The year, 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River Fire, a landmark in the timeline of environmental regulation in the United States and the ignition of the Clean Water Act. On Sept. 12th, 2019 the federal administration and Environmental Protection Agency repealed the Clean Water Rule, removing protections for streams and wetlands across the country and threatening access to clean drinking water for 117 million Americans. Only one month prior, an estimated four million people took to the streets in a global climate march advocating for climate action- the biggest climate mobilization in history.
Our country is facing a tragedy of the commons, allowing our actions to be governed by politics and profit rather than an interest in sustainability and wellness. Milwaukee Water Commons proposes that as we think about communities struggling to access clean drinking water and look at economic growth fueled by the consumption of healthy ecosystems, we must consider the commons. Every commons has two parts: something held in the public’s trust (water, air, language) and the people who engage with and use that commons. The people depend on government to act as trustee of these resources for the good of the people now and for future generations.
On the edge of the Great Lakes Basin, an area recognized by experts as being at high risk for water conflict, communities in southeastern Wisconsin are acutely aware of the value of clean water. Healthy streams, lakes, and wetlands not only provide a sense of identity and economic stability, they are our source of clean drinking water- a resource that seems to be increasingly hard to come by in Wisconsin because of pollution, failing infrastructure, and overconsumption.
Despite the public’s interest in clean water, regulators looking at southeastern Wisconsin have exempted environmental protections and commodified Great Lakes water to support urban sprawl and attract big business. While officers elected to protect the commons wrestle over corporate interests, residents in Waukesha are waiting to hear if they will have access to safe drinking water, children in Milwaukee are convinced they could never swim in their rivers, and families in Mount Pleasant are pushed from their homes for the construction of empty factories.
In the year of clean drinking water in Wisconsin, it is our shared responsibility to protect the commons and demand our government do the same. In 2020 we need leaders who will be champions of the public trust and who support the environmental justice leadership of communities feeling the brunt of climate change and deregulation. The Iroquois Nation taught us that our decisions today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future. It is time we learned from our history and look at protection before restoration.
Brenda Coley and Kirsten Shead are Co-Executive Directors of Milwaukee Water Commons, a nonprofit organization that fosters connection, collaboration and broad community leadership on behalf of our common waters.