Please support our programs

Whose Water? The Struggle for Public Ownership of Freshwater


Never miss a show! @ symbol icon Email Signup Spotify Logo Spotify RSS Feed Apple Podcasts
Walloon Lake - Aerial View

Northern Michigan’s Walloon Lake. (Creative Commons photo by Odalaigh via Flickr)

With the world’s clean drinking water supply dwindling, struggles over freshwater are taking place all over the globe. Rivers, lakes and streams are seen as commodities for profit, not as natural resources to sustain. But whose water is it to begin with? And who gets to manage and distribute this most precious of resources?

On this edition, we go to Michigan, where from the city of Detroit, to the farmlands and countryside, citizens are battling to gain greater control over the bounty of the great lakes.

This show was made possible in part by the Park Foundation.


Gwendolyn Gaines, Detroit People’s Water Board Commissioner, Ann Rall,  Michigan Welfare Rights Organization volunteer; Charity Hicks, Detroit People’s Water Board Commissioner At Large, Lou Novak, Detroit Greens Treasurer, Marcella Olivera, Red Vida Co-Coordinator, Don Coe, Black Star Farms Managing Partner; Jay Peasley, White River Watershed Partnership and Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation member; Dan Scripps, Michigan State Representative; Jim Olson, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation Attorney; Ray Franz, well owner; Eric Neubecker, Ramer Well Drilling Company Geologist.

Contributing Producer: Rachel Zurer

Michigan Debates Putting Groundwater into a Public Trust


Michigan is one of several states that are considering laws to put their groundwater into a public trust – its an idea designed to prevent private interests from profiting off water, at the community’s expense.  But some Michiganers are worried that the proposal would threaten their use of the water beneath their own land—an important benefit of living in a state with so much water under the ground. Making Contact’s Andrew Stelzer has the story.

The Detroit Peoples Water Board is Born


The city of Detroit sits at the tip of Lake Erie, and is a few miles downriver from Lake St Clair, a smaller, but substantial freshwater source in itself.  But despite all that water, some Detroit residents are facing a water crisis of their own.   For the past decade the price of water has been steadily climbing higher — so high that for some, it’s out of reach.  Because the water and sewerage department wasn’t responding to the community’s needs, a coalition of environmental groups, labor unions, and social activists has come together to try and claim a stake in managing the water supply they need to survive.  Making Contact correspondent Rachel Zurer reports how their group, the Detroit People’s Water Board, is pushing to create a system in which everyone has access to clean, affordable water.

To learn more about the Detroit People’s Water board, check out this article in the Progressive magazine.

For More Information:

American Rivers

Detroit Greens

Detroit Peoples Water Board


Flow for Water

Food and Water Watch

Washington, DC

Great Lakes Water Law Blog

Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation

Michigan Welfare Rights Organization

Pacific Institute

Oakland, CA

Red Vida

White River Watershed Partnership

The Freshwater Trust

Will Copeland’s Water Warriors

Black Star Farms


Videos, Blogs, Articles, Links:

All Bottled Up: Nestlé’s Pursuit of Community Water

Changing the Flow: Water Movements in Latin America

Cities that have banned bottled water

Communities Demand Bottling Giant Nestle Stop Undermining Local Control of Water





Detroit Peoples Water Board Protest



‘Liquid Assets’ series: Nestle eyes the White River


US National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change on the Great Lakes






“Water Warriors” poem by Will Copeland, video directed by Isabelle Carbonell

“Quillawañuy” (Aire de Cueca) by Ch’uwa Yacu

“Purple Nurple” by Alex Beroza


Episode Transcript

  • This week on Making Contact.
  • Drip, drip! Drip, drip! I need my water now!

  • We’re sitting in the Great Lakes with a significant number of people with no access to clean and affordable water.

  • With the world’s clean drinking water supply dwindling, struggles over fresh water are taking place all over the globe. Rivers, lakes, and streams are seen as commodities for profit. But whose water is it to begin with? And who gets to manage and distribute this most precious of resources?

