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Blog Posts: Water

August 18th, 2014

The Toledo Water Crisis Won’t Be the Last

By Elizabeth Nussbaumer

Algae_Blooms_Blog_ThumbThe recent water crisis in Toledo, Ohio is not an isolated incident, and it won’t be the last. As the annual and increasingly severe algae blooms hit Lake Erie this year, levels of the toxin mycrocystin reached such high levels that the City of Toledo ordered a tap water ban because the toxin can cause diarrhea, vomiting or impaired liver function. Residents were ordered not to drink the water or use it for cooking, brushing their teeth or pets. Children and people with compromised immune systems were even warned not to bathe with the water.

Caused by large amounts of phosphorus runoff from excessive fertilizer application on farms, manure from livestock feeding operations and aging wastewater infrastructure, the algae blooms in Lake Erie are nothing new. In fact, water contamination from industrial agriculture and wastewater discharge has repeatedly been a detriment to public waterways and sources of drinking water, causing previous contamination crises.

In 1997, outbreaks of Pfiesteria, a toxic algae, contaminated the Chesapeake Bay, Pocomoke River, Rappahannock River and other waterways of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Excessive nutrient run-off from the high concentration of chicken farms in the region, contracted by companies like Tyson, caused algae blooms and the subsequent spread of Pfiesteria. The outbreak resulted in large fish kills, with thousands of fish dying and showing signs of contamination like sores, ulcerous holes and whole chunks of fins missing. Public health effects also materialized, with several people experiencing neurological problems like short-term memory loss.

In the early 2000s, the City of Tulsa, Oklahoma faced water contamination from excess phosphorus runoff caused by land application of poultry litter and wastewater discharges. The runoff polluted Lake Eucha and Lake Spavinaw, which supplied drinking water to about half of the city’s 500,000 residents at the time of the incident, causing algae blooms and “foul-smelling and bitter tasting water.” As a result, the city faced substantial treatment costs from the runoff contamination and eventually brought suit against poultry industry companies like Tyson Foods, among others, as well as the city of Decatur, Arkansas for wastewater discharges.

Similarly, Des Moines, Iowa experienced historically high nitrate levels beginning in May 2013, caused by runoff from excessive fertilizer use in agricultural production. The nitrate levels reached as high as 24 milligrams per liter (mg/l), far above the accepted safe level of 10 mg/l. Des Moines Water Works, the municipal water utility for the city and surrounding communities, had to operate its Nitrate Removal Facility at a cost of $7,000 per day to keep nitrates at levels safe for consumption. This ended up costing consumers over $525,000. Left untreated, high levels of nitrates also pose the risk of Blue Baby Syndrome to infants six months old and younger — nitrates can reduce the ability of infant’s blood to carry oxygen, leading to death.

In other cases municipal water supplies have been contaminated with E. coli and other harmful contaminants due to runoff from factory farms and wastewater discharge into our public waterways. In 2000, Canada experienced one of its worst water contamination crises ever when the water supply for Walkerton, Ontario was contaminated with E. coli from nearby farm runoff. Seven people died from the outbreak and more than 2,300 became ill with symptoms like bloody diarrhea, gastrointestinal infections and other symptoms common with E. coli infections.

In a less severe but still serious case, residents of Morrison, Wisconsin also faced drinking water contamination from factory farm and other agricultural runoff. According to the New York Times, in 2009 more than 100 wells used for drinking water had become contaminated with E. coli, coliform bacteria and other contaminants commonly found in manure, due largely to runoff from nearby dairy farms or fields covered with slaughterhouse waste and treated sewage. Residents suffered chronic diarrhea, stomach illnesses and severe ear infections.

These incidents might leave you wondering why we haven’t learned from the past and prevented future crises. The fact is, it’s well known that runaway fertilizer use, excessive nutrient runoff from factory farms and devil-may-care wastewater discharges from other polluters are responsible for the ongoing occurrence of these water crises. Instead, actors on all sides have knowingly ignored or tried to side-step directly addressing the issue with sub-par policies, largely because of undue influence from industry lobbies and special interests that stand behind those guilty of polluting our waterways.

