Our Water is Too Precious to Squander on Tethys’ Huge Bottling Plant

Anacortes American, Feb. 27, 2013

Niabi Drew

Anacortes, Wash.

In response to the City Council and others’ injudicious resolve to continue moving forward with the Tethys proposal, I ask that we consider the following:

Water is Earth’s most vital resource. The next world war will be over water rights. Scientists have already predicted which countries will run out of water first and the mass exodus that will follow.

Can you imagine entire countries void of human life because there is no water to support civilization there? Even if you cannot imagine it, it would be prudent to heed the warning of those that study such things.

Ironically, the latest Anacortes City Briefing was devoted entirely to water use and the importance of clean water:

“The City’s Water System supports the jobs and economy not only in Anacortes but also La Conner, Mount Vernon, Burlington, Oak Harbor, The Port of Anacortes and March’s Point, and it supports national defense by assuring water to the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.”

“Notably, reliable clean water as provided by the City’s Water System is key to the success of Skagit Valley farmers. A consortium of specialists have supposedly determined that we have nothing to fear in terms of the impact of climate change and the Skagit River levels … well, at least until 2080.”

I suppose our great grandchildren don’t need clean drinking water.

Communities worldwide are investing in more sustainable practices as they recognize humanity’s headlong dive into oblivion via untempered consumption of natural resources. We can persist in gorging ourselves on Earth’s resources to our own detriment or choose self-preservation, for the benefit of all of Earth’s inhabitants.

I have lived in places where water is scarce. It is a life disconnected from nature and full of urban and industrial sprawl.

I have lived in Spokane, Wash. Spokane’s main street is an unending tract of strip malls, decrepit buildings, fast food joints and vacant lots swathed in dead grass and swirling dust. Spokane has but one source of water, a polluted river that runs through the center of town.

And yet I witnessed unabashed use of water there. Most people in Spokane water their lawns through the entire summer. Their yards remain a sinful lush green while around them the scorched earth cracks and blows away in dust storms. There is no respite from the heat of summer.

I have lived in Denver, Colo. In Denver, you cannot hear the birds for the incessant drone of traffic. The trees, most non-native and ill-suited for the high desert plains climate, grow stunted and misshapen.

Those rare few that fruit release their harvest prematurely in a desperate act of self-preservation when the water still does not come, day after day. They curl their leaves inward to protect themselves from the unceasing heat, their unsowed crop shriveling into nothingness at the base of their cracked and peeling trunks.

It is so dry, that your skin and the insides of your nostrils crack and bleed as your body’s liquid equilibrium is assaulted.

I have lived in Austin, Texas. The summer of 2011 saw almost 1,700 homes in and around the nearby community of Bastrop burn to the ground and fires raging uncurbed near Austin. We had water rationing and energy brown-outs while fire fighters battled sweltering winds that aided the inferno, a consequence of no rain for many months while temperatures soared above 100 degrees.

The farther I traveled from the Puget Sound, the more I desired to come back. In Texas I developed a keen longing to walk among damp foliage beneath towering trees. My lungs yearned for air dense with moisture and my ears for the sound of gulls and lapping water. It is only when you lose something precious that you truly understand the extent of how precious it was.

While Mayor Dean Maxwell’s vision is to revive a flagging economy, the long-term vision is to encourage the irrevocable desecration of Fidalgo Island and the resources we share with our neighboring communities, to say nothing of how it will change our way of life.

Tethys will exhaust whatever resources allocated and as an added bonus erect a vast concrete blight and create billions of tons of petroleum waste in the form of plastic bottles. Do we develop infrastructure that aids our ability to be a green, sustainable community for the next hundred years and beyond ,or do we, the citizens of Anacortes, permit a handful of people to choose to send our community back 100 years to the industrial era?

Industrial America has targeted Fidalgo Island for a facility that epitomizes the heedless practices of humankind. To permit Tethys to build near our home and sell our water is short-sighted at best, permanent, destructive and regretful at worst. I have seen the way people live in other places where water is scarce and I can tell you, Fidalgo Island is special!

The mayor says, “It seems we are once again in a crucial time, when the decisions we make today will have a very major impact on the future of our city,”(Feb. 20, Anacortes American, page 1). How right he is!

Today, I join my Anacortes neighbors in crying foul on the Tethys proposal. A few members of our community are not righteous enough to decide for us all something that will forever change the landscape and spirit of Anacortes and its neighboring communities.

The Tethys plant proposal must be put to public vote.

Senator Doug Thomas claims he was threatened

In this article Senator Doug Thomas claims he was threatened by environmental extremists, and that they put fish in his dooryard.  Since then, Thomas’s neighbor came forward to share that a fish truck had spilled fish for about a mile along the whole road, effecting all of them.  This appears to be another attempt by Thomas and EWC proponents to minimize and criminalize Corridor opponents, and create fear in the greater public.  That neighbor has contacted WGME to clarify the situation.  We expect a corrected news story soon.