  • We not only have to reclaim water, and commons, and governance, but we have to insist upon our governments reclaiming that responsibility.

  • On this edition, we go to Michigan, where from the city of Detroit to the farmlands and countryside, citizens are battling to gain greater control over the bounty of the Great Lakes. I’m Andrew Stelzner, and this is Making Contact, a program connecting people, vital ideas, and important information.


  • In 2000, the city of Cochabamba’s water supply had been privatized and given to an international water consortium led by the Bechtel company. Water rates were raised by 35%, meaning the average Bolivian would have to spend almost a 1/5th of their $100 a month income on water. The people took to the streets, and over several months time, the demonstrations escalated until eventually the company fled the city and canceled the contract. The water was returned to the state.

Marcela Olivera was there throughout the struggle. She now works as co-coordinator for Red Vita, an international citizens network on water rights. Olivera says the underlying concept driving the social unrest was that the natural resources belong to the people of the land, and that the people have a right to manage and determine their use collectively. The idea could more plainly be called the commons.

  • I will not try to define what the commons are for us, because are more than a concept or a definition. It’s something that we do. It’s a doing thing. It’s a verb. You know this comes from so many, many years ago, comes from communities, comes from the indigenous people. But it’s what is happening in Bolivia, it’s that people have adopted the notion of the commons to something that fits in the urban centers.
  • Olivera says that the struggle against Bechtel was monumental. But since then, even harder work has taken place. Determining how to translate the idea of the commons into practice in the 21st century, and how to work with a government owned utility that still wasn’t serving the people.

  • So after the water war, we start to think what public means. Public means when it belongs to the state, when it belongs to the local government. And we said, no. For us, at least, public means when it belongs to the people. So people have started to create some kind of mechanisms inside of the water company that will allow more participation, direct control, direct democracy over the water company.

In the absence of the state to take care of the basic needs of the people, like water for example, what the communities are doing in the suburbs of the cities is to build their own water systems. And rather to see this like something bad, or that the state’s not providing things there, we see this as a recall, as a reclaiming of the people to something that belongs to them. It’s water.

  • Events in Bolivia have inspired other anti-privatization movements, and they’re part of a global evolution of thinking about how we can manage one of our most precious resources, water. In the US, Michigan is one of several states that are considering laws to put their groundwater into a public trust. It’s an idea designed to prevent private interests from profiting off water at the community’s expense.

The Great Lakes account for more than 20% of the world’s surface freshwater supply. Lake Michigan, like all of the Great Lakes, is to a great degree fed by groundwater. There’s so much water under the ground, many towns don’t even have a municipal water system. Everyone just digs a well and gets their water off their own land. And that water is all free. Free water isn’t just a nice bonus for residents who don’t have to pay a monthly water bill, it can mean millions in savings for companies that use lots of water for their business, like agriculture.


Near the northern tip of Lake Michigan, Black Star Farms is set in the midst of Rolling Hills. Don Keough is the managing partner of this working farm, vineyard, creamery, and bed and breakfast, all in one. Keough says he knows as a businessman and as a farm operator, how important water is to him. But despite its crucial role, Keough doesn’t know much about how his water usage affects others.

  • I report the water I use on this farm, but I have no idea where my aquifer spreads to. I don’t know on the water that I’m extracting and the water I’m using, am I negatively impacting upon my neighbors? I just don’t know that.
  • Keough has two wells on his property which supply his entire 160 acre agrotourism operation.

  • What incentive do I have to impose conservation methods on the use of my water? Particularly when I’m drawing from my own aquifers. I’m not on a water main system where I’m paying for the water that I’m using.

  • For much of the past decade, Michiganders have been debating some of those questions. How to determine whether one person’s use of groundwater is affecting their neighbors, and should the government be involved in regulating that use? At the heart of the issue is perhaps the most water intensive industry there is, bottled water. A recent uproar involving Nestle brought the question of water regulation and use to a head.