Despite having policy tools like the Clean Water Act (CWA) that initially provided strong protections for our public waterways, it has since been weakened and little has changed. Industrial agriculture continues to be the highest source of pollution in many of our waterways and simultaneously these polluters remain some of the least regulated and continue to discharge pollution with impunity.

To make matters worse, the proposed solution to this has been to allow water quality trading as a way to comply with the CWA. In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took a giant step away from the public trust approach of the CWA when they created a plan that gives polluters the option to buy the right to pollute our waterways. The EPA is allowing polluters like coal-fired power plants to purchase “credits” from other polluters, like industrial agriculture, in lieu of controlling their discharges.

Until public and environmental health is put before industrial agriculture and other polluters’ interests, we stand to face more of the same crises at the cost to consumers. How do we go about changing this? First, water quality trading cannot stand as an option. It is a false solution and to date there is not one documented case of its success. Second, runoff from industrial agriculture must be regulated. Full stop. In 1977, amendments to the CWA set a strong and simple standard that polluting is illegal, and that the national goal is zero discharge of pollution into our public waterways. Our rivers, lakes and estuaries do not exist as dumping grounds for the pollution that comes from irresponsible and unsustainable industrial practices. There is no substitute for water — not polluting it is our only option.

Take action today to protect Ohio’s water from factory farms!

August 7th, 2014

Frackopoly: Documenting the Movement to Fight Fracking

Wenonah Hauter, Mark Ruffalo and activists rally to ban fracking.

Wenonah Hauter, Mark Ruffalo and activists rally to ban fracking.

By Wenonah Hauter

Writing a book is both a daunting and energizing experience. My first book Foodopoly took months of research (helped by many here at Food & Water Watch) and sheer discipline. But the payoff was great: I was able to tour the country and meet people who are concerned about the state of our food and the state of our politics, and I felt palpably that the work of Food & Water Watch is necessary and making a difference by building a movement of concerned citizen activists to become politicized to protect our essential resources from corporate control.

What Is Fracking?
  • Inherently unsafe, fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing. It’s a water-intensive process where millions of gallons of fluid are injected underground at high pressure to fracture the rock surrounding an oil or gas well. This releases extra oil and gas from the rock, so it can flow into the well.
  • Sign the petition to ban fracking.

Now, I’m back in the trenches of research and writing with my follow-up book. A true tale of corruption and greed, Frackopoly: The Battle for the Future of Energy and the Environment looks at how a powerful citizen-led movement is making progress fighting one of the biggest and most powerful industries in the world on one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time: fracking. In preparation for the book, I am interviewing people in affected communities across the country who have had their well water contaminated with methane; their health impacted; their air polluted; and the value of their homes destroyed.

As I’m starting to wrap up the book, I’m feeling excited about what lies ahead, and what the book represents. It’s a story of what’s possible and ultimately, what will save our democracy: engaged citizens, impacted by an issue in their backyards, in a fight for their lives and making a difference.

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July 29th, 2014

New Water Law in Ecuador: Big Business Versus Local Communities

By Andrew Diaz 

In 2008 Ecuador officially recognized the human right to water, joining only nine other countries that have done the same since 1994. Section One, Article 12 of the Ecuadorian Constitution states, “The human right to water is essential and cannot be waived. Water constitutes a national strategic asset for use by the public and it is unalienable, not subject to a statute of limitations, immune from seizure and essential for life.” It is therefore surprising, if not ironic, that over the past several years, interest groups have been colliding over water rights in the Andean country. 

So, who is fighting over water in a country that guarantees it as a human right and also happens to be located at the edge of the largest river basin in the world, anyway? As Julia Apland Hitz succinctly stated in a recent piece published by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, “The sides of the conflict can be summarized as the government and big business vs. the indigenous communities, but of course it’s more complicated than that.”

Indeed it is. Around the time of Ecuador’s constitutional referendum, the world experienced a convergence of global crises: in energy, food and finance. These concurring events, coupled with the ongoing threat of global climate change, have caused land grabbing, in which wealthy corporations, powerful national governments and private equity funds have sought available lands abroad for food, fuel and mineral production to prepare themselves for future price increases.

