Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Should water be a commodity or a human right?

As the Great Lakes Compact works its way towards President Bush's desk, Congressman Bart Stupak (D-MI) has been getting a lot of press lately for opposing the compact.

Stupak is concerned with water being defined as a commodity. Language in the current compact allows water to be exported in containers no larger than 5.7 gallons.

While the current language protects large water withdrawals, the fear is that current U.S. free trade agreements could strike down this arbitrary limit to the amount of water that can be taken from the Great Lakes if water is seen as a commodity.

The bigger controversy worldwide is over whether water should be considered a commodity and opened up to the free market, or is a human right that everyone deserves access to. In other words, who delivers the water and should they be able to profit from it?

The Economist has a debate going on right now over the following proposal: "Water, as a scarce resource, should be priced according to its market value."

The debate is between market advocate Steve J. Hoffmann, Managing Director of WaterTech Capital and co-founder of Palisades Water Index Associates and water rights advocate Vandana Shiva, Director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy.

Steve J. Hoffmann's opening statement.

Vandana Shiva's opening statement.

Participate in the debate.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Water Front begins a Great Lakes tour on Friday at Marygrove College

Liz Miller's documentary The Water Front begins a 20 city tour around the Great Lakes when it premieres on Friday at Marygrove College in the Madame Cadillac Dining Room at 8425 W McNichols road at 6:30 pm.

In 2004 Highland Park was in the midst of state receivership, so the state sent in an emergency financial consultant. One of the solutions for getting Highland Park out of the red was to sell off the cities' biggest asset, their water plant. Highland park unlike most of the other surrounding Detroit areas has its own water intake pipe. The idea of selling the water plant was met with fierce resistance by residents. Many were angry by the steep increase in water bills. Some people were receiving water bills as high as $4500 and $9000. Many of the people felt that the financial consultants were trying to pass on the costs of years of mismanagement to Highland Park residents. When the people couldn't pay, their water would be shut off and this legally makes your house condemned. The film follows the issue and provides a balanced look at the issue, interviewing all sides: the activists, residents, and financial consultants.

Water Front Preview:

Here is a recent interview with Liz Miller about her documentary, The Water Front.

Food and Water Watch: Sponsor of the tour

WDET Detroit Today interview with Water Front Associate Producer Curtis Smith and local bluesman Joe Carter who wrote music for the movie

Sunday, September 21, 2008

How the local waterways fared from last week's downpour

It has long been common practice for rainwater to be diverted to city drains. This is largely a consequence of urbanization and the accompanying pavement. Rather than have rainwater be absorbed back into the ground, it goes into the sewer system and becomes the cities' problem and must be dealt with by the local wastewater treatment plant. These systems get overloaded when large storms occur and the end result is that the sewers overflow sewage into the waterways. There are two types of overflows, Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) and Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSOs).

CSOs are when sewer systems use the same pipe for raw sewage and rainwater. When there are heavy rains these pipes get overwhelmed and the sewage goes into our local waterways or goes into a CSO retention basin and is partially treated and then released into our waterways.

A good explanation of CSO retention treatment basins comes from the MDEQ Annual CSO Report (2000-2001):

“Many combined sewer systems have recently installed treatment facilities (called retention/treatment basins), which are designed to capture the combined sewage and rainwater long enough to provide initial treatment and disinfection. This initial treatment often involves allowing solids to settle, the skimming of floatable materials such as oils; and disinfection of disease causing organisms, often accomplished through the addition of chlorine. This combined rainwater and sewage wastewater, with chlorine disinfection is the typical treated CSO discharge in the state of Michigan; therefore, many CSO releases are considered partially treated sewage. The treatment provided significantly reduces the amount of pollutants discharged and the associated public health risk.”

SSOs are generally a broken pipe or equipment malfunction, unlike a CSO these are illegal and you cannot get a permit for these. SSOs generally releases raw sewage that gets no treatment at all.

Some areas in Metro Detroit received over 5 inches of rain last week, so how did the local waterways fair?

All of these incidents occured between September 13-15, the counties that were looked at were Macomb, Oakland, Wayne, and St. Clair.