In 2007, the corporation was already operating one controversial bottled water plant in this part of the state. And they were six years into a legal battle with citizens who thought too much water was being extracted from a vital watershed. Then the company announced it wanted to pump millions of gallons of spring water from the nearby White River to be bottled, trucked out of state, and sold under the Ice Mountain brand.

  • My name’s Jay Peasley. I’m a board member on the White River Watershed Partnership, and I’m also a member of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, or MCWC.
  • Peasley lives about 20 miles upstream from this spot on the White River. We are standing in the middle of the woods, and he’s pointing out a thicket of trees where Nestle wanted to set up shop.

  • We’re probably three miles downstream from the headwaters. And it’s just a nice clean, clear, pristine trout stream that’s running through a swamp. And there’s really no development. Might be six houses in this square mile. So it’s just beautiful.

  • Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation was the leading voice against Nestle. They argued that Nestle’s plans would have negative effects on the local environment, deplete fish stocks, and would harm the community’s quality of life.

  • They were talking about pumping over 100,000, maybe even a quarter of a million gallons a day. And we can walk down, and you can see the depth of water. It isn’t that deep right now. So are you talking about cutting the flow by, I think it was 20% or something. It’s a blue ribbon trout stream up here. They have native brookies in it. So not only would the fish be impacted, so would everything else that lives here. The goldfinch, the eagles, just everything that live in this area.

  • Should we walk down there?

  • Nestle denied that their proposed use was substantial enough to hurt the underground aquifer or surrounding ecosystems. But the battle over the White River never made it to court. In the face of severe opposition, the local township denied the company a permit.

  • Yeah, not very deep.

  • No, it’s not. You know in the springtime when there’s runoff, there’s excess water then. But Nestle doesn’t look at only taking when it’s– when there’s an excess. They just want to pump full time. And the bad part about it, too, in our group’s discussion with Nestle was we asked them, well, how many extra jobs is this going to affect? And it was going to add no jobs to the plant at all. Just take.

  • The community group’s lawsuit against Nestle was also successful in the case of the Little Muskegon River. But a seemingly minor wording of an appeals court ruling in the case may actually have done more harm than good. Before, a landowner could use as much water as they wanted as long as it didn’t affect their neighbors ability to do the same. But now, the economic benefit created by extracting water has more weight. That economic benefit can be judged as more important than the ecological and environmental harm that might occur. Michigan State representative, Dan Scripps.

  • Now the standard is you can use it until your neighbor’s well runs dry. Unless you’re making enough money to show that it’s worth it, even though you’re causing harm to the resource, even though it’s not sustainable, and you’re hurting your neighbor’s ability to access their well and their water. Now if you can show a large enough profit, we may let you do it anyway. Well, that I think puts us on a slippery slope.

  • Scripps has proposed a solution in the state legislature. He wants to put Michigan’s groundwater into what’s called a public trust. It’s a designation that already protects most rivers, lakes, and streams in Michigan.

  • It gives people power to stop government from taking your water, or from handing it to a private corporation, or from a private corporation taking it without your consent.

  • That’s Attorney Jim Olson. He argued the case against Nestle. He says including groundwater in the public trust is necessary to protect the common water supply.

  • It’s not just about groundwater. It’s all one hydrologic system. I mean, you can’t arbitrarily say no law is going to allow the extraction of blood out of a human being, but it’s OK to take it out of their bone marrow. It just has to be treated as one system.

  • Industries that use large amounts of water are understandably opposed to anything that might prevent them from getting it for free. In the face of the public trust legislation, a think tank, run by a former state official who had approved a permit for Nestle’s water bottling plant, began a PR campaign against the idea of a public trust for groundwater. The central argument of the campaign was that the law could lead to the taxing and regulation of people’s wells.

  • Everybody has their own wells. The prospect of being taxed for your water literally drives everybody up the wall.

