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Water as a Human Right: Time to Thrive

March 22, 2021
This post is a transcription of the Water as a Human Right: Time to Thrive episode in our River Talks podcast.  
Catherine Price

Welcome to the Cumberland River Compact’s River Talks podcast. Our podcast explores topics related to the health, enjoyment, and protection of the Cumberland River basin’s, water, people, and special places. In this season of River Talks, we are exploring water as a human right and how this has been championed and challenged in our state. We will take a close look at the past, present, and future of water in Tennessee through four episodes that weave together the perspectives from a variety of experts in water access, water distribution, and water equity.

Throughout the series, we will deconstruct current issues and develop a collective understanding for a path forward. Be sure to subscribe to River Talks, so you’re notified of every new episode in this series.

We would like to thank Humanities Tennessee for their support of this series. Humanities Tennessee is a nonprofit organization that fosters community and civility in Tennessee through engaging programs that examine and reflect upon ideas, stories, history, arts, and culture. Learn more at

Clean, accessible, and affordable water is a human right, but challenges across our water system impact how that right is realized. Aging infrastructure impacts the ability to provide water, contaminants of emerging concern impact safe water, and the cost of water burdens some populations more than others. Throughout this series, we have seen the ways that water issues today are connected to what has been done in the past, since our president will soon become the past, we know decisions we make today will influence people for decades.

So how can we ensure we thrive in the future?

In order to better plan for the future, Tennessee recently gathered leaders from across the state to create Tennessee H2O, Tennessee’s water plan. This initiative was started under Governor Haslam and the report was released at the beginning of Gov. Lee’s term in office. Elaine Boyd is the senior adviser with the Tennessee Department of the Environment and Conservation and served as the project manager for the creation of H2O. She describes the report in more detail, along with its recommendations.

Elaine Boyd

Tenessee H2O was an effort initiated under the previous administration. Governor Haslam at my department, Commissioner Bob Martineau, and Deputy Commissioner Sherry Meghreblian started talking about if, as they look toward leaving office, what were the things that were left undone that would kind of keep them up at night. And so for Dr. Meghreblian, it centered around the idea of developing a statewide water plan focused on water quantity, which is, of course, something that we don’t normally focus on within TDEC.

And the challenge we had was that we had a little bit over a year left. So it was a really aggressive goal. Governor Haslam supported it totally. Deputy Governor Henry was the active chair of the steering committee that Governor Haslam created, which included high-level leadership from across the state and private industry, state and federal government, NGOs, academia, to really look at trying to develop a road map for water resources for the future, recognizing the fact that we are not in an area like a lot of the Western states where you have issues with shortages, but there’s still a need to plan for the future.

So that was really the focus of the group. And the focus of the report is on several kinds of recommendations centered on water availability.

Catherine Price

As Elaine mentioned, the Tennessee H2O plan focused on water quantity, meaning the amount of water we have available for many uses like drinking water, industry, and agriculture. As we’ve heard many times throughout our series, we don’t typically think about water scarcity in our state. Elaine explains a bit more about why the report focused on water scarcity over water quality.

Elaine Boyd

It was focused definitely on drinking water quantity. We did delve a bit into quality as it pertains to water availability. So there are definitely some issues when water quality can impact the availability of drinking water. So we did include that in the report. And I would say that it somewhat is related to drought in that we identify and this is like no surprise that there are certain areas of the state that continually have quantity issues and it’s drought-related.

And so that’s one of the things that we highlighted in the report, as well as the interesting fact our institutional and legal framework group looked at the fact that legislatively, Tennessee has a history of coming up with responses to water issues after a drought.

So a drought would spur action legislatively, like the Water Resources Act of 1957, which is the original legislation that called for long-range water planning but has never been fully funded. So traditionally we had always had a drought, then had a legislative response to that drought. That was one of the things that we did have differently in TN H2O is that we were not in a time of crisis. So we kind of had the luxury of not deciding things and not recommending things based on, you know, being in the midst of crisis.

Catherine Price

Jenny Dodd is the director of the Division of Water Resources within TDEC and explains a bit more about the connections between water quantity, water quality, and how the Tennessee H2O plan sets the stage to address future water challenges.

Jenny Dodd

When we talk about water quality and water quantity, they are tied together. If if you have water scarcity, it can absolutely impact your ability to treat it appropriately and to make sure that you have the best quality water, let alone just having enough water. And so they’re tied together. Our regulations speak mostly towards the water quality side of things. So part of what I think makes the TN H2O so wonderful is that when we’re looking at water quantity, we have a larger scope of stakeholders that are involved and that are working together.