State Senator Threatened For East-West Highway Support

Link to Video and Original Article.

AUGUSTA (WGME) — Threats and intimidation, that’s what one state senator claims he’s been subjected to, over his support for an east-west highway in Maine.

That project has been talked about for years, drawing support, opposition and controversy at every turn. But one of the most vocal supporters of the project claims the debate is taking a dark turn.

State Senator Doug Thomas: “It’s a great place to represent.  I’ve got Moosehead Lake and Baxter State Park and Mount Khatadin and just wonderful people.”

State Senator Doug Thomas represents Piscataquis county.  His constituents are divided over the proposed East-West highway.  If built, it would cut through the southern end of the county.  Senator Thomas supports the highway because he thinks it will benefit people in northern Maine by linking them to Canada.

Thomas: “They’re our biggest trading partner.  And their economy is thriving while ours seems to be sinking.  And we need to take a look.  We need to be better connected to the Canadian economy.”

Senator Thomas believes radical environmental groups will do anything to stop this highway from being built.  The senator says he met with the head of a radical environmental group and two days later, someone placed dead fish, one every 50 feet or so, in either direction on the road outside his home.  The latest threat came in an email this week.

Thomas: “It said that I needed to be careful for my political future and my business’s future.  And that I should change my position and if I didn’t, it was going to cost me. This is a concealed weapons permit that I’m going after today.  I’m going to defend myself.”

There’s a lot of opposition to the East-West highway.  Environmental groups say it won’t bring in long term jobs, won’t help local economies, and won’t bring in tourists.  Instead, they say it will bring in pollution, and adversely impact Maine’s forests, waterways and wildlife.  Senator Thomas, though, doesn’t believe any of that’s true.”

The senator says it should be up to the people of Maine to decide if the highway should be built, not radical environmentalists.

Earth First is one of the environmental groups working in Maine to stop the east-west highway. We tried reaching them, but did not hear back. However, on its website, Earth First says, quote, “We believe in using all the tools in the tool box, including civil disobedience.”

East-west highway is ‘going to happen,’ says Cianbro manager Darryl Brown

By Ann Bryant, Sun Journal | Posted Feb. 20, 2013, at 6:44 a.m.

View Original Article.

FARMINGTON, Maine — It may take another 10 years, but a 220-mile highway from Coburn Gore to Calais is going to be built, Darryl Brown of Cianbro construction company said Tuesday.

“It’s been talked about since 1937 but it’s going to happen,” Brown, of Livermore Falls, told those at the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce business breakfast at the University of Maine at Farmington.

Brown, formerly of Main-Land Development Consultants, recently joined Cianbro as manager of the $2.1 billion project for company president and CEO Peter Vigue.

Supporters foresee the potential of shipping containers from around the world destined for Eastport, then transported across Maine and Canada to markets in Chicago and beyond, Brown said.

“We know container traffic is expected to increase three-fold, and existing ports can’t handle them. But we have the deep water,” he said of the potential to lure tanker traffic to Eastport.

The Panama and Suez canals are currently being widened and deepened to handle tanker ships hauling containers globally, a mode of transportation expected to triple by 2024. Plans for a container tanker dock at Portland were recently announced, he said.

While direct studies of the potential for bringing cargo ships to Eastport have not been done, east-west highway advocates are thinking 10 years out, he said.

It’s about Maine and Maine’s economy, Brown said, while reviewing statistics. He cited Forbes magazine’s listing of best states for business, which places Maine at 50th. He said Maine is also ranked 48th for non-farm employment growth, 36th for poverty level and has a median age that is the oldest in the nation.

“Maine’s largest export is not potatoes, blueberries or wood it’s; our young people looking for meaningful employment,” Brown said. “If we don’t step up to the plate and not allow the state to become a playground for the wealthy, shame on us.”

New England may be the end of the road and “we’re just up here in the woods,” Brown said, but Eastport has the deepest water in the continental United States with a capacity to handle the larger tankers.

The toll highway would be open to all modes of travel, not just truckers, he said. The highway would pay taxes within in each town it crosses, contract with state police for patrol and not have the ability to take property by eminent domain, Brown said.

Construction would be done by Maine people and companies, Brown said.

Cianbro, based in Pittsfield, has thousands of employees at job sites across the United States, according to its website.

Lining up private funders for the east-west highway is under way, Brown said, and route designs are expected to be finished by the end of this year. Planners anticipate three years to get permits and handle any lawsuits, and another three years for construction, with completion in nine to 10 years, he said.

