Category Archives: Law

As Flint Lawsuits Pour in, Leaded Tap Water Found Far Afield

Flint River

Flint River in the 1970s. Image courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

I worked recently for a United Nations-affiliated international non-governmental organization in Geneva, Switzerland, named WaterLex. It specializes in finding sustainable solutions based on human rights to improve water governance worldwide. Much of its work involves educating parliamentarians and others about the human rights to water and sanitation, established in 2010, and how they can be mixed into practices such as integrated water resources management.

In that context, I was accustomed to hearing about water crises in African and South American countries where municipalities often lacked adequate infrastructure for water provision. So I started to think I knew a thing or two about a government’s obligation to realize the human right to water for its population. Then, while I was still living in Switzerland, came news of Detroit, Mich., shutting off water to customers who hadn’t paid their bills. A similar situation came to light in Baltimore, Md. In those places, a cry rose up for aggressive action to uphold the human right to water, with a focus on the issue of affordability.

In the U.S., a country where infrastructure has been in place to provide freshwater to most homes in most municipalities for more than a century, invocation of the human right to water was a surprising and unsettling thing to hear.

But the water crisis in Flint, Mich., cranks up the volume to a whole new decibel level, and rightly so. The allegations are appalling: Officials knowingly allowed households in a city of 100,000 to drink, cook and bathe in water fouled by lead and other contaminants from lead pipes corroded by polluted Flint River water, following a money-saving switch to that water source from Lake Huron and the Detroit River. Documentary filmmaker and Flint native Michael Moore, among others, is calling for criminal prosecution of Mich. Gov. Rick Snyder. With young children at risk of brain damage and other health problems, it’s not difficult to picture an approaching flood of lawsuits. Fixing Flint’s water is expected to take many years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Worse, too much lead in municipal water is not limited to Flint. News reports point out city after city in several states where aging infrastructure and improper maintenance have been creating similar problems.

Note to cities and towns: Before that water infrastructure gets to be about a century old, you have to increase the amounts of money and effort put into its upkeep or replacement. If not, you’re likely to soon be taking away your people’s human right to water, and that will always end up being a bigger bill to pay in the end. Oh, and … though it used to go without saying … don’t poison everyone.

Learn more:

Possible lead exposure-miscarriage link probed in Flint water crisis –

Mich. Gov. Rick Snyder proposed $360 million for Flint water fixChristian Science Monitor

Unsafe Lead Levels in Tap Water Not Limited to FlintThe New York Times

Amid Flint water crisis, the lawsuits are piling up – CBS/The Associated Press

How scientists failed the public in Flint water crisisLos Angeles Times

10 Things They Won’t Tell You About the Flint Water Crisis. But I Will. –

Flint Water Crisis – Wikipedia

Related posts:

Study Finds We Vastly Underestimate Water Management’s Depletion of Freshwater

Leave a comment

Filed under Human Right(s) to Water and Sanitation, Human rights, Law, NGOs, North America, Pollution, Rivers and Watersheds, Water Resources

California Drought: Overcoming History to Reduce SoCal Water Waste


The great news for California in the winter of 2015-2016 is that El Nino-generated storms are on the increase, right? Well , that’s good news for easing the California drought, but with caveats. It’s much greater news if even more rain (and snow) fall in Northern California than in Southern California. The north has more catchment systems than the south. In other words, the north catches, saves and provides more water than the south can.

Why? Northern areas have river systems and reservoirs that redirect water to the south (mainly) via aqueducts. Moisture falling in the south and running off land is more readily fed to the Pacific Ocean, because much of the system there, especially in Los Angeles itself, is allowed and even intended to drain into the Pacific to avoid catastrophic flooding and landslides, like those seen from major storms in the 1930s and later. In other words, the massive waste of freshwater was actually a safety measure. Law was adjusted by climate. Until recently, in fact, it was illegal to capture rain on your own roof in LA. The California Water Capture Act of 2012 eased that outdated policy.

And, fortunately, on Jan. 6 the California State Water Resources Control Board approved a broad plan to capture more rain, The Associated Press reported. About $200 million will fund projects to collect rain, as part of a $7.5 billion water bond voters approved in November 2014. Los Angeles expects to collect an additional 3.3 billion gallons a year from new projects, over the roughly 10 billion it says it collects now. But even that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what SoCal could do in wet years if rainwater collection were made a genuine priority.