China is perhaps the leading global actor implementing this strategy, and it has its sights on Latin America as a place to invest billions of dollars to finance extractive industries, including oil refineries. Ecuador, a member of OPEC, is expected to receive up to nine billion dollars from Beijing for one new oil refinery alone, amounting to the single largest infrastructure project in President Rafael Correa’s administration.

But how do such energy- and water-intensive projects get off the ground? After a years-long struggle punctuated by fierce debate and protests by groups on both sides of the issue, the National Assembly of Ecuador finally passed a new water law in late June. One of the main changes brought by this new law will bring the nation’s water system, previously under community control, under the subordination of a centralized authority. The new law also allows for groundwater to be included in the sale of land, thus giving the owner, including oil and mining companies, complete control over the resource.

As the law was being passed, indigenous social rights groups began a twelve-day march, or caminata, across the country that culminated in a demonstration just two blocks away from the National Assembly in Quito. They chanted and waived multi-colored banners as they marched in solidarity. Their chants in protest included, “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” meaning, “The united people shall never be defeated!” During the forming of the new water bill, indigenous leaders demanded legal protections for those communities living near water resources. They argued that these indigenous communities played a vital role in the construction of water networks and irrigation canals, and warned that this new law could pave the way to water privatization. 

President Correa has been defensive on the issue, claiming that the protesters are merely political opponents and asserted that the new law will not lead to privatization, adding, “It is a rude lie to say that the water is going to be privatized.” He adds that privatization of the country’s water is prohibited by the Constitution and the new law. 

Just two weeks after celebrating the passing of Ecuador’s new water law, President Correa met with President Xi Jinping of China to discuss future development plans and to promote bilateral relations. At the meeting, held in Brazil, Correa acknowledged China’s support in its economic development including oil refineries, and funding of proposals and basic industries.

Having had their water supply contaminated due to oil extraction in the past, many of Ecuador’s indigenous people fear that the passing of this law, which effectively ends community control of their water, represents a slippery slope toward privatization. Jorge Herrera, president of Ecuador’s largest indigenous organization, summarizes his side’s position by saying, “Our concern is that control of water stays with the community. We consider it an ancestral right, not one of the central government.”

Andrew Diaz is an international policy intern at Food & Water Watch.

July 25th, 2014

The Floating Catastrophe

By Sydney Baldwin 

Our nation’s waterways are at risk to become the new highways for dangerous fracking waste. The U.S. Coast Guard has proposed the opening of the Ohio River, and other major waterways, as a route for shale gas extraction wastewater. If approved, the fracking waste barges pose a hazard to all those who drink and live near these waterways.

GreenHunter Resources, Inc. is seeking permission to build a barge dock that could accommodate roughly 105,000,000 gallons of fracking waste at once. A facility of this size could endanger contiguous ecosystems and communities. Almost 686 million gallons of fracking wastewater was dumped in Ohio last year alone, in which half came from out of state sites. If approved, the new proposals could eventually transform Ohio into a fracking wasteland. 

Proponents argue that barging the waste is a safer alternative to transporting it by truck or railway. However, the quantity of chemical waste could wreak havoc on communities nearby and downstream for months, even years, if there were a mishap. Read the full article…

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July 11th, 2014

Give Detroit Real Relief: Turn the Taps Back On

By Katherine Cirullo

Right now, in the heat of midsummer, thousands of Detroiters do not have access to safe drinking water, cannot flush their toilets, bathe their children, wash their dishes or boil water to cook food to feed their families. This is what happens when we treat water like a commodity instead of a common resource and basic human right.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department says that more than 80,000 residential households are in arrears, in addition to many Detroit businesses, so it is cutting off service to households that cannot pay their bills. With nearly 40 percent of Detroit residents living in poverty, water bills are simply unaffordable for these households. That’s why the United Nations (UN) recently declared the shut-offs in Detroit a violation of the human right to water and has called for immediate restoration of this essential service. 

It is in this context that Nestlé Waters North America has revved up its PR machine after delivering bottled water to Detroit residents. Does Nestlé believe that this gesture will actually relieve the horrible, unsanitary and unsafe conditions of a mid-summer without running water? Or is it simply banking on the fact that its PR stunt may pay off down the road?