The plan also includes an all-purpose, recreational trail across the state for snowmobilers, all-terrain vehicles, hikers and bikers.

More information is available at www.eastwestme.com

Plastic — It’s Killing this Planet and Everything On It

Jennifer is a student at Skagit Valley College, Mount Vernon, Wash.

By Jennifer Fenswick 

Here’s the Problem in a Nutshell

la-river-2

First things first; let’s take a look at plastic – what it is, how it’s made, and what it’s made of.  Very simply put, plastic starts out as crude oil.  The oil undergoes a process called “cracking” where the various hydrocarbons in the oil are separated.  Polymers, stabilizers, resins, and a host of other chemicals, including phthalates and Bisphenol-A (BPA), are combined with the hydrocarbons to create the plastics we use every day including polycarbonate, the most common form of plastic used for consumer packaging (water and soda bottles, clear plastic clamshells), polystyrene (StyrofoamTM take-out containers, packing materials), polyethylene (plastic bags), and polypropylene (bottle caps, storage containers).

Plastics pose several major threats to all living things on this planet:

  • Plastic is toxic – many plastics leach toxic chemicals, including a host of known carcinogens, directly into the very foods and beverages they were designed to protect
  • Plastic is everywhere – plastic toxins have permeated and contaminated every corner of our environment.  We now breathe, drink, and ingest plastic virtually every single day
  • Plastic is not recyclable.  Contrary to what we’ve been told, the vast majority of plastic winds up in landfills (or worse, in our environment).  Because manufacturers claim their plastic formulas are proprietary, the specific chemical content of any given plastic product – water bottles for example – remains undisclosed. The dangers of mixing unknown chemicals from various sources renders post-consumer plastic unfit for human use.  What that really means is that we get one use out of each water bottle – they are not recyclable.
  • Plastic can take upwards of 1,000 years to biodegrade.

Health Risks

BPA and phthalates are present in the vast majority of food packaging in the United States.  BPA is particularly dangerous for several reasons; it is an estrogen-mimicking, endocrine-disrupting compound that has been linked to heart disease, breast cancer, prostate cancer, asthma, diabetes, liver problems, and more.  BPA is cumulative in the body, meaning it is not flushed out in the urine.  BPA and other chemicals, which characteristically leach from the plastic linings of food cans and bottled beverages, are especially harmful to pregnant women, infants, and young children.

To date, BPA has been virtually unregulated in the United States.  Under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, BPA was one of 62,000 chemicals grandfathered in as presumed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency, despite the complete lack of evaluated evidence regarding its safety.  While several states (including Washington) have banned the use of BPA in baby bottles, sippie cups, and other baby products, and a growing list of countries including Canada have banned BPA in part or altogether, there are still many chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics that have not yet undergone any testing to evaluate their safety.  To learn more about endocrine disrupters, visit www.endocrinedisruption.com.

Environmental Risks

The experts agree – plastics kill.  The science is in and so far over 180 species of animals have been documented as ingesting plastics.  How does this happen?  Well, to a sea turtle a plastic bag floating in the water column looks just like delicious jellyfish.  A floating bottle cap resembles hard to find food to a foraging albatross.  To a fish, tiny plastic particles look like food.  As a result, creatures around the globe are virtually starving to death because their gullets are filled with plastic instead of nutritious food. But the disturbing news doesn’t end there.  Nurdles, the small pre-production plastic pellets used as raw material in manufacturing plastic goods, commonly fall out of rail cars or trucks during transport, eventually making their way – in huge numbers – into our waterways and ultimately our marine environment where they now pollute — in high densities — virtually every ocean on the planet.

Another deadly aspect of plastic is its tendency to attract and hold other toxic contaminants, creating an even larger threat to the marine eco system and its inhabitants. The ingestion of contaminated nurdles by phytoplankton — the microscopic creatures that comprise the foundation of the marine food chain — has been identified by governments worldwide as one of the most pressing environmental concerns facing the planet.  The increasing presence of toxic nurdles in our marine environment is particularly alarming when we consider that phytoplankton are eaten by zooplankton, which are eaten by fish, which are eaten by us.

Consumer Product Risks

We are all familiar with that “new car smell,” but what most people don’t realize is that that odor is caused by the breakdown of plasticizers and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the plastic used in the dashboard and other vehicle components. Often referred to as “off-gassing,” the emission of gasses laden with toxins such as phthalates and BPAs occurs all around us.  Be it from our electronics, televisions, furniture, carpets, nail polishes, shoes (including dyed leather), and even our clothing (with the exception of 100% cotton or hemp), off-gassing of toxins from plastics is everywhere.