Related posts:

Study Finds We Vastly Underestimate Water Management’ s Depletion of Groundwater

It’s Long Past Time to Police Big Agriculture’s Water Waste

Learn more:

Much of the torrential that fell on Southern California this week flowed right into the ocean – Associated Press

Rainwater harvesting regulations state by state – Enlight Inc. blog

Building Sponge City: Redesigning LA for Long-Term Drought – Cities Project, NPR

Report: Feeding Ourselves Thirsty: How the Food Sector Is Managing Global Water Risks – Ceres (full report)

The Untapped Potential of California’s Water SupplyPacific Institute and NRDC


Leave a comment

Filed under Climate Change, Conservation, Drought, Groundwater, Law, Natural Disasters, North America, Rivers and Watersheds, Sustainability, Water, Water Resources, Water Shortage

Finally Distinguished: The Human Right to Sanitation

As recognized by international law, the human right to an adequate standard of living contains quite a few components, each noted as distinct human rights. You have the rights to be healthy, obtain food and find shelter, for example. You also have the right to access clean drinking water and adequate sanitation, which are related to the human rights above, among others.

Since the UN adopted “the human right to water and sanitation” in 2010, the two things have been conflated as one right in various texts and references. For years, however, experts have been noting that the two, while obviously related, are separate and complex in their own rights, so to speak, and should be referred to as such.

Now, for the first time, the United Nations has clarified that the human rights to water and sanitation are two separate rights, each with their own characteristics.

Why is this an important distinction? As countries strive to meet obligations established in the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals, their understanding of what it will take to improve sanitation and end open defecation will be crucial. So it’s important to emphasize sanitation, which doesn’t always involve water.

Read more:

UN recognises right to sanitation as a distinct human right –

Dispatches: UN resolution enshrines rights to clean drinking water, sanitation – Human Rights Watch

United Nations General Assembly affirms that water and sanitation are distinct rights and confirms a strong definition of these rights – Joint press release from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and WASH United

Related posts:

17 Sustainable Development Goals Adopted at the United Nations

World Water Day: UN World Water Development Report Warns of Global Crisis by 2030

If You Could Advise the UN on Water, What Would You Say?

Water’s Place Among Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals

The Intersection of Environmental Issues and Human Rights

Leave a comment

Filed under Human Right(s) to Water and Sanitation, Human rights, Law, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), United Nations, Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

Understanding Water Crises: New Resources Added


The At the Waterline blog’s Water Resources page has been updated with 12 new additions in the past few weeks, for a total of 83 links to sources of information and action on issues related to freshwater scarcity.

Check out the new additions: the World’s Water Data Engine

The CEO Water Mandate

Ceres: Mobilising Business Leadership or a Sustainable World (Issues: Water Issues)

>>> Ceres: Feeding Ourselves Thirsty: How the Food Sector Is Managing Global Water Risks (full report)

FAN: Freshwater Action Network

The Guardian: Access to clean water and sanitation around the world – mapped

LLoyd’s 360 Risk Insight: Global Water Scarcity, Risks and Challenges for Business

Water Defense

The Solutions Project (U.S. state plans for 100% clean, renewable energy)

WaterLex: Publications*

World Health Organisation (WHO): Health Topics: Water

WHO Programmes: Water Sanitation Health

(*Note: The international public-interest development organization WaterLex employs me as its head of communications. )


1 Comment

Filed under Blog Changes and Updates, Climate Change, Conservation, Human rights, Law, NGOs, Research, Science, Sustainability, Technology, United Nations, Water Resources

It’s Long Past Time to Police Big Agriculture’s Water Waste

furrow_irrigation (1)

When you observe water-stressed and drought-stricken areas around the world, you hear the same question being asked again and again: Who uses the most water? A common assumption leads people to blame the general population for its wasteful ways, heedlessly watering their lawns and washing their cars despite a water shortage. But the real answer, in most cases, is agriculture — and not by a small measure. It often accounts for 70% to 80% of total water use, and sometimes more.

Irrigation and other water uses in agriculture, especially where it is a major industry for domestic and export food production, such as California’s Central Valley, make other water uses look like drops in a bucket. According to a 2012 study by the Pacific Institute, the Golden State’s 38 million people use just 4% of its water, while agriculture, including the raising of both crops and livestock, uses 93%.

The reason this matters so much is that Big Agriculture wastes epic amounts of water and often fights efficiency measures on the basis of cost. California, to stick with that example, uses much less drip irrigation than other arid farming regions of the world. Generally, efficiency standards and enforcement are not in place, which allows massive amounts of water to leak out of systems. And much of the water used simply evaporates because it is not recaptured. This goes on while agricultural users pump out deep aquifers’ groundwater far faster than it can be restored naturally, especially in times of drought.

The types of agriculture matter for the scale of water usage, as well. California rice growers flood the fields, whereas another crop might need only sips of water, relatively speaking. Beef producers use about 2,500 gallons of water per pound (as opposed to 100 gallons of water per pound of grain).  Although costly, relocating water-intensive agriculture from water-stressed regions to places where water is most abundant would make sense. In the U.S., that might mean moving some practices from the Southwest to the Southeast. In China, it would mean moving farms  from the arid north to the wet south. But in many countries, business and political interests would keep it from happening as long as possible, and in the end, severe water shortage and escalating costs would force the issue.