  • Ray Franz, like just about all of his neighbors, gets his water from a well right next to his house. France became politically active when he heard about the bill that would put all the state’s groundwater into a public trust. If the bill passes, Michigan’s groundwater would legally be owned by all the citizens of Michigan and protected by the state. Franz says the public trust designation could mean more taxes, and that’s bad news.

  • There’s two sides to this bill that are detrimental. It’s a property rights issue, and it’s also a jobs issue for the state of Michigan.

  • Eric Neubecker is also worried that business would suffer if people were charged for using groundwater. He’s a geologist at his family’s well digging business, the Raymer company. They drill more than 250 wells every year.

  • The abundant groundwater in the state of Michigan is one reason why farmers, the fruit growers, are here. And now, if we make it unattractive for them to be in business here, they’re going to go elsewhere to some other state that wants them. And that would have an adverse effect on our business, because there’d be fewer wells to work on, fewer wells to drill. It’d It just have a total negative effect on the entire economy.

  • Folks like Neubecker have dominated the news coverage of the public trust legislation. But whether their fears are actually warranted is up for debate. Representative Scripps says his bill would not result in any taxes at all. And adds that the state legislature could tax water on its own today under current state law, even without a public trust designation.

It’s also an election year, and the groundwater issue has become intertwined with property rights. Ray Franz says that’s an important part of what being American means to him.

  • Anytime we lose a portion of our property rights, whether it’s through significant zoning or riparian rights that we’re looking at, or even mineral rights, you lose part of the value of your property. And personal property, private property is the cornerstone of our democracy. It’s what gives us all the wealth that we enjoy.
  • Vermont and Hawaii have somewhat similar public trust laws for groundwater. And the results there have been positive. Representative Scripps says the private property argument doesn’t always make sense, especially in the case of natural resources like water, which are shared.

  • A private right to water if the water’s not there doesn’t mean a whole lot. And I don’t have any problem with private ownership of any number of things. The trees on your property are very clearly your trees. And the problem is when you get to resources that don’t stop at your property lines.

And as much as you may want to, you’re not fully able to protect those resources under your property. And you need something larger, the collective, to step in and provide protections that any individual landowner can’t provide on their own. And I think that government has a legitimate role to play in that. To say that for certain things, our air, our water and others that there is a common interest in making sure that we’re protecting that for the long term.

  • Black Star Farms Don Keough has lived and worked in Europe, and says that while people there may never have had the same private property protections as people in the US, the result has been better for the population as a whole. He says the idea of private ownership of water sources may be outdated.
  • Look, the reality is, we live in a world economy. And we have a great demand for the resources of the United States from the world, as well as we have a great interest in declining resources in the United States. We can’t live in a laissez faire, every man for himself world anymore. America has gone past that point.

And I personally believe that every one of us who live in this country have a responsibility, not only to our own personal freedoms, but we have a responsibility to our neighbors. And you can cry or decry loss of personal freedom all you want, but that turns us into a tribal society turning inward on itself, and attempting to recreate a long distance past. We can’t live in yesterday’s world. We have to be thinking about tomorrow’s world.

  • The challenge of how and who to manage our communities’ water supplies is playing itself out differently all over the world. Marcela Olivera, who lived through the Bolivian water wars, says it’s a work in progress with no easy answers.
  • The notion of the commons is different from one place to another. It changes with the time. It adapts to the environment and to the own circumstances surround. I think this is the important thing about the commons. There’s no one idea of what it is. Maybe we could say what it is not. But we will never be able to define that completely. And it’s something that we are practicing, and we are doing every day.

  • We’ll be right back. You’re listening to Making Contact, a production of the National Radio Project. If you’d like more information, or for CD of this program, please call 800-529-5736. Because of listeners like you, this show is distributed for free to radio stations in the US, Canada, and South Africa. To find out how to support us, download shows, or get our podcast, go to

  • On the eastern edge of Michigan, sits the city of Detroit. The city is just at the tip of Lake Erie and is a few miles downriver from Lake St. Clair, a smaller, but substantial freshwater source in itself. But despite all that water, some Detroit residents are facing a water crisis of their own. For the past decade, the price of water has been steadily climbing higher. So high that for some, it’s out of reach.