While not a plastic, it is important for people to be aware of formaldehyde, another dangerous off-gassing chemical.  Classified as a carcinogen (cancer causing agent), formaldehyde is regularly used in and released from products including building materials, carpets, hair spray, fungicides, germicides, and disinfectants.  To learn more about formaldehyde and how to protect yourself from exposure to its toxic effects, click here http://www.epa.gov/iaq/formalde.

The Great Plastic Soup

The term “gyre” refers to a circular ocean surface current, and this is where

The Web site www.5gyres.org provides an at a glance snapshot of where the five major gyres on our planet have amassed insane amounts of highly toxic plastic waste.

What’s the Answer?

Generally speaking, plastic is toxic to produce, toxic to use, and toxic to dispose of.  But there are things we can do to protect ourselves and the environment:

  • Use BPA- and phthalate-free containers such as glass, stainless, ceramic, or porcelain instead of plastic for drinking, eating, and food storage.
  • Never microwave food in plastic; the heat releases endocrine disrupters into food. That goes for polystyrene (StyrofoamTM) and other plastic take-out containers from restaurants, too.
  • Throw out scratched and hazy-looking plastic containers, which are much more likely to leach chemicals.
  • Aluminum food cans are lined with BPA contaminated plastic.  Baby formula and acidic foods such as canned soups, pastas, and tomatoes are particularly susceptible. Buy products that are packaged in glass, which is 100% safe.
  • Repurpose glass jars and bottles by using them to store food or other items.
  • Research the chemical content of toys at www.healthytoys.org.  PVC content is listed (phthalates are not), but toys made with PVC generally include phthalates.
  • The best way to protect yourself is to adopt the mantra, I will not accept any plastic, and try and live by it. You’ll be surprised how easy it can be.

Protect Yourself

The best plastic is no plastic, but that can be difficult to accomplish.  Having an understanding of which plastics are more harmful than others can go a long way in the fight to protect against plastic poisons:

PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate): AVOID – leaching BPAs and phthalates

HDPE (High Density Polyethylene): SAFER

PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride, aka Vinyl): AVOID – leaching BPAs and phthalates, and off-gassing toxins

LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene): SAFER

PP (Polypropylene): SAFER

PS (Polystyrene, aka Styrofoam): AVOID – leaching toxic styrene and estrogenic alkylphenols

Other this is a catch-all category which includes: PC (Polycarbonate): AVOID – leaching BPAs; ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene), SAN (Styrene Acrylonitrile), Acrylic, and Polyamide. PLA (Polylactic Acid) also fall into the #7 category.

Acronym Full name Common Example
PET (PETE) Polyethylene terephthalate soda and water bottles
PES Polyester polyester clothing
PE Polyethylene plastic bags
HDPE High-density polyethylene detergent bottles, milk jugs
PVC Polyvinyl chloride plumbing pipes, condiment bottles cling wrap teething rings, toys shower curtains
PP Polypropylene bottle caps, storage containers, drinking straws
PA Polyamide (aka nylon) toothbrushes, clothing
PS Polystyrene take-out food containers and cups, meat trays

Protect yourself and your loved ones from the harmful toxins contained in food packaging.  For info on how to start, visit any of the following:

http://www.hhs.gov/safety/bpa/ http://olympiccoast.noaa.gov/protect/marinedebris/marinedebris.html

http://www.fda.gov/newsevents/publichealthfocus/ucm064437.htm

http://www.endocrinedisruption.com/home.php

http://greatpacificgarbagepatch.info/

East-West Corridor: Pig in a Poke

Op-Ed by Jane Crosen | February 15, 2013

On January 18, in Eastport and Calais, Cianbro’s program manager Darryl Brown presented the company’s current plans for routing an East-West Corridor through eastern Maine. As with previous promotions, this one was long on vague promises about economic development and avoidance of sensitive areas, but short on maps showing the actual route. Brown’s presentation did, however, reveal enough details for people well acquainted with the downeast landscape to make an educated guess of the Corridor’s route and impacts.

The privately owned transportation and utility corridor across Maine would include a four-lane divided highway authorized for Canadian tandem trailer trucks. Other uses could include pipelines and utilities, although Brown didn’t mention these.

Earlier reports indicated the Corridor proponents were intending to follow the Stud Mill Road, which has a 2,000′ ROW but crosses or closely passes several significant conservation lands, including Sunkhaze NWR, the Machias River Waterway, and the Downeast Lakes Forestry Partnership’s Sunrise Easement. The recent announcement of Cianbro’s commitment to avoid routing through the Sunrise Easement lands came as good news to many (including myself) concerned about the impacts a fenced truck highway and utility corridor would have on eastern Maine’s environment and recreation opportunities. However, the route Cianbro is now proposing would mean cutting a new and longer swath closer to the coast, still crossing the Machias watershed, six other river systems, and a number of conserved areas.