Where you have a massive industry, you have a wealthy lobby with a lot of political power to influence government spending. Critics of California’s $7.5 billion drought bond known as Proposition 1, to be voted on in statewide elections on Tuesday (4 November; update — it passed by a two-to-one margin), note that it provides for new dams and water-storage measures that will benefit agriculture. But it’s not yet clear what might be asked in return. About $50 million of the $7.5 billion appears to be earmarked for agricultural efficiency. Will future measures mandate adequate technology and standards of efficiency? Ultimately, the nine-member California Water Commission will decide how funds from the Prop. 1  bond measure, if passed, will be spent.  They should know that the industries using nine-tenths of the state’s water should be doing a lot more to help ease the region’s water crisis.

Read more:

UPDATE: California Propositions 1 and 2 Sail to Resounding VictoriesSan Jose Mercury News

Prop 1: Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014 – Ballotpedia

Prop. 1, a False Framing of California’s Water CrisisSanta Barbara Independent

New Report Provides Insight to California’s Proposition 1 – Pacific Institute

Prop. 1 Aims to Relieve Drought — But Not This One – Los Angeles Times

Cows, Rice Fields and Big Agriculture Consumes Well Over 90% of California’s Water – AlterNet

Report Targets Waste, Inefficiency in Agricultural Water UseLos Angeles Times


Leave a comment

Filed under Agriculture, Conservation, Dams and Hydropower, Drought, Groundwater, Law, North America, Sustainability, Water Resources, Water Shortage

California Finally Moves to (Eventually) Limit Groundwater Pumping


Here’s a bulletin from the “isn’t-it-too-little-too-late?” department: Despite its history of drought, including the extreme dryness of the past three years, California has been the only state in the U.S. without a groundwater management plan — until now. This week Gov. Jerry Brown signed a package of legislation that will limit how much water can be pumped from underground aquifers … eventually. The changes will begin to take effect in the 2020s, and the last piece becomes active in 2040.

In a nutshell, Senate Bill 1168 directs local water districts to create sustainable groundwater management plans; Assembly Bill 1739 says state government will step in if local management falls short; and Senate Bill 1319 delays state oversight by several years, to appease farmers who complain that regulation will hurt their businesses. Agriculture is by far the biggest user of water, and no more so than in the Golden State, which grows and sells hundreds of crops under what some would call lax regulation.

Implementation of a plan is good news, though it seems too gradual a move for such a parched state. Because of the drought, the aquifers are depleting more quickly than usual, without “recharge” (a process that takes a lot of time and precipitation even in wet periods). Anything that gives nature more of a chance to catch up is a good thing.

Read more:

Amid Drought, New California Law Will Limit Groundwater Pumping for First TimeNational Geographic

California Drought 2014: Gov. Brown Signs Landmark Groundwater Regulations To Protect State’s Dwindling Water SuppliesInternational Business Times

California Drought Crisis 2014: Massive Groundwater Loss In US West Is Causing Earth’s Crust To Lift Like An ‘Uncoiled Spring’ – IBT

Brown Signs Bill to Regulate Pumping of Underground WaterLos Angeles Times

Drought-Plagued California Stops Treating Groundwater Like Private Property – BloombergBusinessweek

California Groundwater Problems and Prospects – California Water Blog

How Ground Water Occurs – USGS

Leave a comment

Filed under Agriculture, Conservation, Drought, Groundwater, Law

Set Heading for World Water Week in Stockholm


In a couple of days I’ll join colleagues from WaterLex at one of the most prominent events in the world of water-related agencies, NGOs, services, and the like — World Water Week in Stockholm, which runs Aug. 31 – Sept. 5 in the Swedish capital, under the auspices of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI). The theme this year, for this and other events around the world, is “energy and water,” two vital forces that are always interconnected.

WaterLex will exhibit in a booth shared with other organizations in the Swiss Water Partnership, and we’ll also put on a lunchtime side event on Monday, Sept. 1: Water & Energy Nexus: Smart Investments to Help Realize Human Rights. Co-convened with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the event’s panel discussion will explore how wastewater reuse for energy production can serve populations’ rights to adequate sanitation and a safe and healthy environment, while also making for a valuable investment in sustainability. Check out the speakers and topics. I’ll be the guy “moderating” (more like trying to keep up) or running around with a camera, taking photos for the press materials.

It will be my first time in Stockholm, so I hope to get around town a bit. A colleague recommended the Vasa Museum, the only preserved 17th century ship in the world. It heeled over and sank only minutes into its maiden voyage in 1628, and was raised in 1961. And of course there’s a museum dedicated to Abba.

Related posts:

WaterLex: A New Role for Me, Working on Water Law and Human Rights

If You Could Advise the UN on Water, What Would You Say?

