“I want to scream from the rooftop and shake America awake: Safe, clean, affordable water is necessary to live—without it you will die.” —Rep. Brenda Lawrence, urging passage of the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity, and Reliability (WATER) Act
A mechanical marvel of human ingenuity was plopped down on Mars by NASA last February. Its name, Perseverance, fits the Mars rover perfectly, for the robotic vehicle embodies a feat of scientific know-how, long-term dedication to public purpose, and a tight focus on teamwork. Think about the 20-year span of institutional tenacity required for myriad scientists and others to imagine, design, plan, construct, test, and otherwise develop the project. And then they hurled this extraordinarily complex machine on a seven-month, 300-million-mile journey through space, navigating to a pinpoint landing in Jezero Crater, a 3.6-billion-year-old, dried-up Martian lakebed. Now, Perseverance is probing the Red Planet’s watery past for evidence of primordial life.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, during the same week of this WOW! achievement on Mars, millions of people in NASA’s home city of Houston were also probing dried-up waterways: The faucets in their homes, businesses, and schools. On Valentine’s Day, an Arctic cold front had ripped through the state, and suddenly, basic infrastructure failed and tap water in this sprawling metro became non-existent or contaminated, Houstonians were left scrambling for essential, life-sustaining H2O.
Where the hell is our government?
They were not alone. Nearly 1,300 water systems across Texas were sputtering and failing at the same time. Worse, this calamitous crisis stemmed directly from the even bigger failure of another essential piece of modern infrastructure: The electric grid. During the week-long deep freeze, almost all the Lone Star State’s jury-rigged network of corporate-owned and -run power systems failed, leaving 4.5 million homes and businesses without electricity. In turn, this fiasco caused the pumps, pipes, and pressure controls of hundreds of local water networks to freeze up and break down, cutting off potable water for days.
Angry shouts of Where the Hell is our state government? ricocheted across the land. Gov. Greg Abbott, a GOP mediocrity who grossly mismanaged the state’s Covid-19 response (his slogan seems to be Failure is not an option, it’s a promise) tried at first to blame Mother Nature. Well, it surely was a big winter storm … but wait a second … has Greg never been north of the Red River? Lots of states regularly maintain electricity and water through much deeper freezes.
Enjoying Hightower? How about a weekly email that gives you the full scoop?
What hit Texans was not nature, but an ongoing un-natural disaster. It was the state’s reward for turning its government over to incompetents and right-wing ideologues who persistently disdain investment in public resources and community needs. For 25 years, a series of money-corrupted, corporate-coddling Texas governors and legislators have recoiled from even such minimal measures as requiring energy profiteers to weatherize people’s crucial infrastructure. (This sort of corporate butt-kissing is what governors really mean when they puff themselves up and bluster that their state is “business friendly.”) And their obsequious surrender of the public interest to moneyed powers pays off handsomely to them … in bales of campaign cash they rake in from the profiteers. For example, the oil and gas giants that fuel the electric grid rewarded Gov. Abbott’s six years of servility with a whopping $26 million in “thank-you” donations. The public’s reward was at least 111 Texans killed in that one week of the grid crash and some $130 billion in economic losses from homes flooded by burst pipes, business shutdowns, etc.
What are you drinking?
How embarrassing is it that the techno-advanced, engineering powerhouse of America has a growing crisis of water quality and delivery usually associated with impoverished nations? And the infrastructure collapse is not just in Texas. From our biggest cities like New York to isolated rural communities like those in the sprawling Navajo Nation, millions of us endure raw sewage, industrial chemicals, lead pipes, burst water mains, price gouging, cut-offs, boil emergencies, and other water disasters. Here’s a small sampling of the issues:
Milwaukee. While Flint, Michigan, eventually replaced many of its notorious lead-contaminating water pipes, Milwaukee still hosts 74,000 lead service lines; cash-strapped officials urged residents to buy their own filters.
Air Force bases. For years, poisons seeping from 126 bases across the country have contaminated drinking water in area communities.
Kentucky mining towns. Sewage and coal slurry spills have so widely contaminated water that taps sometimes run brown or black and dispense high levels of cancer-causing chemicals.
Pretty Prairie, Kansas. Just one of the many farm towns with outdated systems, it is overwhelmed with deadly nitrate contaminants from agricultural fertilizers that force residents to rely on bottled water.
Baltimore. Water rates have more than doubled in the past decade as officials tried to patch up the city’s dilapidated system, creating an affordability crisis for low-income families.
