Water, Water, (Not) Everywhere

In Closing – Fall 2021

By Jamie Alison Lee

Jamie Alison Lee

Lawyers work toward many forms of justice. What does justice look like when we talk about water? Yes, that water: plain, simple H2O. Water is one of the few things that humans absolutely cannot live without, yet “water justice” is not a phrase often on the tip of our tongues. But it should be. 

Water justice has a multitude of dimensions that require our attention and energy. Water justice means, among other things, addressing rising sea levels due to climate change, eliminating poisonous drinking-water pollutants, increasing water access by indigenous and other rural communities to make work and schooling more possible, and lowering water rates for urban communities for the same purposes.

In my 10 years of teaching community development and business law at The University of Baltimore, I have spent over half of that time studying water justice as it plays out right here in Baltimore City. In these years, I have seen more and more attention paid to water justice across the United States. Truth be told, this is both positive and alarming. 

It is positive in that the crucial water-justice efforts being fought every day by lawyers and others, in every part of our country, are gaining greater recognition by the media, policymakers, legislators, government officials and everyday people. It is also positive in that water justice today is seen as relevant to all Americans, not just to faraway countries or to the western half of the United States (for a story about water’s importance to western land development, see the classic film Chinatown, though be warned that it involves some appalling racism and sexism). 

Alarm bells are still ringing, however, because public engagement in water-justice issues simply remains too low. It is still not a common matter of conversation around the dinner table or on social media, nor do most Americans see water justice as something for which they need to fight. Perhaps it seems too prosaic, too commonplace? But its universality is exactly why it requires our attention. Water justice is already at a critical point for our communities, including in our own city and state, and the solutions do not appear easy. That should not dissuade us, but it does mean that greater numbers of energetic, knowledgeable people must loudly call for the necessary change. 

Opportunities to make this call abound. On the national level, at the time of this writing, politicians continue to wrangle over water infrastructure legislation. While a solution is desperately needed, we must not settle for one that encourages the privatization of our water supply and the prioritization of profit over the human need for water. 

On the local level, we should appreciate local and state leadership for their efforts at water justice, but not settle for partial action. For example, while homeowners in Baltimore City with unpaid water bills are now better protected against the extortionate and labyrinthine “tax sale” foreclosure process, more reform is needed to prevent low-income, elderly and non-white homeowners from losing both the roofs over their heads and the life savings that could be passed on to their children in the form of home equity. 

Similarly, at the local level, more work is needed to address skyrocketing water rates in Baltimore City, and a billing system long plagued with inaccuracies and a lack of due process. While there is promising new leadership, and a strong new law to reform the local water utility was passed in 2020, the new law still has not been implemented. This is despite the fact that water customers in both the city and Baltimore County would benefit from its affordable water rates, due-process reforms, tenant protections, customer advocacy office, and transparent accountability structure. 

We can no longer take water access and water justice for granted. We know that public engagement is crucial to making concrete and meaningful change. One way to get involved is to join forces with nonprofit experts, such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Food and Water Watch, among others. Feel free to reach out to me personally, as well. Water justice affects every one of us, and we must act together accordingly. 

Jaime Alison Lee is a professor and director of the Community Development Clinic at Baltimore Law.

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