised separately. Today we know the reason: Bacteria living on bean plant roots pull nitrogen – an essential plant nutrient – from the air and <a href="http://www.tilthalliance.org/learn/resources-1/almanac/october/octobermngg" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">convert it to a form that both beans and corn can use</a>.</p><p>Squash plants contributed by shading the ground with their broad leaves, preventing weeds from growing and retaining water in the soil. Heritage squash varieties also had spines that discouraged deer and raccoons from visiting the garden for a snack. And sunflowers planted around the edges of the garden created a natural fence, protecting other plants from wind and animals and attracting pollinators.</p><p>Interplanting these agricultural sisters produced bountiful harvests that sustained large Native communities and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/eam.2015.0016" target="_blank">spurred fruitful trade economies</a>. The first Europeans who reached the Americas were shocked at the abundant food crops they found. My research is exploring how, 200 years ago, Native American agriculturalists around the Great Lakes and along the Missouri and Red rivers fed fur traders with their diverse vegetable products.</p>
Displaced From the Land<p>As Euro-Americans settled permanently on the most fertile North American lands and acquired seeds that Native growers had carefully bred, they imposed policies that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/87.2.550" target="_blank">made Native farming practices impossible</a>. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the <a href="https://guides.loc.gov/indian-removal-act" target="_blank">Indian Removal Act</a>, which made it official U.S. policy to force Native peoples from their home locations, pushing them onto subpar lands.</p><p>On reservations, U.S. government officials discouraged Native women from cultivating anything larger than small garden plots and pressured Native men to practice Euro-American style monoculture. Allotment policies assigned small plots to nuclear families, further limiting Native Americans' access to land and preventing them from using communal farming practices.</p><p>Native children were forced to attend boarding schools, where they had no opportunity to <a href="https://doi.org/10.5749/jamerindieduc.57.1.0145" target="_blank">learn Native agriculture techniques or preservation and preparation of Indigenous foods</a>. Instead they were forced to eat Western foods, turning their palates away from their traditional preferences. Taken together, these policies <a href="https://kansaspress.ku.edu/978-0-7006-0802-7.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">almost entirely eradicated three sisters agriculture</a> from Native communities in the Midwest by the 1930s.</p>
Reviving Native Agriculture<p>Today Native people all over the U.S. are working diligently to <a href="https://www.oupress.com/books/15107980/indigenous-food-sovereignty-in-the-united-sta" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reclaim Indigenous varieties of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and other crops</a>. This effort is important for many reasons.</p><p>Improving Native people's access to healthy, culturally appropriate foods will help lower rates of <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aian-diabetes/index.html" target="_blank">diabetes</a> and <a href="https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/native-american/obesity" target="_blank">obesity</a>, which affect Native Americans at disproportionately high rates. Sharing traditional knowledge about agriculture is a way for elders to pass cultural information along to younger generations. Indigenous growing techniques also protect the lands that Native nations now inhabit, and can potentially benefit the wider ecosystems around them.</p>
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