WaterLex Helps Put the Human Right to Water Into New Legal Frameworks

Water’s Place Among Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals

The Intersection of Environmental Issues and Human Rights


Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, Europe, Events, Human rights, Law, NGOs, Rivers and Watersheds, Sustainability, Technology, United Nations, Wastewater Treatment, Water Resources

WaterLex: A New Role for Me, Working on Water Law and Human Rights

Image: WaterLex

Image: WaterLex

Realizing that access to clean water and adequate sanitation should be a human right helped inform my decision to take on the role of head of communication for a Geneva, Switzerland-based international NGO I’ve written about in the past, WaterLex.* This blog will remain independent from the organization, but there are times when the goals of each will overlap, given the story in question, and especially pertaining to what “the human right to water” actually means.

Here’s one theoretical example of a situation, among many, where WaterLex might step in and I might be moved to write about it here: A country insists it complies with the 2010 Human Right to Water and Sanitation because some of its citizens have a source for clean water within 200 meters of their homes. In discussions, it becomes clear that those citizens are in urban and suburban areas, not rural ones. In rural areas, where most poor residents are concentrated, houses are more separated by space and geographical structures, such as hills and valleys. Given that reality, the country’s regulators assume a policy of allowing more than 1,000 meters between homes and a freshwater source is adequate. However, that assumption violates protocols governing  the human right to water and sanitation.

The mission of WaterLex is to make the human right to water and sanitation central to countries’ law and policy frameworks, by educating lawmakers and pursuing other measures. Ultimately, the mission works toward alleviating situations of chronic water stress for future generations.  You’ll see more about that on these pages as well as those at and other sources.

Read More:

 WaterLex website

Related Posts:

 WaterLex Helps Put the Human Right to Water Into New Legal Frameworks

If You Could Advise the UN on Water, What Would You Say?

Water’s Place Among Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals

The Intersection of Environmental Issues and Human Rights

 *(Please note: Every mention of WaterLex will carry a note of affiliation. e.g., the author is head of communication for WaterLex.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Asia, Europe, Human rights, Law, NGOs, United Nations, Water Resources, Water Shortage

In Landmark Case, Fracking Company Ordered to Pay Texas Family $2.95 Million


In a case thought to be the first of its kind, a jury in Texas returned a verdict Tuesday ordering an oil and gas producer to pay a family claiming to be sickened by its operations near their home. In a 5-1 vote, the jury found that Plano, Texas-based Aruba Petroleum Inc. “intentionally created a private nuisance” and should pay the Parr family, whose 40-acre plot of land near Decatur sits atop the Barnett Shale close to 22 hydraulic fracturing wells run by Aruba, $2.95 million for loss of property value, past and future pain and suffering, and mental anguish.

The Parrs filed the civil suit in 2011, alleging air pollution from the wells exposed them to hazardous chemicals and industrial waste, leading to symptoms such as chronic nosebleeds, irregular heartbeat, muscle spasms and open sores. Aruba disputed the verdict, saying it followed legal guidelines.  The company is expected to file an appeal.

This is believed to be the first civil jury verdict involving fracking, but it probably won’t be the last. According to Wall Street Journal research conducted last year, more than 15 million people live within a mile of a fracking well.

Read more: 

Lisa and Robert ‘Bob’ Parr v. Aruba Petroleum Inc. and Encana Oil and Gas (USA) Inc. – Dallas County Court

Jury awards Texas family nearly $3 million in fracking caseLos Angeles Times

In landmark ruling, jury says fracking company must pay $3 million to sickened family – Climate Progress

$3 million awarded to North Texas family in fracking lawsuit – StateImpact Texas (NPR)

Related posts:

As Fracking Booms, Wastewater Concerns Grow

Fracking Compounds Worries Over Water Shortages

U.S. Shale Map: Could Be a Lot of Fracking Drilling in the Lower 48

Fracking Debate: How Once-Cooperative Attitudes Died





Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, Fracking, Industry, Law, North America, Pollution

Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Temporary Waterways Need Protection, Too



Temporary waters are waterways that don’t always have a visible connection to nearby surface waters, such as rivers and lakes, during the course of a year. Nevertheless, that dry stream bed or marsh area is part of the larger water network. A study released earlier this month in the journal Science outlines the value of temporary waters and describes how numerous countries do not include such waterways in their legal frameworks. Leaving temporary waterways outside of the law also leaves them vulnerable to human activity, like development and pollution, which can damage the surrounding water network. The study’s authors point out that the numbers of temporary waterways are underestimated in various parts of the world, and that their frequency will increase due to climate change.

Read more:

Temporary waters and intermittent streams at risk: International scientists urge science-based policy – National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center

Why should we care about temporary waterways? – Science

Leave a comment

Filed under Conservation, Industry, Law, North America, Pollution, Research, Rivers and Watersheds, Science, Water Resources