The Fight for Water Rights
Water’s abundance in some areas and shortage in others has the industry drowning in concern about water availability. Here’s how some are handling it.
The global demand for freshwater is doubling every 20 years, and at least 1 billion people are not sure each day where their water will come from — or whether they’ll even have any. That’s what Mike Newman, managing director of the Michigan Aggregates Association told attendees of the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association’s 2007 Annual Convention last March. (See “Dewatering the Problem: How one state kept its head above water when backlash about water usage threatened the existence of some aggregates operations,” AggBeat, May 2007.)
And concern about water availability isn’t lessening. These water issues aren’t just a third-world problem — in fact, concern about water availability is continuing to grow in our own nation and has trickled down to many of our own locales. This problem could potentially threaten the aggregates industry, which deals with large volumes of water on a daily basis through dewatering and other production activities. That means your operation could be affected.
Water has become such an important issue and resource that prestigious investment-banking firms are now looking at it as the new super commodity. “They are saying that water is the oil market of the future,” Newman says.
In the mainstream
Just recently, the issue of water availability has been in the public eye in Atlanta and its surrounding area. According to an Associated Press report released at at Aggregates Manager press time, more than one-quarter of the Southeast was covered by an “exceptional” drought — the National Weather Service’s worst drought category.
But even in a water-rich state such as Illinois, there is growing concern about continued availability of water given the current demand as well as projected new demands including population growth, expansion of ethanol production, and potential for coal gasification, explains John Henriksen, executive director of the Illinois Association of Aggregate Producers (IAAP).
Newman agrees. “The issue is not going to go away, no matter what region in the country you are from,” he says. “If you don’t see it now, it might be in a year or in five years. This is a long-term issue for our industry. We have to confront it and be a player in it.”
However, Newman says, oftentimes, “We run into environmental groups that are driven by emotion and not science.” Many environmental groups want water to be held in a public trust. This means that water wouldn’t be owned by people, and therefore, controlled by states. A public trust is the principle that certain resources are preserved for public use and that the government is required to maintain it for the public’s reasonable use.
“The public policy debate on freshwater is driven by economics, social values, and environmental concerns,” Newman adds. “The primary targets of the environmental community in Michigan on water issues are bottled watering operations, aggregate producers, and agricultural irrigators.”
Developing a plan
When the Michigan Aggregates Association started having conflicts about five years ago — both real and perceived — the group began working with legislators to ensure that everything done is based on science. The National Wildlife Federation went to Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality and asked that several quarries in southeast Michigan be shut down. “We can be good stewards of water, but we have to be able to use it as a resource,” Newman says. “Why does everything have to be so unreasonable? Why is there never a common ground? It’s all or nothing.”
With an abundance of water in some areas and an extreme shortage in others, states are getting very protective about their water sources, particularly more water-rich regions such as those surrounding the Great Lakes.
So the association took a proactive approach and helped to develop a five-step process to ensure that its access to water is protected but addressed state and community concerns about being good stewards of water. Many times, conflicts now can be resolved amicably, Newman says (see sidebar, “Using a Five-Step Process”).
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