The New Water Wars Reshaping America
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because water affects us all.
Pawhuska, in northern Oklahoma, is the capital of the Osage Nation. Surrounded by ranchers and farmers, its downtown economy was historically fed by a brick plant, a creamery, an ice factory and a rock crusher. Nowadays, even those job creators are gone. Replacing them are a handful of shops and restaurants along Main Street. It’s the type of downtown where, on a recent Sunday evening, most windows tout a “Sorry, we’re closed” sign, and even those with illuminated “Open” signs are closed.
However, the Osage are proud. One of the only Native American groups to outright buy their reservations in the 19th century, they have retained more of their property and land rights than most tribes. The Osage added gaming to goose the economy at the turn of the millennium. The shift has led to jobs and education scholarships and government-sponsored health care, says Geoffrey Standing Bear, a lawyer who helped lead the tribe’s argument for casinos and now serves as Osage chief. “We’re taking care of our people. All that comes from gaming.” In September, the tribe’s environmental department issued a permit for its gaming board to drill for water, in hopes of supplying additional water to one of those casinos.
There is a politics of water that wasn’t even around 10 years ago.
Charles Fishman, author, The Big Thirst
Such bureaucratic decision-making was hardly expected to ruffle feathers. But 11 days later, Standing Bear received a letter from a New Mexico lawyer on behalf of the Oklahoma attorney general, saying that the Osage couldn’t drill — because they didn’t own the water beneath their feet. The tribe disagrees. The stakes are high, and not just for the tribe. “The stakeholders include the rural water districts, every city and town, every rancher,” Standing Bear says. “It includes anybody that uses water.”
Increasingly across the nation, water concerns are bubbling up, affecting millions in their wake. The political ramifications of water were amplified during the North Dakota Access pipeline protests of last year, in which protesters coined the phrase “Water is life.” In the last few years in Oklahoma, state officials pressed two tribes, the Choctaw and Chickasaw, into water agreements, although neither of those tribes bought their land outright, as the Osage did in the 1870s. Politicians in Flint, Michigan, are coming up with complex water-specific policies, while administrators in Charleston, South Carolina, are wondering how to combat flooding rates that have doubled from a decade ago, to nearly one a week. And in Washington, the Supreme Court recently agreed to take up a case that could settle a water dispute between Georgia, Florida and Alabama, a court battle that has spanned generations across the South. “There is a politics of water that wasn’t even around 10 years ago,” says Charles Fishman, a contributing editor at Fast Company and author of The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water. “Water has suddenly appeared as a policy issue in a lot of places where it wasn’t an issue before.”
Globally, water wars have turned violent. In January, 70 people were killed in the Darfur region of Sudan during battles for control of local land and water resources. In Bangladesh, more than 50 were injured as protesters argued over the ecological effect of a proposed coal plant on local fisheries and aquatic ecosystems. Meanwhile, access to water has become a key element in fighting in countries like Yemen and Syria, often used as a military target to exercise control over a city or region, according to the Pacific Institute in Oakland, which has tracked at least eight major violent water-related incidents globally this year alone. Of course, there are some aspects of water conflicts that are hardly new: Historical accounts detail skirmishes over boundary canals as far back as 2450 B.C., from laws regarding water theft in the Code of Hammurabi to the biblical account of Moses parting the Red Sea. The history of the world could very well be told in its desire to possess, and acquire, more water.
But the tensions in America offer fresh concerns. Just look at the Flint water crisis, when potentially 100,000 residents were exposed to toxic lead amounts in their drinking water. “The Great Lake states are the canary in the coal mine. Not only were we the home to Flint, but we’re a place that owns 21 percent of the world’s fresh water and cannot figure out how to get people access to clean water,” says Abdul El-Sayed, the former Detroit Health Commissioner. Now running for governor, the 33-year-old has released an eight-page policy paper on solving issues of access and affordability. “Infrastructure is a much bigger question today than just roads and bridges,” he says. “It has to also be water infrastructure.”
A Chicago Tribune investigation in October showed that majority-African-American communities in the Chicago area paid a fifth more for the same water as their white neighbors. Public utilities in states such as Colorado have offered free kits for residents to test their water quality — a nice gesture, sure, but begging the question of whether companies are off-loading quality responsibilities onto consumers. Awareness is not the same as solutions, either. “You can go back to Flint and just see that attention doesn’t always equal action,” Fishman says. “It’s been three years, but only 20 percent of the homes that actually have a lead-pipe problem have been fixed.”
In Oklahoma, the Osage have no illusions about the nature of their disagreement. “This is a real serious fight,” Chief Standing Bear tells this writer. “The water is critical, because if they say they can regulate the water, then they can tax the water. The power to tax is the power to destroy.” Expect more martial rhetoric as what comes out of your tap becomes a battleground once again.