Because the water quality aspect to this does take it takes a larger stakeholder group to talk through and to think through. Where do we need to be concerned? How do we make sure that we have enough water in the places where we have population and population growth and making sure that there are redundancies in the system so that when we are in a drought time that we are able to provide enough water for people. TN H2O, one of the beauties of it is having all of these stakeholders at the table thinking through and making sure that we are prepared and ready for that, because you can’t it’s too late to prepare for it when the drought is happening.

And so you just have to make sure that you have folks talking about it years in advance and communicating with each other. We want to have neighboring systems communicating with each other and having plans so that if one of them is experiencing drought and the other one is not, how can they have interconnections that they can help each other get through these times? And so a lot of times we think of individual cities as having their own systems, but they really have to be able to work together.

Catherine Price

We often don’t think about water quantity or water scarcity until we’re faced with a crisis. It’s almost the way our brain is wired away from considering these long-term stressors.

Elaine Boyd

There’s this panic when the drought hits and then as the drought eases, there’s a return to kind of like you forget the past and the cycle repeats itself.

Catherine Price

Without being in a state of crisis, the group was able to think forward to recommendations for the future of water in Tennessee. The subgroups released several recommendations, and many of these reflect the challenges we’ve considered throughout this series.

Elaine Boyd

Some of the big takeaways out of the infrastructure group, probably not a surprise to anyone, was was a big take away that we have a lot of current and impending infrastructure needs, and that’s a national issue. Infrastructure is aging. It’s a very expensive effort to replace and rehabilitate infrastructure and especially in rural areas and small communities. So that was one of the major recommendations that came out of the report, one of the major needs that was identified. The other was kind of related to that, a need to educate decision-makers and the general public about the true value of water.

People tend to take water for granted. And in doing this effort, we got with Deputy Governor Jim Henry and traveled across the state to talk to different communities about TN H2O. And in one of those meetings, we heard from someone really, I think a very good statement about the value of water. He said that when people get a cable bill for two hundred dollars, they pay it and don’t blink. But if their water bill goes up by five dollars, you know, they’re just totally perplexed and angered about what has happened.

So there’s not a sense of the true value of water. And that makes it difficult for communities to pursue major upgrades and to get the financing, support, and the community support to pursue major upgrades to their infrastructure. We also are talking with the Corps of Engineers and hope to be able to announce soon some major projects in the three grand divisions of the state. So we’ve been working with them on three major projects that would be implementation of some of the recommendations in TN H2O.

We also have had several kinds of efforts within the department and elsewhere that have been influenced by the principles that were introduced through TN H2O one is through our state revolving fund program. They really worked to develop kind of a collaborative task force, which is a technical advisory group. And through that group, they’ve been able to develop an approach to really try to assist the smaller water systems with some of the managerial and financial challenges that they face. They’ve released an infrastructure scorecard and infrastructure scorecard, which is kind of a tool to help the water system look at benchmarks in those areas and determine where they stand.

We’ve also had a lot of discussions with systems about opportunities for regional cooperation or collaboration between systems. Know there just some cases in which a water system would be better served and better service constituents by partnering with another water system versus trying to continue to operate independently. One other effort that we highlighted in TN H2O was one of our partners was a system in Knoxville, and they had worked with a two-year community college in Knoxville to develop an operator curriculum for the two-year school, which when it enables students to use the Tennessee Promise to pursue becoming an operator in a system.

Catherine Price

As we see all the ways water touches our life in Tennessee, it is clear that there are many people who must work together to help address water issues. Here again is Elaine Boyd.

Elaine Boyd

Think it has really helped to cement the need for collaboration and discussion. There are a lot of organizations working in the water space and a lot of us work kind of in parallel, but not intersecting circles around water. And I think TN H2O gave us the opportunity to kind of have collaborative discussions. And I’ve seen that continue as we implement TN H2O. And none of these discussions are happening, you know, just in a vacuum. All of the discussions are happening with multiple partners.

And I think that’s hugely important. And that’s a major takeaway that we need to have as we continue to address water issues in the state.

Catherine Price

Tennessee H2O begins to address some of the water challenges in our state by creating a proactive plan, the plan addresses sufficient and safe water. But there are more ways across our water system that we can protect water and ensure that it is sufficient, safe, accessible, and affordable. If we’re going to thrive, we have to look for opportunities across our water system.

As we consider how to thrive in the future, let’s start where our water system begins, small headwater streams, these streams are vital to creating abundant water across our water system, but often don’t seem that important when we look at them. The Clean Water Act establishes federal jurisdiction over navigable waters defined within the act as waters of the US, but it also gives discretion to the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of the Army to define what the waters of the US are.

How we define the waters of the US is important because it establishes the scope of federal jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act regulatory programs. Up until 2020. The waters of the U.S. rule included small streams and rivers in the definition, therefore including them in federal regulation. However, the waters of the U.S. rule was changed during the Trump administration’s federal regulation rollbacks so that it no longer includes these small streams.