According to Brown, Cianbro ran into a roadblock with routing through Moosehorn NWR, so they decided to “turn challenge into opportunity” by looping closer to the coast. Despite Halifax’s woes from underuse and a proposed superport in Melford, Nova Scotia, Brown believes connectivity to unobstructed deep-water ports at Eastport and Calais would make Maine a major player in global shipping. He wants to encourage development of big-box distribution centers in outlying areas providing jobs handling cargo off super container ships from Asia.

From Calais they now plan to route the 500’ corridor around the east side of Moosehorn’s Baring unit, then south to Route 214 where they may build an interchange for access from Eastport. From Route 214 the Corridor would run west, south of Route 9, likely crossing Route 9 near Wesley where there may be an interchange allowing access from Machias. From there the Corridor would run north to “utilize a 35-mile section of the Stud Mill Road right-of-way” west toward the Penobscot River, crossing north of Bangor. There would be an interchange at Route 95, and another north of Dexter on Route 15.

Besides the Downeast Lakes Land Trust, Brown said Cianbro has “reached out to” several other major conservation and recreation groups. His presentation emphasized the company’s “commitment” to avoid “most” conserved lands, tribal lands, wetlands, deeryards, and vernal pools, including endangered species habitat, as much as possible. (In previous presentations Cianbro “committed” to avoiding “all” conserved lands.) Never has the public seen any mapped portion of the actual intended route. Brown said the company’s routing plans are still a work in progress, and not something they are ready to reveal on maps.

Looking at all the lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams in the area east and south of Moosehorn, and from the Machias–East Machias watersheds west to Beddington and the Stud Mill Road, it’s hard to imagine how the developers would be able to route the Corridor through this area while honoring all their “commitments.” Besides the Machias River Waterway, it would impact or cross a number of other important salmon and trout streams, wildlife management areas, and working forest and conservation lands open to hunting, fishing, and other recreational use by people throughout eastern Maine, supporting guiding, ecotourism, and other local enterprises. The area between Calais, Cobscook Bay, and the Machias River frames many pristine lakes and ponds settled with camps. Eastport and other nearby coastal communities enjoy thriving local and tourist retail and service economies. How would these fare surrounded by major transportation infrastructure carrying heavy trucks loaded with Chinese-manufactured goods to supply big-box retailers? (Brown noted Lewiston’s Walmart distribution center serves over 300 trucks per day.) Would the highway/Corridor development really bring meaningful jobs or long-term benefit to the people in the area it runs through? How would it impact the quality of life in eastern Maine communities? Taxes would be paid to the towns it runs through, but at what cost?

How would the limited-access highway affect travel patterns on local roads and trails? The highway proponents say they would build overpasses or ramps for “all” multiuse gravel roads, and would accommodate wildlife passage with “appropriately located” wildlife crossings and tunnels. They plan to run a recreational trail statewide along the highway for ATVs, snowmobiles, hikers, and horseback riders “providing an outstanding recreational experience.”

Promises aside, common sense tells us highways built for high-speed heavyweight tandem truck traffic cannot weave around every damp spot along the way (and this region has plenty of water). Wetlands are filled in; ramps, roadbeds, and bridge abutments are built up; interchanges and service facilities are developed. Where will all that sand and gravel come from? How much of downeast Maine’s uniquely well-preserved glacial landscape will be scraped up and used to build the highway–or exported? What about the aquifers under the gravel, the streamsheds, lakes, and ponds fed by them? What will happen to the cold-water fisheries? What besides Asian commodities and Canadian products will trucks be carrying? Accidents involving heavy trucks have heavy consequences. What about chemical and fuel spills, de-icing and runoff? Brown minimized the highway’s footprint, but the environmental impacts could be disastrous and very expensive or impossible to clean up, affecting the whole region downstream to the coast.

Such a sensitively routed, state-of-the-art highway as Brown describes would be expensive to build–over four times the cost of improving east-west rail lines between Montreal and eastern Canada, as estimated by the Sierra Club. Rail transport is exponentially safer than truck transport, with far less environmental impact. Many people ask, why is rail not good enough to meet demand for faster east-west freight transport? Brown says trucks do better at meeting global demand for just-in-time delivery. Or is there something else in the pipeline? Maine’s existing east-west rail lines, running not far north of the proposed Corridor route, are already being used to transport tar sands oil from the Alberta oil fields to the Irving refinery in St. John.

The proposed route aligns with convenient export of other natural resources in eastern and northern Maine increasingly valuable in the global economy. Could the Corridor open the door to more wind farms and transmission lines? What about eastern Maine’s abundant supply of fresh water, not just for human consumption but used in gas fracking?