This list is for releases of partially treated sewage into our local waterways:

Lake St. Clair: 208.05 million gallons
Milk River: 86.199 million gallons
Rouge River: 71.67 million gallons
St. Clair River: 14.75 million gallons
Clinton River: 1.16 million gallons

This list is for releases of raw sewage:

St. Clair River: 3.75 million gallons
Clinton River: 1.92 million gallons
Rouge River: .517 million gallons

The Detroit Waste Water Treatment Plant released 62.41 million gallons of blended effluent into the Trenton Channel.

1 Million gallons of diluted raw sewage was released into the Detroit River.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

New economic plan could bring over half a million jobs to the Great Lakes states

A new report by the Center for American Progress details an economic plan that would help turn around the ailing economy and provide much needed green infrastructure and investment.

This program would create nearly 2 million jobs nationwide and would reduce the unemployment rate from 5.7 percent to 4.4 percent. The plan focuses on six different areas: Retrofitting buildings to improve energy efficiency, expanding mass transit and freight rail, constructing 'smart' electrical grid transmission systems, wind power, solar power, and next-generation biofuels.

According to the report: "This economic recovery program combines the $100 billion fiscal stimulus with an additional credit stimulus-through a federal loan guarantee program to boost private-sector investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy." The plan would be about the same cost as the economic stimulus checks that went out last April.

Other key benefits identified throughout the report are: Widespread employment gains, lower unemployment, renewed construction and manufacturing work, more stable oil prices, and self-financing energy efficiency.

The new Center for American Progress report can be found here:

Green jobs: A program to create good jobs and start building a low-carbon economy

Find out how your state will benefit: State fact sheet

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

40 percent of all North American freshwater fish face extinction

A new report led by the United States Geological Survey finds that 40 percent of all North American fish face extinction. The research was published in the journal Fisheries.

The report lists 700 species as imperiled, this is a 92 percent increase since the previous 1989 report that listed 364 species as imperiled.

The USGS has a very useful interactive map of all of the imperiled fish species that can be viewed by ecoregions or by political boundaries.

USGS and the American Fisheries Society interactive map

ENS Story: North American Freshwater Fishes Fading into Extinction

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Using Green Infrastructure to Stop Combined Sewer Overflows

The Canadian environmental organization Ecojustice released a report on Tuesday focusing on preventing rainwater from entering our sewer systems. Most big cities had their sewer systems built in the early 1900's. When they were built raw sewage and storm water used the same sewer, this is called a Combined Sewer. Most are serving larger populations than was ever originally intended, so as a consequence, when it rains they overflow and release sewage into our waterways.

Though the report focuses primarily on Ontario, the suggestions of green infrastructure which they define as “an interconnected network of natural areas that maintain natural ecological processes,” can be applied anywhere. Many of the solutions presented in the report are alternatives to hard infrastructure solutions that are often prohibitive due to high costs. An example of a costly hard infrastructure solution is overhauling a large cities' sewer system. It gets real expensive real fast.

Another problem identified in the report is Canada's lack of public reporting. In Michigan, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) reports every Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) that happens. That is not the case in Ontario. The Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MOE) collects some information on CSOs but the data is often inconsistent and rarely provides a full and accurate picture of what is going on. Some of the federal and provincial government data does not even contain volumes for the amount of the CSO. This distorts the overall effect of CSOs on the Great Lakes since it is somewhat of a mystery of the total number of sewage entering the Great Lakes.

A 2006 report by Ecojustice graded Windsor the third worst in CSOs for major cities in the Great Lakes basin. So all we really know is that the problem is bad. We can only guess just how bad it is.

The Ecojustice report is using an innovative way of tackling the problem since it aims at a more direct solution of limiting the amount of water that gets into the sewer systems, and provides options that are affordable and practical and provide aesthetic value to communities.

Many of the solutions suggested are beginning to be implemented in many big cities across the country such as Chicago, Toronto, and Portland that have implemented on a large scale many of the Ecojustice suggestions such as green rooftops, rain barrels, permeable sidewalks and roads, and bio-retention areas. The aim of all those measures is to "get the rain out of the drain" as the report succinctly put it.

Even locally people are starting to implement some of these suggestions as well. The Detroit Free Press recently reported that a green roof is being constructed in Auburn Hills over the gun range at the Public Safety Department.

The report provides several case studies of what cities are doing to reduce water from overwhelming sewer systems and water treatment plants and leading to CSOs.

Green Cities, Great Lakes: The Green Infrastructure Report