Friday, August 21, 2015

Musings of a new Sea Grant Fellow: How to pay for a human right? Social perceptions of the value of water

Greetings Sea Grant blog readers! My name is Samuel Molnar and I am the 2015-2016 Sea Grant Fellow at the Great Lakes Commission. I am currently flying through my third month at the Commission. My main project is the development of the Great Lakes Blue Accounting strategy and the scoping a pilot for the Blue Accounting Process around municipal water supply.

But first a little bit about me. I am a Michigan native. After doing my undergraduate degree in Public Affairs at Wayne State University I was a community organizer in Detroit working primarily in churches and high schools. I did this for a number of years, along with some odd jobs building mountain biking trails, before I decided to go chase down a master’s degree at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. While there I studied environmental informatics and worked on the Climate Ready Great Lakes Cities team. I also had the opportunity to be an environmental radio host with Its Hot In Here in WCBN – FM in Ann Arbor.

Throughout the past couple of months I have been working on scoping the Blue Accounting pilot project for municipal water supply. Blue Accounting is a program that supports strategic decisions, led jointly by the Great Lakes Commission and The Nature Conservancy. Blue Accounting is anchored by nine overarching desired uses of and values associated with the Great Lakes water system. These desired outcomes fall under the general categories of social values, sustainable human uses and healthy aquatic ecosystems. Blue Accounting is an information management strategy which will establish collaboratives around the desired outcomes that can agree on common goals, create and support metrics to measure progress toward the goals utilizing existing data streams, and measure progress based on those metrics.  

One of my main tasks has been to conduct interviews with directors of municipal water systems and water supply experts. There is a lot variation among the water supply systems and we hear many different perspectives. For example in water systems that were built too large for current population and industry levels such as Milwaukee’s do not prioritize conservation on the part of consumers because they need to keep pressure in their pipes and maintain revenue streams that can support system maintenance and upgrades.

The City of Guelph, Ontario on the other hand is dependent on limited groundwater and has spent decades shaping an ethic of water conservation so much so that neighbors report that having green grass during a drought is reason for social ostracization. These different perspectives, however, are both rooted in the same need for revenue to maintain infrastructure. This problem is rooted in the social perception of the value of water.

Water is both priceless, valuable beyond measure, and a basic natural resource that most believe should be available to us at a nominal fee.

This dilemma has come to a head in Detroit. I spent a couple hours at a meeting of the Great Lakes Water Authority one afternoon. The minutes from previous meetings featured public comments from groups including “The Raging Grannies” prodding the board to devise a way to end the water shutoffs that have affected thousands of Detroiters who are unable to pay their bills on time. It has been called a public health crisis and condemned by the United Nations as “a violation of the most basic human rights.”  A common refrain you might hear in Detroit’s political scene now is “Water is a human right!” Indeed it is, but it’s an expensive one. With infrastructure breaking down at an unprecedented rate, bills are rising are for the watersheds most impoverished residents.

While public officials feel the heat of public outrage and an estimated 40,000 people scramble to live without functioning water (as seen in this compelling and infuriating video by Detroit’s RaizUp Collective), the quagmire of paying for water infrastructure upgrades remains. The old and overbuilt water system in Detroit must be paid for by a smaller and less wealthy populace than it was built for. Some have called for a social campaign to help people to place more value on their water. “If only people would pay for their water half of what they pay on their cable bill”, goes the refrain. Never mind that a rising number of people, myself included have no cable bill, water is a distinctly different public utility. Unlike cable, water is a true public good; necessary to public health and welfare.  

At the Great Lakes Water Authority meeting it seemed momentarily that public officials were listening to their constituents. Extra time in the agenda was added for a presentation from one of the board members on how other communities with a large low-income population have dealt with funding water infrastructure maintenance with. One example that seems particularly promising is to model Philadelphia’s recently passed income-based policies in which low income consumers would pay a bill that is a certain percentage of their income, while more affluent consumers would pick up the tab for remaining costs.

Despite the challenges I am inspired by the many intelligent and passionate people working in the grassroots and at the top of water systems to find a way forward for water infrastructure and financing in 21st century economy. I am honored to be working alongside them.   

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