Margo Farnsworth explains the importance of reinvigorating this area of water regulation.

Margo Farnsworth

We at some point need to revisit the waters of the US rule to the Clean Water Act to to reinvigorate the Clean Water Act and specifically this waters of the U.S. rule and to break it down. Back in the day when I was working with the compact, farmers and developers both came to us and they said, you know what? We would love to meet the rules of the Clean Water Act. We’d like nothing more, but it needs to be more specific. We need to know what about these ephemeral and intermittent streams and wetlands? What is what isn’t and all that. So that’s basically what the water of the US answered. It didn’t really change much in the Clean Water Act. It just gave them a basis. But in the meantime, politics had wormed its way into this, as it often does. And so that’s why it kind of went south during the last administration.

Catherine Price

Supporting a legal framework that protects these small streams is important as they form the start of our watershed and water system. So far, we’ve talked about water infrastructure, mostly in the context of the pipes and the water treatment systems. But we can also consider our green infrastructure. Green infrastructure is a type of infrastructure that uses plants, soil, permeable pavement and other techniques to mimic nature and to reduce the flow of stormwater to our surface waters. Rain gardens are a common example of green infrastructure.

As we think about a thriving water future, we can think about how we can change all of our infrastructure, here again is Margo Farnsworth continuing to modernize infrastructure from pipes to green infrastructure all the way so in the pipes.

Margo Farnsworth

And, you know, we think about infiltration and inflow and that’s a huge problem. And that’s where a lot of waste takes place. And so if we can just fix some of our broken pipes, you know, we would be in a much better situation. But continuing to advance green infrastructure, because that has to have that pervious surface, you know, to thrive.

Catherine Price

Green infrastructure is just one example of how we can look to nature to understand how to thrive. We’ve heard from Margo Farnsworth throughout the series as an expert in the connections between people and nature. But she is also a biomimicry expert. Here she is to describe more.

Margo Farnsworth

Nature was around a long time before we humans ever set foot on the earth. You know, when you when you look at a lot of the time frames and and crunching time into a twenty four hour period or a year period, we end up being in the last few seconds on the clock before you strike midnight again, whatever. And so we have a lot to learn from nature and how nature does things.

Before I knew about biomimicry, you know, we were always trying to mimic the hydrology of an area. We talked about that all the time. This is just going one step further and, you know, identifying functional problems that we have as humans and then say, OK, how did nature solve for that? What are the strategies that that nature has used to do that? And then looking at that very closely and saying, OK, how was that strategy actually deployed from a design and engineering standpoint?

Catherine Price

So we can think about how we mimic nature at the big scale, how we can maintain natural hydrology and how we can mimic the way our watersheds clean water, and more. But we can also look at how nature can help us solve some very specific problems.

Margo Farnsworth

There’s a company called PAX Scientific, this cheeky little Australian guy, Jay Harmon, the observed water from the time he was a little boy and he played hooky to go observe water. And a lot of the time he lived live close to the beach down in Australia. And so as a grown man, he was looking for efficiency in archetypal shapes and he was looking at spirals. So like looking at the spirals and seashells, looking at the spirals and lilies.

And that is how he came up with what he calls the lily impeller. And so the most fun use that I can talk to you guys about is how they put it in. You know, the water towers that we see around in our communities. Well one of the challenges with water towers is that you need to keep mixing that water. If water sits that’s been cleansed with chemicals, if it sits for too long, not fun. Things can start happening in there.

So you want to keep that water mixing all the time? Well, that’s always been really high energy proposition. And so by using this lily impeller and it sits just it’s a short little thing in the bottom of these tanks, it can circulate 10 million gallons of water on the energy of three one hundred watt light bulbs. So these are these are not expensive things that only big cities can get a hold of. You know, biomimicry is accessible to people of every stripe and communities of every level.

Catherine Price

Does this sound familiar? In our third episode, Ron Taylor described one challenge with water storage, that the longer it sits in these storage tanks, the more the quality may decline. So just maybe we can keep looking to nature to find more ways to thrive.

As we look towards a thriving future of water and what it will take to get us there, we have to consider the cost. The price we pay for water is artificially low, and the challenges we face from infrastructure to maintaining water quality are expensive. We also know that despite an abundance of water in Tennessee, we must consider future and looming water scarcity issues as we consider what it will take to thrive. We can look at the full cost of water while also pricing it in a way that encourages conservation. Margo Farnsworth explores this concept more.

Margo Farnsworth

And one of the things we’ve done some work on is this thing called the water energy nexus, the water has always been the stepchild in that water energy nexus.