Because the water and sewerage department wasn’t responding to the community’s needs, a coalition of environmental groups, labor unions, and social activists has come together to try and claim a stake in managing the water supply they need to survive. Making Contact correspondent Rachel Zurer, reports how their group, the Detroit People’s Water Board is pushing to create a system in which everyone has access to clean, affordable water.

  • Lifelong Detroit resident, Quinn Gaines, first started worrying about water a few years ago when a close friend found himself with a water bill he couldn’t afford.
  • This friend had moved away for a while, and his mother passed away in the meantime. And the water bill was always paid, and it was on time. And you know how you can leave and come back and maybe the situation is not what is supposed to be.

He had some other relatives was staying in the house, and they never paid the water bill. So when he decided to move back to Detroit, he had this $1,400 water bill.

  • Gaines’ friend couldn’t pay the bill. He was sick and trying to get his social security benefits started. So the water department shut off his water. Meanwhile, he decided to fix up the house. Gaines remembers helping him.
  • It was miserable. He had a couple of good neighbors lent him– he went out and bought buckets. And he would have water to paint with, to clean up afterward, to be able to flush the toilet, cause it was a couple of months he didn’t have no water at all.

  • Eventually, with the help of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Gaines’ friend was able to negotiate a payment plan and get his water turned back on. It took him over a year to pay off the old bill.

  • You know you don’t miss water until you can’t have it.

  • After Gaines’ experience with her friend’s water crisis, she began working with a Michigan Welfare Rights Organization to help others in Detroit keep their water from being turned off. It was hard to know how many households were in danger, but activists did learn that in 2005, there were over 42,000 shutoffs. That year, the Welfare Rights Organization hired consultants to draft a water affordability plan. Ann Rawl, a volunteer with the group, says they hoped to create a sustainable system to help all of the city’s households afford water.

  • The basis of the plan was two-fold. One was to have voluntary contributions, very small amounts from residents, slightly larger amounts from institutions, but really just like $0.50 a month from residents to a fund that would help cover people’s water bills who were having trouble paying. And then the other portion of the fund was money that the water department said that it was capable of raising from penalty fees and other fees that it collected.

  • The idea was to get everyone paying into the system at a level they could afford. If everyone could share the burden of supporting and upgrading the aging infrastructure, then water bills would never go above a certain percentage of a person’s income. In 2006, the Detroit City Council considered the plan and even allocated money to implement it. Then in 2007, the Department of Water and Sewerage created its own plan.

  • So they took sort of some of our ideas and they mangled them up, and now they give a small amount of assistance to a few of the households that apply for it. But of course, they’ve created all these bureaucratic barriers. They won’t provide us with any information about how many people have even been assisted by what we call DRWAP.

  • DRWAP stands for the Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program. The water department wouldn’t give Making Contact any statistics about the program, either. Nor would it reveal how many households are currently without water. That lack of transparency helps reinforce a sense among some Detroiters that the water department is powerful, non-transparent, and ultimately, a scary force. For example, Gaines believes her friend’s water bill related problems could have been much worse.

  • I just fear to think, what if he had had some small children or something. Here in Michigan, they take your children from you if you don’t have water in your home, because that’s considered to be a condemnable property.

  • Gaines says that happened to a different friend of hers, and that it took two years to get the children back. A spokesperson for Michigan’s Department of Human Services told Making Contact children would only be taken after a long process, and only if there were other dangers stemming from the water shut off. Still, according to Charity Hicks, a water activist who’s worked with Gaines, it’s a widespread fear. And one reason, no one who has had their water shut off was willing to speak to us for this story.

  • You’ll find single adults that will talk about it, but you won’t find families with children because of that stigma. And it’s some shame regarding it, too.

