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Friday, June 4, 2010

Water Conference All Wet

Posted By on Fri, Jun 4, 2010 at 4:39 PM

When I interviewed organizers of the "Water Matters!" conference for a preview CP article, my chief concern was that the panel discussions were too heavily weighted with corporate interests. But both organizers -- Court Gould, of Sustainable Pittsburgh, and Carnegie Mellon professor David Dzombak -- assured me that the panels' moderators would be asking controversial questions.

That didn't really happen.

I was among about 900 guests at the conference yesterday at the David Lawrence convention center -- the marquee event in Pittsburgh's turn as North American host city for the UN-sponsored World Environment Day. The panels were structured as brief presentations by each panelist, followed by questions from the moderator.

I attended two of the three panels. At "Water & Energy," Westinghouse Electric senior VP Kathryn Jackson used her time to tout nuclear energy -- and in particular Westinghouse and its newest reactor design -- as our only viable option ("a transformative choice") for generating large amounts of affordable energy in a low-carbon economy.

Roberta Bowman, chief sustainability officer for North Carolina-based Duke Energy, talked mostly about "balancing" water usage -- already a source of conflict between states and municipalities -- with our desire for "affordable, reliable and clean electricity."

The third panelist -- Kathleen Miller, an economist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research -- talked primarily about how climate change will make fresh water harder to come by.

There were no representatives of environmental groups concerned with water quality and usage -- which is, uh, pretty much all of them.

Nuclear plants and coal-fired power plants (the kind that generate most of Duke's watts) are huge users of water; uranium mining has a big carbon footprint; and coal-mining can poison and outright bury waterways. But the closest that moderator Peter Annin (of the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources) came to challenging the representatives of two highly water-intensive industries was to ask about renewable energy's relatively low water-intensity. (Bowman acknowledged that solar and wind power don't use much water.) And no one peeped in protest at Bowman and Jackson's assertions that the last thing we should do to enforce environmental regulations is to take the matter to court.

The day's final panel was "Water as An Economic Driver." This one looked even more corporate-heavy, with reps from Coca-Cola; private water-services company American Water; and Milwaukee's Badger Meter Co. On the other hand, it also included the lone grassroots activist among the day's 10 panelists: Peggy Shepard, who heads New York City's WE ACT for Environmental Justice. (Interestingly, Shepard was originally listed in the conference program on the "Water & Your Health" panel; but sometime after my discussion of her role with Gould and Dzombak last week, she was moved.) And the moderator was the Washington Post climate and politics reporter Juliet Eilperin, who started things off with a jab at the bottled-water industry … of which Coke is no small part.

But Gregory Koch, who manages Coke's "global water stewardship initiative," played down his company's water usage; 300 billion liters a year, he noted, is not even half what the city of Atlanta uses. And American Water chief Donald Correll made the case for benign-sounding "legislative changes ... to create the opportunity for greater public-private partnerships" in the repair and maintenance of water infrastructure and delivery of water services.

You'd have had no idea from this panel that privatization of water services is perhaps the single most controversial water issue in the world: Just like American Water lobbies for privatization in the U.S., globocorps like Veolia push it on cash-strapped governments overseas; Bolivians in two cities have mass-protested its implementation. Residents of Trenton, N.J., meanwhile, are even now protesting the proposed sale of their water lines to New Jersey American Water.

Moreover, the discussion gave no sense that Coke, whose Koch earnestly lectured us about water conservation, has been accused of sapping the water tables in several water-stressed regions of India. One state government there is seeking $47 million in damages.

Eilperin didn't raise any of these issues. The closest thing to a challenge to anyone's opinion came when Badger Meter Co.'s ingratiatingly effusive CEO, Richard A. Meeusen, disputed Koch's contention that no one pays for water itself, only "water services." Meeusen perceptively noted that in places like the American Southwest, where we're depleting aquifers faster than they can recharge, people are indeed "paying for water" -- as well as stealing it from future generations.

To be fair, at least two of the keynote speakers at Water Matters were feistier. Marine conservationist Carl Safina, for instance, made a full-throated case for addressing the imminent perils that climate change and overfishing pose to our oceans. He advocated tighter fishing regulations and also -- noting the BP oil spill -- a rapid transition to renewable energy. He spiked the latter plea with a rather edgy riposte to skeptics who say such a switch would be too expensive. "The cheapest energy was slavery," he said. "Energy is a moral issue."

Veteran activist John Cronin, meanwhile, branded the federal Clean Water Act a massive failure in need of complete revision. Cronin, of the Beacon Hill Institute for Rivers and Estuaries, said most water-pollution violations happen because it's cheaper to break the law than comply with it.

But mostly, the pro-business bias suggested by the make-up of the panels played out. Organizers, obviously, had hoped to bridge the gap between business and environmental concerns. But it's usually wise to beware talk about "balancing," "stewardship" and "public-private partnerships": BP, which had taken to rebranding itself "Beyond Petroleum," has also run its share of glossy-magazine ads with bright-green leaves adorned with drops of water. And today in the Gulf of Mexico, we see how much that figured into its bottom-line thinking.

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