by Bob Heath
The other day I had a strong lesson in “environmental white privilege.” I was invited to participate in a water roundtable discussion sponsored by The Nature Conservancy, the Alliance for the Great Lakes and the Ohio Environmental Council. The event was promoted as a discussion among a wide variety of stakeholders regarding their “views on water” in general and on Lake Erie in particular. The stakeholders at the table ranged from a former head of the Lake Erie Commission to wastewater treatment professionals to artists to local residents. I was there because of I am a science writer, my research interests include water quality in Lake Erie, I had been part of the Great Lakes Compact Advisory Panel, and I had participated in the development of management strategies for Lake Erie as part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board. Each of us was asked to speak only from our experience and not launch into hearsay or hypotheticals.
Did I mention that some of the stakeholders were local residents? You know, those folks who depend on Lake Erie as their sole source of drinking water. Those folks were just there asking for nothing more than reliable drinking water–“just folks” similar to those in Flint, Michigan, who also depended on the Great Lakes as their sole source of drinking water. Did I mention that this meeting was held in a community resource center at East 142nd Street and Kinsman Road in Cleveland, a “mixed neighborhood” ranging from dark-skinned African-Americans to light-skinned African Americans. It’s the kind of ‘hood that white folks usually find a way to avoid.
The moderator of the discussion started with innocuous questions such as, “What is your relationship to water?” and “What is the most important issue regarding water–personal or professional?” The questioning soon took on a sharper edge, with questions such as, “What threats to water pose the most risk to you–commercial or industrial or residential or whatever?” The answers were fairly much what one might expect: people need water to live, people want to swim and fish in the water, people depend on water availability for both personal and economic reasons, hazardous
algal blooms put toxins in the water, and so on. For me, the most telling remark was from one of the local residents. He said, “We here don’t trust the water because of Flint.” I heard him saying that just like the folks in Flint, the local residents in Glenville (on the east side of Cleveland) believed that they, too, could be neglected or lied to regarding the quality of their water and that no one in a management position would care to make it a priority to address local water-quality issues as an urgent matter. Their only recourse, they believed, would be to buy bottled water to drink. Do the math. An average person drinks a gallon of water each day; a pint of water costs a dollar–a gallon costs eight dollars. Per day. Each day.
Did I mention that this was a dinner meeting? But dinner never arrived. Although the caterer had taken the event organizer’s money, the caterer forgot the meeting date. An attempt to order pizza from a local pizzeria was only partially successful. The pizzeria took the group’s order and their money but would not deliver the pizzas “because the driver didn’t feel safe delivering to that address.” The event organizer apologized to the group for lack of food by saying, “That’s the way it is in this neighborhood all the time.”
As the water roundtable concluded, I became aware of yet another dimension of water: trust. When I drafted drinking-water management plans in the past, I believed that all I had to address was abundance of high-quality water. Then I realized that high-
quality water can be abundant–but only at certain times of the year (e.g., only during the “wet season” in equatorial Africa). That realization helped me to become aware of the need for sustainable quantities of water. Later I realized that it could be possible to have high-quality water in sustainable quantities but that accessibility through insufficient infrastructure could be a problem. Now, at the water roundtable, I began to realize that it is possible to have abundant high-quality water in a sustainable and reliable supply that has sufficient infrastructure to deliver the resource throughout a large metropolitan area, but its safety for drinking may be suspect for lack of trust among the people on the receiving end. People need to be able to trust the quality of their water every time they turn on the tap. Even if the tap is in a neighborhood unable to have pizza delivered. It’s federal law.
I left the meeting with an array of impressions and feelings. As I got into my car, I turned on the radio to listen to NPR, pressed the button for the air conditioning system and then turned onto Kinsman Road toward home. The pizza driver would feel safe delivering to my place. I don’t distrust the drinking-water quality of the tap water, and I have never felt the need to buy bottled water for the safety for my health. Did I mention that I’m white?