  • What is certain is that in Michigan, an unpaid water bill can be a path to foreclosure. The Water and Sewerage Department eventually hands delinquent accounts to the city and county treasurers, who can add them as tax liens against the property. If those don’t get paid, the house is subject to foreclosure.

  • People may own their home outright after being living there for 30 or 40 years, but because they can’t pay a $1,200 water bill, they’re going to lose their home.

  • That’s Lou Novak, treasurer of the Detroit Green Party. He’s involved with Detroit’s water issues partly to push for social justice, but affordability isn’t the only thing that water advocates in Detroit are concerned about. Environmental groups, including the Greens and the Sierra Club, are also on board. Charity Hicks, who calls herself a deep ecologist, worries about how pollution might harm the region’s water supply.

  • Every time it rains here in Southeastern Michigan, our wastewater plant is having sewage overflow. So we’re sitting in the Great Lakes, in one of the major cities on the Great Lakes with a significant number of people with no access to clean and affordable water. And when it rains, we’re polluting the Detroit River, the Rouge River, and ultimately Lake Erie.

  • In the spring of 2009, environmental advocates like Hicks, and affordability advocates like Rawl and Gaines, realized that they might be able to do more about water issues if they all worked together. Everyone was frustrated by how hard it was to get information from the Water and Sewerage Department. Rawl suggested that Detroit needed a group to represent the needs of the people, and the People’s Water Board was born. Again, Lou Novak of the Detroit Greens.

  • This coalition was formed sort of as a shadow water board to monitor the Detroit Water Board and to advocate for openness and transparency in all of their actions.

  • The group elected commissioners to focus on three key areas. Water access and affordability, pollution control and conservation, and water being held in the public commons. The People’s Water Board began holding pickets in front of the monthly municipal board meetings.

  • Drip, drip! Drip, drip! I need my water now!

  • You know it!

  • Drip, drip! Drip, drip! I need my water now!

  • So far, the coalition has managed to get the water department’s official board to publish its meeting agendas and minutes on its website. But most of the coalition’s demands remain unfulfilled. Here’s Charity Hicks.

  • We wanted to place a moratorium on all water shut offs. That has not happened. We wanted a fully implementation of the original water affordability plan. That has not happened. We requested that the water board meetings from the municipal authority be televised. That has not happened.

  • In addition to its work keeping an eye on the contracts and decisions of the water department, the People’s Water Board is trying to raise awareness of water issues among Detroit residents. The group has sponsored a film series, storm drain stenciling, lectures, a poster contest, and demonstrations about rain barrels. The coalition meets monthly to strategize and plan. Hicks says they have no choice but to keep at it.

  • The system is broken. And we need to collectively fix it, or we’re all going to be shut off. And we’re all going to be toting water from a creek.

  • Hicks knows that gaining influence will take time. Despite the coalition’s efforts, in June 2010, the Detroit City Council voted to increase water rates again. But she’s hoping that as word about the People’s Water Board spreads, its numbers will grow. And that at some point, Detroit’s water will truly belong to Detroit’s people, all of them. For Making Contact, I’m Rachel Zurer.

  • Feel citizens and residents living in the present. We’re talking ownership, control the H2O, sisters and brethren. Remember when my neighbor used to work down at the water? Now we mail our payments to Connecticut or Norfolk. There’s water, water, water everywhere. They sell it more cost. It’s like we got the same thirst, drinking from the same throat. You blink, the game has changed up. They came in unnamed trucks to pour cement down Mary’s drain. What? This ain’t a world premiere, more like a coming attraction. In other words, a call for community action. In fact, this should be news so you could review for when privatizations come into a city near you. Water Warriors.

  • That’s it for this edition of Making Contact. This show was made possible in part by the Park Foundation. For a CD copy of this program, call the National Radio project at 800-529-5736. Or check out our website at to get our podcast, download past shows, or help make a difference by supporting our work. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.



Author: Radio Project

Share This Post On