In March, Consumer Reports and the Guardian issued findings from a nine-month investigation of drinking water systems serving 19 million Americans. Of 120 systems analyzed, 118 had serious levels of toxic chemicals including lead, arsenic and/or PFAS (a group of synthetic toxins) at dangerous levels in 35% of the samples. PFAS compounds–called “forever chemicals” because of how long they endure in the environment–are in our clothing, carpets, nonstick cookware, fast-food containers, and thousands of other products. And now they’re also in our water, seeping in from chemical factories, landfills, etc. Meanwhile, they are linked to a range of human health horrors: High cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy- induced hypertension, and testicular and kidney cancers, and possibly learning delays in children. The EPA still sets no enforceable limit on PFAS in drinking water and only suggests voluntary caps for a few chemicals–even as the compounds contaminate drinking water in more than 2,300 communities in 49 states, according to a separate analysis reported in January by the Environmental Working Group.
The pump don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles
Thus sang Bob Dylan in 1965, and we can now clearly see those vandals: In addition to polluting corporations, they’re the national, state, and local officials who have routinely failed over the years to prevent the waste and defilement of our water supply, while also failing to budget for even minimal upkeep and modernization of water delivery. As a result, the system is badly broken.
Federal funding for our water systems has plummeted 77% since its peak under Jimmy Carter. At the same time, the need for more national investment has dramatically increased: The US population has surged by 110 million, aging water infrastructure is outdated and breaking down, state and local politicians have ignored problems (replacing an old pipe is not a prized photo-op), and necessary upgrades to cope with new contaminants and extreme weather events have gone unfunded by politicians catering to pro-corporate financial interests and anti-government ideologues.
The Revolving Door Waltz
The top state officials charged with maintaining our basic infrastructure are enormously powerful, yet they’re mostly gubernatorial appointees who get little scrutiny by media and are virtually unknown by the public they ostensibly represent. Thus, they are ripe for plucking by “regulated” corporations with political (i.e., financial) ties to governors and influential legislators. (read on below…)
So here we sit, a nation of unsurpassed prosperity using duct tape and political hype to cover up the fact that our drinking water system is so dilapidated that it received a sorry C- grade from the quadrennial evaluation by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Worse, the wastewater component of the system (mile after mile of underground sewage pipes and nearly 16,000 treatment plants) scores a D+, with a majority of the waste plants nearing the end of their 45-50-year lifespans. The overall system is so fragile that a water main breaks somewhere in America every two minutes, and it’s so permeated with leaks that utilities lose six billion gallons of drinking water every day.
And then there’s the rising crisis of affordability. With federal funding cut to a dribble, utilities have tried to fill in with constant hikes in water bills. Our average monthly rate has jumped more than a third since 2012, and analysts estimate that within three years up to 36% of households won’t be able to afford drinking water. Even with rising fees, utilities themselves are struggling. The American Water Works Association reports that income fully covers costs in only one in five systems, and four out of five large utilities expect they will not be able to provide full service five years from now.
Who controls our water?
Water is us. Billions of years ago, when some squirmy form of early “us” crawled out of the sea, they brought along the need for that basic ingredient. Human bodies are 60% water, and most of Earth’s surface is not earth at all–71% is covered in seas, rivers, lakes, bayous, etc. There is no “us” unless each of us gets a constant intake of reasonably clean water. If you don’t … you die, usually within three days.
Thus, managing this precious natural resource is a deeply moral responsibility. While our globe has an abundance of the wet stuff, 96.5% is undrinkable salt water. Of the potable 3.5%, more than half is locked in ice at the polar caps or so deep underground it’s unavailable. Still, we do have enough water to meet the needs of all–IF IT IS CONSERVED AND FAIRLY DISTRIBUTED.
Sadly, most countries do a piss-poor job of fulfilling their moral responsibility–especially the US, given our resources, abilities, and egalitarian pretensions. The good news is that the US public is not only increasingly aware of the inexcusable inadequacies and inequalities in our water system, but also increasingly outraged. As Bernie Sanders put in in February when introducing a major water justice bill: “It is beyond belief that in 2021 American kids are being poisoned by tap water.”
Just make more H2O!
When I was Texas Ag commissioner in the 1980s, pushing for a state water conservation plan, corporate lobbyists for the water guzzlers snickered: “Hell, Jimbo, if you’re so worried about runnin’ out of agua, just git A&M to take 2 gallons of H, mix it with 1 gallon of O—and there you go! It’s science, Jimbo.”
But science says that the elemental magic of making water from two gases requires a big burst of energy and, gosh, the large-scale introduction of energy into flammable hydrogen and oxygen creates, not water, but a rather large explosion! It’s complicated, and conservation is the happier choice.
But look out. Progressives are not the only ones pushing to change the system–Wall Street’s sharks smell money in the water. Professing noble objectives, they assert that their market approach to valuing assets makes them best suited to conserve and efficiently allocate the use of this invaluable public resource. In fact, they are out to privatize, commodify, and profit0ize (i.e., own) our water.
Sure enough, a predatory army of hedge fund hucksters, global investor syndicates, and high-speed arbitrage profiteers is invading rural communities, water districts, and legislatures across the country to gain control of rivers, lakes, reservoirs, groundwater, etc. Water Asset Management, an NYC fund with the menacing acronym of WAM, calls our essential life-giving liquid “The biggest emerging market on Earth … a trillion-dollar market opportunity.”