Cianbro is promoting the Corridor as a construction project; who are the investors? As a woman in Calais asked, is it possible a swath across Maine might belong to someone from China? Brown replied that foreign ownership is not only possible but likely according to current trends.

Although growing public opposition has brought several Corridor-related bills before the legislature, the proponents of this project, backed by powerful corporate and political interests, are intent on pushing it through–and not disclosing much about the route or impacts of this proverbial pig in a poke. It would be well for everyone in eastern Maine to learn and demand more information about the project and consider what far-reaching impacts it would have on the environment, economies, communities, and quality of life.

Stop the East-West Corridor, a statewide coalition of concerned citizens and groups working to raise public awareness about the proposed project and impacts, is planning two informational meetings in eastern Maine: in Calais on March 13 at WCCC’s Riverview lecture hall, and in Machias on March 27 at UMM in Room 102 of the Science Building. Both events will run from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. and will combine a panel presentation with opportunity for public conversation. Links to articles, study maps, and other information are posted on the coalition’s website, www.stopthecorridor.org.

Jane Crosen is a mapmaker known for her hand-drawn maps of Maine regions. Living in Penobscot, she and her husband have a camp near Wesley. She does eastern outreach for Stop the East-West Corridor.

The Race to Buy Up the World’s Water

Newsweek Magazine

The New Oil

Oct 8, 2010 9:45 AM EDT

Should private companies control our most precious natural resource?

Sitka, Alaska, is home to one of the world’s most spectacular lakes. Nestled into a U-shaped valley of dense forests and majestic peaks, and fed by snowpack and glaciers, the reservoir, named Blue Lake for its deep blue hues, holds trillions of gallons of water so pure it requires no treatment. The city’s tiny population—fewer than 10,000 people spread across 5,000 square miles—makes this an embarrassment of riches. Every year, as countries around the world struggle to meet the water needs of their citizens, 6.2 billion gallons of Sitka’s reserves go unused. That could soon change. In a few months, if all goes according to plan, 80 million gallons of Blue Lake water will be siphoned into the kind of tankers normally reserved for oil—and shipped to a bulk bottling facility near Mumbai. From there it will be dispersed among several drought-plagued cities throughout the Middle East. The project is the brainchild of two American companies. One, True Alaska Bottling, has purchased the rights to transfer 3 billion gallons of water a year from Sitka’s bountiful reserves. The other, S2C Global, is building the water-processing facility in India. If the companies succeed, they will have brought what Sitka hopes will be a $90 million industry to their city, not to mention a solution to one of the world’s most pressing climate conundrums. They will also have turned life’s most essential molecule into a global commodity.

Click to view a gallery about how we're losing our lakes.

Click to view a gallery about how we’re losing our lakes.

The transfer of water is nothing new. New York City is supplied by a web of tunnels and pipes that stretch 125 miles north into the Catskills Mountains; Southern California gets its water from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Colorado River Basin, which are hundreds of miles to the north and west, respectively. The distance between Alaska and India is much farther, to be sure. But it’s not the distance that worries critics. It’s the transfer of so much water from public hands to private ones. “Water has been a public resource under public domain for more than 2,000 years,” says James Olson, an attorney who specializes in water rights. “Ceding it to private entities feels both morally wrong and dangerous.”

Everyone agrees that we are in the midst of a global freshwater crisis. Around the world, rivers, lakes, and aquifers are dwindling faster than Mother Nature can possibly replenish them; industrial and household chemicals are rapidly polluting what’s left. Meanwhile, global population is ticking skyward. Goldman Sachs estimates that global water consumption is doubling every 20 years, and the United Nations expects demand to outstrip supply by more than 30 percent come 2040.

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100 Places to Remember Before They Disappear (Purestock-Getty Images)

Proponents of privatization say markets are the best way to solve that problem: only the invisible hand can bring supply and demand into harmony, and only market pricing will drive water use down enough to make a dent in water scarcity. But the benefits of the market come at a price. By definition, a commodity is sold to the highest bidder, not the customer with the most compelling moral claim. As the crisis worsens, companies like True Alaska that own the rights to vast stores of water (and have the capacity to move it in bulk) won’t necessarily weigh the needs of wealthy water-guzzling companies like Coca-Cola or Nestlé against those of water-starved communities in Phoenix or Ghana; privately owned water utilities will charge what the market can bear, and spend as little as they can get away with on maintenance and environmental protection. Other commodities are subject to the same laws, of course. But with energy, or food, customers have options: they can switch from oil to natural gas, or eat more chicken and less beef. There is no substitute for water, not even Coca-Cola. And, of course, those other things don’t just fall from the sky on whoever happens to be lucky enough to be living below. “Markets don’t care about the environment,” says Olson. “And they don’t care about human rights. They care about profit.”