The decision to deliver one truckload of bottled water to Detroit is not enough to fix the city’s water woes, and it seems the real beneficiary of Nestlé’s PR stunt is Nestlé.

While we do not wish for anyone to go thirsty, and we appreciate the efforts of the groups in Detroit doing all they can to help their neighbors, Nestlé’s gesture completely misses the seriousness of the situation. A family cannot actually survive the summer’s conditions on bottled water, let alone a small, limited amount of it. Bottled water is not practical for flushing toilets. It cannot keep children clean and fed, and it cannot prevent the spread of disease. Detroiters don’t need environmentally wasteful and inconvenient water that costs thousands of times more than their tap water. They need their pipes turned back on.

Second, Nestlé’s bottled water delivery (water, mind you, that has been usurped from communities that need it) to Detroiters casts a curious shadow on the root of the issue: the privatization and commodification of our water resources.

Bottled water takes public water supplies to sell at prices that are unaffordable for many people around the world. If given the chance, the industry would create a world where rich people buy their water in expensive, environmentally damaging bottles, while our public water systems erode and deteriorate, leaving poor people without safe and clean water.

In Detroit, we’re seeing the consequences of what happens when government bureaucrats treat water like a commodity. The Detroit Water Board uses that false notion to rationalize cutting service off to people that genuinely cannot afford to pay their bills. It is unconscionable to leave poverty-stricken households, including families with small children, without water during the heat of summer.

Water is not a widget to be bought and sold. It is an essential public service and a common resource. Our elected officials have a fundamental responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to safe and affordable water service. 

In the midst of this internationally-recognized water crisis, bottled water cannot prevent this looming public health crisis, but turning the taps back on will. Take action to give Detroit real relief: restored service at an affordable rate.

June 30th, 2014

Protecting Our Water: It’s Simply the Right Thing to Do

By Nisha Swinton

I have worked with Food & Water Watch – Maine on bottled water issues for almost five years, and I am always so excited when new people join our growing movement against corporate control of our most precious natural resource. I met Nina and her mother Molly, recently, and I was immediately inspired. Nina is nine years old, in 3rd grade, and loves to swim. Nina was not shy at all about discussing her bottled water work at her local elementary school.

“I found out about global warming through nature shows and I realized that polar bears were endangered, so I wanted to do my part in helping the polar bears by helping people notice that plastic water bottles are NOT cool,” Nina explained one afternoon. “One of the reasons I want to keep the ocean clean is because I love swimming and I don’t want to swim in trash or have the fish be sick.”

Nina started the Protect Our Land and Resources (POLAR) Kids Club at school. She and other club members have been speaking in classes, holding raffles for Take Back the Tap reusable water bottles, meeting with teachers and administration, and collecting student signatures to ban bottled water and plastics from their school. POLAR has collected more than 500 signatures already, from a school of 700 students! 

Across the United States and the world, students like Nina are making headlines for their efforts to ban the bottle. People are realizing that bottled water is not safer than tap water. Increasingly, bottled water comes from the tap. Bottled water creates mountains of garbage and causes other major environmental problems. Bottled water is thousands of times more expensive than tap water. Bottled water companies mislead communities into giving away their public water in exchange for dangerous jobs. 

Nina’s work is most important right here in Maine because we are facing a huge battle with the bottled water industry giant Nestle North America, which owns Poland Spring. Nestle is looking to go into a 45-year contract with a water district right here in Maine. We need more and more Mainers, young and old, to learn from Nina’s story and work in their communities to ban bottled water to protect our natural resources for Nina’s generation and beyond.

Molly is proud of her daughter’s hard work. “I’m really proud of Nina for being passionate about an important issue and working to share her ideas with her peers, and not giving up. She has put aside her own fear of public speaking for the sake of this cause about which she feels so strongly. For her, the ideas are simple and she is motivated to protect the environment. Her reasons are not political or economical, it’s simply the right thing to do.” I couldn’t agree more.