Of course, with ownership comes control, both of water’s use and price. Unsurprisingly, the two core precepts of these Wall Street profiteers are (1) water is greatly underpriced, so let’s make it more expensive for all users, including us common drinkers; and (2) water must flow to its “highest use” (i.e., highest bidders), so its allocation should not prioritize non-industrial farms, lower- income communities, or even general public use–but rather advantage high-tech facilities, upscale suburban developments, and high-dollar businesses willing to pay the most.
More alarming, Wall Street is busy creating complex new financial gimmicks to allow speculators to dominate global water markets. Meanwhile, they’re recycling the same gobbledygook about “risk management” that Enron deployed in the 1990s, even though that scandalous power play for energy markets led to massive corruption, job losses, waves of bankruptcies, and rip-offs of customers and shareholders.
Our water, not theirs
The political fight that today’s water schemers are forcing on us is not over particular projects, but over the elemental evil (yes, evil) of their conceit that water is just another commodity like oil or gold–something for a few private investors and monopolists to play for personal profit. (What’s next … air?) But water is not a commodity. It is life itself! We didn’t choose this fight, but we all have no choice but to be in it … and to win. And the way to beat their all-consuming greed is not with statistics and legalities, but by going head on at the raw inhumanity of their concept. Say it aloud: COMMODIFYING WATER IS EVIL.
The Revolving Door Waltz
The top state officials charged with maintaining our basic infrastructure are enormously powerful, yet they’re mostly gubernatorial appointees who get little scrutiny by media and are virtually unknown by the public they ostensibly represent. Thus, they are ripe for plucking by “regulated” corporations with political (i.e., financial) ties to governors and influential legislators. There’s a continuous whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of the revolving door as corporate executives and lobbyists become government regulators, then—whoosh-whoosh-whoosh—return again to lucrative corporate positions. Here are just three examples of this corrupt waltz that plays non-stop at the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC), a captured agency that was a major force in this year’s infrastructure freeze.
DeAnn Walker Chair of the three-member Texas PUC until March, she was forced by public outrage to resign after the statewide power debacle. In the 1990s she gained utility experience as a commission staffer, then hopped over to Houston-based electric utility giant CenterPoint Energy as a lawyer-lobbyist for 15 years. Abbott then lifted this corporate lobbyist right into the governor’s office to develop his “light touch” regulatory policies, and then in 2017, he chose her to implement those policies as PUC chair.
John Paul Urban III In 2011, Urban began working at the PUC as a public relations operative, leaving three years later to lobby for NRG Energy, one of Texas’ largest electricity producers. Four years after that he went back inside PUC as its executive director. Then, last December, Urban III resigned and—BOINGGG!—popped up again in corporate harness, becoming CEO and lobbyist for the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, representing the state’s biggest power corporations (all of which are “regulated” by PUC).
Max Yzaguirre A corporate lawyer and dedicated disciple of the right-wing religion of utility deregulation, he was once president of Enron de Mexico, a chunk of Kenneth Lay’s megalomaniacal vision for an unregulated global utility colossus. In 2001, Gov. Rick Perry, an ambitious de-reg acolyte, suddenly chose this obscure Enron official to be PUC chair. The day after Yzaguirre was appointed, boss man Lay donated $25,000 to Perry’s campaign fund. “Totally coincidental,” Perry explained. Embarrassingly, only a year later, Enron melted down in a firestorm of scandal, Lay faced jailtime, and Yzaguirre resigned, scampering back to the security of his corporate career.
These appointees are not exceptions to a model of otherwise good state government; they are the rule in the game of revolving door played by most of Texas’s utility regulators. These parasites even celebrate the corrupt coziness, hailing it for enhancing regulatory efficiency: “It saves time,” argues Rebecca Klein, a former PUC chair. “If you have people in public service then become lobbyists, they bring that experience and expertise with them, and that’s a lot of knowledge that gets shared.”
And the party goes on and on. Abbott has now named two new commissioners to “reform” the PUC—one is an oil man, the other an industry lobbyist. Good luck, Texans!
👇 DO SOMETHING 👇
Dive right in. For a splash course on water issues, look up H2Equity: Rebuilding a Fair System of Water Services for America from the Environmental Policy Innovation Center (policyinnovation.org). The Water Foundation has pointers to additional research and resources. waterfdn.org
Hold your breath. The fine journalists at Circle of Blue report on “the growing competition between water, food, and energy in a changing climate.” Their revealing, deeply researched stories can be inconvenient, but it sure is helpful to have the facts. circleofblue.org
Keep swimming! Or as Food & Water Watch says, “fight like you live here.” F&WW works with scientists and communities to fight the myriad corporate assaults on our water, food, and climate and calls out Big Ag polluters and Big Oil frackers. Check it out and get involved. foodandwaterwatch.org