In the developed world—America especially—it’s easy to take water for granted. Turn on any tap, and it comes rushing out, clean and plentiful, even in the arid Southwest, where the Colorado River Basin is struggling through its 11th year of drought; in most cities a month’s supply still costs less than premium cable or a generous cell-phone plan. Many of us have no idea where our water comes from, let alone who owns it. In fact, most of us would probably agree that water is too precious for anybody to own. But the rights to divert water—from a river or lake or underground aquifer—are indeed sellable commodities; so too are the plants and pipes that process that water and deliver it to our taps. And as demand outstrips supply, those commodities are set to appreciate precipitously. According to a 2009 report by the World Bank, private investment in the water industry is set to double in the next five years; the water-supply market alone will increase by 20 percent.

Unlike the villain in James Bond’s Quantum of Solace who hatched a secret plot to monopolize Bolivia’s fresh-water supply, the real water barons cannot be reduced to a simple archetype. They include a diverse array of buyers and sellers—from multinational water giants like Suez and Veolia that together deliver water to some 260 million taps around the world, to wildcatter oil converts like T. Boone Pickens who wants to sell the water under his Texas Panhandle ranch to thirsty cities like Dallas. “The water market has become much more sophisticated in the last two decades,” says Clay Landry, director of WestWater Research, a consulting firm that specializes in water rights. “It’s gone from parochial transactions—back-of-the-truck, handshake–type deals—to a serious market with increasingly serious players.”

Eventually, Olson worries, every last drop will be privately controlled. And when that happens, the world will find itself divided along a new set of boundaries: water haves on one side, water have-nots on the other. The winners (Canada, Alaska, Russia) and losers (India, Syria, Jordan) will be different from those of the oil conflicts of the 20th century, but the bottom line will be much the same: countries that have the means to exploit large reserves will prosper. The rest will be left to fight over ever-shrinking reserves. Some will go to war.

Until recently, water privatization was an almost exclusively Third World issue. In the late 1990s the World Bank infamously required scores of impoverished countries—most notably Bolivia—to privatize their water supplies as a condition of desperately needed economic assistance. The hope was that markets would eliminate corruption and big multinationals would invest the resources needed to bring more water to more people. By 2000, Bolivian citizens had taken to the streets in a string of violent protests. Bechtel—the multinational corporation that had leased their pipes and plants—had more than doubled water rates, leaving tens of thousands of Bolivians who couldn’t pay without any water whatsoever. The company said price hikes were needed to repair and expand the dilapidated infrastructure. Critics insisted they served only to maintain unrealistic profit margins. Either way, the rioters sent the companies packing; by 2001, the public utility had resumed control.

These days, global water barons have set their sights on a more appealing target: countries with dwindling water supplies and aging infrastructure, but better economies than Bolivia’s. “These are the countries that can afford to pay,” says Olson. “They’ve got huge infrastructure needs, shrinking water reserves, and money.”

Nowhere is this truer than China. As the water table under Beijing plummets, wells dug around the city must reach ever-greater depths (nearly two thirds of a mile or more, according to a recent World Bank report) to hit fresh water. That has made water drilling more costly and water contracts more lucrative. Since 2000, when the country opened its municipal services to foreign investment, the number of private water utilities has skyrocketed. But as private companies absorb water systems throughout the country, the cost of water has risen precipitously. “It’s more than most families can afford to pay,” says Ge Yun, an economist with the Xinjiang Conservation Fund. “So as more water goes private, fewer people have access to it.”

In the U.S., federal funds for repairing water infrastructure—most of which was built around the same time that Henry Ford built the first Model T—are sorely lacking. The Obama administration has secured just $6 billion for repairs that the EPA estimates will cost $300 billion. Meanwhile, more than half a million pipes burst every year, according to the American Water Works Association, and more than 6 billion gallons of water are lost to leaky pipes. In response to the funding gap, hundreds of U.S. cities—including Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Santa Fe, N.M.—are now looking to privatize. On its face, the move makes obvious sense: elected officials can use the profits from water sales to balance city budgets, while simultaneously offloading the huge cost of repairing and expanding infrastructure—not to mention the politically unpopular necessity of raising water rates to do so—to companies that promise both jobs and economy-stimulating profits.

Of course, the reality doesn’t always meet that ideal. “Because water infrastructure is too expensive to allow multiple providers, the only real competition occurs during the bidding process,” says Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the nonprofit, antiprivatization group Food and Water Watch. “After that, the private utility has a virtual monopoly. And because 70 to 80 percent of water and sewer assets are underground, municipalities can have a tough time monitoring a contractor’s performance.” According to some reports, private operators often reduce the workforce, neglect water conservation, and shift the cost of environmental violations onto the city. For example, when two Veolia-operated plants spilled millions of gallons of sewage into San Francisco Bay, at least one city was forced to make multimillion-dollar upgrades to the offending sewage plant. (Veolia has defended its record.)

