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Water Is a Consumer Product, Not a Right

Updated on July 25, 2014

There Is No Free Lunch or Water to Go with It

So I was reading the other day that Canada decided to donate something like 250 gallons of water to the City of Detroit as a result of thousands of households having their water shut off due to delinquent accounts. Now, we could go on for days about the troubles which have fallen upon Detroit, especially in the last decade or so, but this one really seals the deal. Citizens and celebrities are out marching in the streets with signs saying water is a basic human right. They’re demanding the City reactivate their water service, even though they haven’t paid the bill in months, because they’re entitled to water. So our kind neighbors to the north have taken it upon themselves to “shame the city and state” into doing something about a large portion of Detroit’s citizens not being able to turn on their taps, bathe, or flush the commode. There are even rumors of the UN intervening to get the services turned back on. That’s right – the freakin’ United Nations is taking pity upon what was once known as the “Paris of the Midwest.” It’s nice to know one of our once gilded cities ranks right up there with Sudan, huh?

I’m not going on a political rant about why all these dominoes are falling, as I’m pretty sure my head will explode, but the citizens of the Motor City need to get their sh*t together, as it were, and pony up for their utilities and not expect the City, the US government, world organizations, charities, or anyone else to pay their bills for them because water is a “right.” Water is most certainly a necessity, but it’s not a right, and here’s why.

Water is very plentiful on this planet, but it doesn’t just magically make its way to your faucets, nor does the flush fairy wave around some lavender-scented pixie dust every time you hit the handle to make the unpleasantness of human elimination just disappear.

Let’s start with drinking water. Water, depending upon where you live, is pulled from raw sources such as rivers, lakes, reservoirs, groundwater tables, and even the ocean. That raw water is pumped to a water plant, which requires machinery, electricity, miles of piping, and personnel, none of which are free. After arriving at the water plant, the raw water needs to get all the big chunks removed, e.g., fish (and fish poop), silt, algae, candy wrappers and crushed beer cans. This again requires machinery in a facility that costs millions to build and maintain. Once the big stuff is screened and filtered out, then comes the fun part of disinfecting that water to make it safe to drink. Depending on the size and type of water plant involved, dozens of engineers, operators, technicians, maintenance personnel, and laboratory geeks use chlorine (not free and dangerous to work with) and/or ultraviolet disinfection and/or ozone (these systems alone can cost millions to purchase and install) to zap all the nasty bacteria and viruses still calling that water home. OK - now that water won’t give you dysentery, typhoid, or polio. But we’re still not done. That nice clean water still needs to be pumped out to possibly dozens of distribution and holding stations or reservoirs and finally travel to where you hang your hat through literally thousands of miles of pipes. Again, this process from beginning to end requires millions of dollars in materials, resources, and labor. And it’s just supposed to be free to consumers???

Now let’s talk about the other end, no pun intended. Most of us don’t think of where the end products of our toilets, showers, and sinks end up, and generally don’t want to. It just miraculously goes away, right? Wrong. It costs communities millions to obtain water, and millions more to get rid of water once we’ve had our way with it. All of that gnarly stuff that exits your kitchen and bathrooms needs to be treated. You should thank your lucky stars we live in the United States where we have wastewater treatment facilities and don’t have to relieve ourselves in a trench behind the back door or dump the bucket from our bath out the window. The US has very stringent laws about what ultimately ends up back in our rivers and lakes and landfills, and meeting those permits costs money. Lots of it. That wastewater needs to be pumped out from homes and businesses to a series of pump stations and then on to the wastewater plant, again through thousands of miles of pipes using electricity and complicated control systems. Like a drinking water plant, the raw water coming in needs the big chunks removed – and you should see what comprises the big chunks at a wastewater facility. Travel sized shampoo bottles, Happy Meal toys, that marble little Hunter passed last week after swallowing it, cigarette butts, and even baggies of drugs flushed in haste when the police were knocking on the door with a warrant. Those big chunks of goodies are removed with mechanical screens, which need to be regularly cleaned out and hosed down. This costs money. Would you personally be willing to literally shovel sh*t and used feminine products into a dumpster for free? Neither would I. Moving on, those big chunks then go through a time consuming, expensive, and long process of being incinerated or trucked off to a landfill. Incinerators and trucks aren’t powered by the wind. Once the liquids are all that’s left, that water needs to be rendered safe enough to dispose of to the rivers, lakes, or ocean (yes, the same water source from which someone both upstream and downstream pulls to make into DRINKING WATER). The water goes through a few more physical processes to remove the finer solids, and then it’s on to chemical treatment using usually chlorine or ultraviolet disinfection and some other stuff to get rid of toxic chemicals, objectionable tastes and odors (like the kind you experience when drinking tap water from a truck stop out in the middle of Nebraska) and even some suspended heavy metals. You can dump some gems like E. Coli and chemical carcinogens into your nearby body of water, but not much. All this equipment, staffing, facilities and electricity costs money and trust me, it’s money you want to spend to avoid swimming and boating in a giant outhouse like they did in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.

What it comes down to is that water service isn’t free to generate, and isn’t free to consume. These tight-fisted citizens and misguided protesters are sniveling that water is a basic human right because we all need it to live. But using that argument, food and shelter are also basic human rights, so should they be free, too? I personally really need a fridge full of groceries to feed myself and my family, but I have no intentions of walking into the supermarket, filling up a cart, and then stomping my feet in indignation when they make me pay for it. I understand being without funds to pay bills, believe me. Been there/done that. I remember in college being about $20 short of being able to pay my rent that month. It’s hard to make rent on $6.75 an hour, even with a roommate. I ended up having to sell some of my record albums and not go to the grocery store that week, even though all I had at home was a few packages of ramen noodles and a can of tuna, because I knew paying the rent late would mean a late fee and I’d be even further in the hole. I knew that if you didn’t pay your rent long enough, you’d get evicted. Bad. I also knew that if you didn’t pay the utilities, they’d get cut off. Also bad. Nothing has changed – if you don’t pay for the service, you don’t get the service. I’m not speaking from some ivory tower of wealth here, by the way. I grew up poor, was at the poverty level all through my college years and well into my 20s, and even though I have a decent job now and a fairly stable career, am still two paychecks from the street like a lot of Americans. But when I want or need something, I bust *ss to pay for it or go without.

I understand the average water bill in Detroit is around $80 a month, which I also realize is pretty high when compared to the national average, especially considering their depressed economy and that the city is sitting on one of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world. But it is what it is, and it’s part of this crappy economy. But I’m willing to bet the average person in Detroit in charge of paying the household bills pays double that for a cell phone plan. You can get a land line for like $15 a month. My point is to cut back on or eliminate a non-necessity. Get a second job or beg for some overtime. Take a bus across town to the water department building and ask to speak with someone about working out a payment plan. Sell your watch or cut the cable service. It can be done. But don’t ask the City or anyone else to pay it for your water service, because they’re broke, too. Get off the sidewalks, put down the protest sign, and pay your own dang water bill.

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      Hxprof 3 years ago from Clearwater, Florida

      Great piece. I love the detail you put into this because fact is, we really don't think about how all our modern conveniences came to be, we simply take them for granted. We're a spoiled people, we Americans.

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      jlar 3 years ago from Denver area

      Thank you, Hxprof.

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