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June 25th, 2014

How One Woman Exercised Her Power to Take Back the Tap

By Sydney Baldwin and Katherine Cirullo


Modern superheroes don’t wear capes anymore. In fact, they’re just like you and 
me — they stand behind us in the grocery line and walk past us on their way to work. Lynn Hartung is one such superhero. She has taken it upon herself to demand change in her community and beyond, not taking “no” for an answer.  

A cognitive behavioral therapist, activist, and mom based in Michigan, Hartung has launched a campaign to eliminate plastic water bottle waste at her local gym and, eventually, at all fitness centers. Her passion for the environment stems from her mother’s constant recycling efforts and her father’s love of the outdoors. Lynn is also inspired by her daughter, an environmental organizer for The Sierra Club. So when Lynn noticed that her gym club was not taking the initiative to recycle plastic water bottles, she stepped in to correct that problem.

Read the full article…

June 20th, 2014

The Fight for San Bartolo’s Water

By Andrew Diaz

Water Service and ImmigrationAll over town, church bells were tolling, but they were not marking the top of the hour as they usually do. Upon hearing this signal, masses of townspeople came from all directions, armed with stones, pipes, even sticks—anything that was lying around was fair game that day. Off in the distance, the opposition could be seen approaching through the haze, their fifteen hundred shiny, black helmets slowly marching forward as one force behind the protection of their transparent shields and riot gear. As the dark swarm of police approached down the narrow, twisting streets, the crowd of townspeople braced themselves. They shouted commands at each other to hold their positions. Soon, the objects in their hands would become a barrage of projectiles hurled at the officers in an effort to keep them back.

This scene was the culmination of thirteen months of acrimonious debate. San Bartolo Ameyalco is an otherwise unremarkable town sitting on the hills of the Álvaro Obregón delegation, or borough, on the fringes of Mexico City. Founded in 1535, the town is one of the oldest communities in the Federal District, and is indeed one of the older settlements in the whole of Mexico. Its history probably dates even further back, as it is believed that the town was first settled by the native Tepanec people. 

What brought the early settlers to this area, and what has kept people in San Bartolo ever since? The residents of the town simply know it as el ojo de agua, or “the waterhole”— a volcanic spring that has been faithfully providing freshwater to the community from the time of its founding. In fact, Ameyalco is a Nahuatl word meaning “place from which the water flows,” which it continues to do at a rate of about 60 liters per second.

It is this water supply that is at the heart of the dispute that is taking place in one of the largest and most densely populated cities on earth. Desperate to find additional water sources to supplement a rapidly-depleting aquifer below its soil, the government of Mexico City announced in April 2013 that a part of San Bartolo’s water supply would be joining a larger system delivering water across the entire borough. The residents of the town, whose name is often referred to simply as Ameyalco, responded with a clear voice: “no.”

Miguel Ángel Mancera, the mayor of Mexico City, insists that this project would benefit at least twenty thousand people. Many of Ameyalco’s residents, however, believe that the main beneficiaries of such a project would be the rich, inhabiting hastily-built communities with profits from international business —such as the community of Santa Fe, built over a former dumping ground not far from Ameyalco — and with no prior infrastructure for delivering water. 

The government asserts it has a responsibility to deliver water to these newer communities, and that the people of Ameyalco do not have the right to selfishly appropriate this precious resource. Meanwhile, the people of San Bartolo proclaim that their water is not for sale, as water is already scarce in their community. Additionally, they say that they should not have to pay the price for the city’s poor planning. 

The floodgates of this controversy finally burst wide open on the morning of May 21, 2014, as workers of Sacmex, the Mexico City water company, arrived to lay the pipe that would connect San Bartolo’s water to the wider network. The residents were determined to guard their spring in any way possible. Once it became clear that efforts to continue the construction project would be met with resistance, the riot police were called in. There are conflicting reports, but the ensuing clash resulted in at least fifty to seventy of the townspeople injured or hospitalized, over fifty policemen injured—at least two of them seriously—and property damage around the area of the conflict, including several destroyed police vehicles.