Even as many U.S. cities look toward ceding their water infrastructure to private interests, others are waging expensive legal battles to get out of such contracts. In 2009 Camden, N.J., sued United Water (an American subsidiary of the French giant Suez) for $29 million in unapproved payments, high unaccounted-for water losses, poor maintenance, and service disruptions. In Milwaukee a state audit found that the same company violated its contract by shutting down sewage pumps to save money; the move resulted in billions of gallons of raw sewage spilling into Lake Michigan. And in Gary, Ind., which canceled its contract with United Water after 12 years, critics say privatization more than doubled annual operating costs. “It ends up being a roundabout way to tax people,” Hauter says. “Only it’s worse than a tax because they don’t spend the money maintaining the system.”

Representatives of United Water point out that 95 percent of its contracts are in fact renewed and say that a few bad examples don’t tell the whole story. “We are dealing with facilities that were designed and built at the end of World War II,” says United Water CEO Bertrand Camus. “We have plenty of horror stories on our side, too.” The Gary facility, to take one example, went private only after the EPA forced the public utility to find a more experienced operator to solve a range of problems. “Individual municipalities don’t have the expertise to employ all the new technology to meet the new standards,” Camus says. “We do.”

The bottom line is this: that water is essential to life makes it no less expensive to obtain, purify, and deliver, and does nothing to change the fact that as supplies dwindle and demand grows, that expense will only increase. The World Bank has argued that higher prices are a good thing. Right now, no public utility anywhere prices water based on how scarce it is or how much it costs to deliver, and that, privatization proponents argue, is the root cause of such rampant overuse. If water costs more, they say, we will conserve it better.

The main problem with this argument is what economists call price inelasticity: no matter what water costs, we still need it to survive. So beyond trimming nonessential uses like lawn maintenance, car washing, and swimming pools, consumers really can’t reduce water consumption in proportion to rate increases. “Free-market theory works great for discretionary consumer purchases,” says Hauter. “But water is not like other commodities—it’s not something people can substitute or choose to forgo.” Dozens of studies have found that even with steep rate hikes, consumers tend to reduce water consumption by only a little, and that even in the worst cases, the crunch is disproportionately shouldered by the poor. In the string of droughts that plagued California during the 1980s, for example, doubling the price of water drove household consumption down by a third, but households earning less than $20,000 cut their consumption by half, while households earning more than $100,000 reduced use by only 10 percent.

In fact, critics say, private water companies usually have very little incentive to encourage conservation; after all, when water use falls, revenue declines. In 2005 a second Bolivian riot erupted when another private water company raised rates beyond what average people could afford. The company had dutifully expanded the city’s water system to several poor neighborhoods outside the city. But the villagers there, accustomed to life without taps, were obsessive water conservers and hadn’t used enough water to make the investment profitable.

The biggest winners of a sophisticated water market are likely to be the very few water-rich regions of the global north that can profitably move massive quantities across huge distances. Russian entrepreneurs want to sell Siberian water to China; Canadian and American ones are vying to sell Canadian water to the Southwestern U.S. So far, such bulk transfers have been impeded by the high cost of tanker ships. Now, thanks to the global recession, the tankers’ rates have dropped significantly. If the Sitka plan succeeds, other water-rich cities may soon follow.

But in between the countries that will profit from the freshwater crisis, and those that will buy their way out of it, are the countries that have neither water to sell nor money with which to buy it. In fact, if there’s one thing water has in common with oil, it’s that people will go to war over it. Already, Pakistan has accused India of diverting too much water from rivers running off the Himalayas; India, in turn, is complaining that China’s colossal diversion of rivers and aquifers near the countries’ shared border will deprive it of its fair share; and Jordan and Syria are bickering over access to flows from a dam the two countries built together.

So what do we do? On the one hand, most of the world views water as a basic human right (the U.N. General Assembly voted unanimously to affirm it as such this July). On the other, it’s becoming so expensive to obtain and supply that most governments cannot afford to shoulder the cost alone. By themselves, markets will never be able to balance these competing realities. That means state and federal governments will have to play a stronger role in managing freshwater resources. In the U.S., investing as much money in water infrastructure as the federal government has invested in other public-works projects would not only create jobs but also alleviate some of the financial pressure that has sent so many municipal governments running to private industry. That is not to say that industry doesn’t also have a role to play. With the right incentives, it can develop and supply the technology needed to make water delivery more cost-effective and environmentally sound. Ultimately both public and private entities will have to work together. And soon. Unless we manage our water better now, we will run out. When that happens, no pricing or management scheme in the world will save us.

With Ryan Tracy