Key lesson from Flint: communities can’t rely on state and federal governments
“Water is the hidden ingredient in so much of what we do every day that we don’t even notice—hence its secret life,” Charles Fishman tells me on Greening of the Great Lakes. Fishman is the author of The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, one of the best books on water and water resources management I have read.
“We’ve done a pretty good job in the U.S. of reducing our thirst. We’re down to about 90 gallons per day per person. So the typical American uses about 90 gallons of water per day. However, the electricity that each of us uses every day – just at home – requires 230 gallons of water per day to produce.
“Anywhere you look where you pull back the curtain on how the world works, there’s water making it possible.”
Fishman says his key takeaway from his years reporting on water isn’t exactly a revelation.
“I think the federal and state governments have critical roles [to play], but the truth is that water is fundamentally a local issue. The problems somebody is having with water are happening right where they’re happening and that’s the place to tackle them, to understand them, and to figure out solutions.
“You can look to Washington for funding and technical guidance, but if you’re waiting for smart, thoughtful, clear and crisp guidance from Washington, your water is going to end up a mess.”
While reflecting on lessons from Flint’s water crisis Fishman says “you can’t have a vibrant economy without safe, clean, reliable water. And we failed to appreciate that because 99.9 percent of the time, we do.
“To me, Flint is a warning – not that the whole water system is falling apart – but that when there’s a water problem, you need to fix it and fix it quickly.” Otherwise, he says, the problems are not simply going away, and they become much more costly each day they are not addressed.
Fishman fully understands and appreciates the incredible environmental jewels that are our Great Lakes. Because of strong, bipartisan political agreement on the value of this fresh water natural resource, he expects Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding to remain in place. And he believes the Great Lakes Compact states should come together to help clean up the lakes.
“No one is sorry we passed the Clean Water Act 40 years ago. Everybody’s water in America is cleaner that it was 40 years ago. If you guys do the same with the Great Lakes, 40 years from now no one will be sorry that the lakes are cleaner than they are now.”
Fishman adds that one way climate change manifests itself is through water problems. He discusses recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico and the fires in Northern California.
“Smart communities and state governments are going to take a step back and say ‘what does that look like, and what do we need to do to be ready for those kinds of water-related impacts.’ Water is not simply about supply—when I turn on my tap is there water? There are other major water issues, too, and many are directly related to climate change.”
Greening of the Great Lakes airs inside MSU Today Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 94.5 FM and AM 870.