Despite the opposition to the construction plan, the project in San Bartolo was carried out. The government has stated that Amayalco’s spring has not been affected by the plan, but instead it was the nearby water system by the name of Cutzamala that was connected to the borough-wide system. The borough of Álvaro Obregón has even released a statement guaranteeing that San Bartolo’s spring water will not be mixed with this larger system. There are many in San Bartolo who see this as just the calm before another storm, and as a result want to negotiate terms with the government. However, their demand is to have their rights respected by having a seat at the discussion table, and for the government to be transparent about its plans regarding the region’s water. 

In the meantime, Mexico City continues to literally sink under its own weight as it swiftly drains its underground water reservoir ever more quickly. As its vast and growing population continues to demand more and more resources, it is a near certainty that this complex and contentious issue is far from settled. 

Andrew Diaz is an international research and policy intern with Food & Water Watch. He currently attends the University of Maryland at College Park and majors in geographic information science and minors in international development and conflict management.

June 2nd, 2014

The Tricks and Ploys of the Corporate Water Barons

By Mary Grant 

The lengths some companies will go to stop communities from gaining local control of their water systems can seem completely crazy. Tomorrow, voters in California’s Monterey Peninsula will go to the polls to decide whether to take the first step toward buying their water system from American Water’s California arm.  Read the full article…

May 9th, 2014

Field Notes: California Rising Up Against Fracking

Posing for a photo after Beverly Hills becomes the first California city to ban fracking, (left to right) Councilmember John A. Mirisch, Councilmember Nancy H. Krasne, Food & Water Watch volunteer Lauren Steiner, Mayor Lili Bosse, FWW Organizer Brenna Norton, Councilmember William W. Brien M.D., Vice Mayor Julian A. Gold M.D.

By Tia Lebherz and Brenna Norton

Since Tia’s blog last week about the campaign to ban fracking in Butte County and other places across California, the movement to ban fracking in the Golden State has experienced much momentum.  

This week, Beverly Hills became the first city in California to enact a ban on fracking and related well stimulation techniques. The ordinance also prohibits these activities from any site outside city limits that would drill and extract oil and gas underneath the city. The City Council first voted unanimously for a ban on April 21st (Earth Day), and on Tuesday night, the final vote put the ban into effect. Food & Water Watch worked closely with superstar fractivist Lauren Steiner on the effort, with the support of Center for Biological Diversity and other organizations.

“This is not a ‘not in my backyard issue’ – it should not be in anyone’s back yard,” said Councilmember John Mirsch. “But this issue goes beyond that. And we also need to think long-term even if our city is not a center of drilling. Injecting millions of gallons of water and chemicals at high pressure into the earth can’t be good. Asbestos and smoking was once also considered safe. Fracking is not worth the risk.”

On the other side of L.A. County, on April 22, the City Council of Compton voted to place a moratorium on fracking to protect their community from the threat of Occidental Petroleum and other oil companies invading the community to drill for oil in the Dominguez Hill oil field. Occidental has been hinting about the possibility of drilling in Compton, since they face strong opposition in neighboring Carson to their proposal to drill over 200 new wells.

Santa Barbara County Water Guardians deliver 20,000 signatures to put a fracking ban on the county’s November ballot.

The fight to protect Carson is now in full swing. After the Carson City Council unanimously enacted a 45-day moratorium on all oil and gas development, last week the Council split on whether to extend the moratorium for another 10 months. Two councilmembers voted for the moratorium, two voted against it, and one member abstained. While the vote was disappointing, there are numerous ways to stop the project, and we will continue to work and support the community’s efforts to stopping the project and protecting their community.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles the City Attorney is now drafting a moratorium ordinance as directed by the City Council, which voted unanimously to advance the ordinance. It will return to the full L.A. City Council for a final vote to be ratified in the coming months.

In San Benito County, home of Pinnacles National Park, San Benito Rising successfully submitted over 4,000 signatures to bring a vote to ban fracking to the November ballot. And in Santa Barbara County, the Santa Barbara County Water Guardians collected an impressive 20,000 petition signatures in an all-volunteer effort in under four weeks. The Water Guardians are now waiting to see whether the County Board of Supervisors will adopt the measure or place it on the November ballot for voter approval.

Finally, our friends at Frack-Free Butte County launched an indiegogo website complete with a fantastic video documenting their campaign. Stay tuned for more exciting updates in the near future!

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