We give a lot more attention to energy conservation and moving forward in the energy sector a lot more than we do with water. And yet that is something that costs us millions and millions of dollars. And people don’t think about, you know, that full cost. You know, it includes infrastructure. It includes energy. I mean, we have to have pumping stations. We take it, you know, in your neck of the woods from the river or maybe Old Hickory Lake or Percy Priest.

But you take it from your water source and then you’ve got to get it pumped, pumped from point A to point B, and that takes energy and pumping stations. And I know just in Dickson something that sticks in the back of my head. I was talking to the water director and this was over a decade ago and she was talking about thirteen thousand dollars per pumping station being a cost for her. And so that that really comes down on the accounting sheet.

So you’ve got infrastructure, energy, maintenance, personnel, chemicals, you know, all of these come into. And yet we’re paying this tiny little bit and our water bills at the risk of making people mad, we really do have to look at what is clean water worth to us and and be willing to pay what it costs.

Catherine Price

When a full and true cost of water is applied, we start to see that wasting water is wasting money and applying a conservation mindset to water use. And water pricing can impact the future of water.

Margo Farnsworth

Thinking about things that we can do again, I come back to conservation and efficiency plans they’re not because I’m some greenie, you know, that I’ve worked with the business community a lot, that you just look at the dollars and cents of these things.

And if you can teach people to, you know, sweep their driveway instead of spraying it, if they will use it’s an old saw by now. But turning off the water when you brush your teeth, if we look at water sensors in our landscaping, I hate going by places when it’s raining and the sprinklers are going, you know, and looking at drip irrigation instead of spray irrigation, there’s all these ways that we can conserve water and be more efficient with it.

And so I will raise you a full cost pricing and from from a full cost price into a conservation pricing. It is a monetary way to encourage efficiency. And so we talk about things like and when when the Compact first was getting into this, we had the building outside the box program and we did we hired an economist to look at, you know, what would, you know, water friendly appliances. What difference would that make to the bottom line and to water savings and made the difference of in one urban condominium site made the difference of three million gallons a year and the developer didn’t have to pay any more.

He passed the cost on to the buyers and the buyers were able to recoup that cost in less than five years. And they had more money to play with every month because they were making savings in their washing machines, the dishwashers and the site overall. If you’ve got an HOA system in terms of watering the plants because they were using moisture sensors, which the developer said to me personally, I think that should be a law. Everybody should have to use water sensors.

Conservation pricing just encourages those kind of efficiency practices to be put into place. Now, I will say on the other side, to balance that, we’ve talked about diversity, equity and inclusion, and you have to have a balance. And this is kind of like a seesaw because you have to balance for those people who are unable to afford full cost pricing. But but most of us wouldn’t feel, you know, the small bump that it would take to get us to the point where we’re actually paying for.

And you know what? Then we would be able to really and truly address some of those areas where we still it’s been too expensive to get to the pipes in downtown areas to move from that combined water, you know, storm water and sewer system and be able to put those into separate pipes where they belong so that we don’t have sewer overflows into our rivers.

Catherine Price

Another part of the conversation around water is the commodification and privatization of water as recently as December 2020, water joined gold and oil as a commodity traded on Wall Street.

This tactic is designed to help reduce uncertainty around the future price of water and water-scarce places like California. However, this also puts the decisions about water in the hands of financial institutions and investors, which some argue contradicts water equity principles. The conversation around water as a commodity in this way is extensive, so we won’t be able to go into all of it. However, it is an idea that is important as we consider the future of water.

Margo Farnsworth

I think that commodification of water, you know, that you hear a lot of talk about privatizing water more and more, and I think that that is a really slippery slope and that there should be caps placed on how much water can be, quote unquote, privatized, because our water tables are lowering in a lot of areas in our country.

We are moving in areas of our country from long term droughts to actually changing ecosystems to a ratification of ecosystems. And so, again, full-cost pricing, conservation, pricing, conservation, and efficiency plans. Huge opportunity there to benefit our entire country long term.

Catherine Price

To consider clean water is a human right, we must always be considering the people who are impacted the most by our decisions, from how we price water to where we invest in infrastructure upgrades, to how we build healthy environments and communities. The people that are impacted should be at the center. We’ve heard several times that decisions made in the past impact us today. And so we know that what we do today will have impacts for years to come. We must therefore consider diversity, equity, inclusion and justice when making decisions.

And it’s more than just considering these principles.

It’s taking action.

Margo Farnsworth

Just in our day to day in terms of justice and equity, you know, making sure that the water is getting to them, making sure the wastewater is going away from them in in not just adequate ways. Although when you look at situations like Flint, you want to be at least adequate. You know, you don’t want to be doing harm to people. And so I guess if you if you want to use do no harm as a baseline, you know, there are communities where that’s not yet been achieved.

So looking at that, but then asking the question, what would it take to thrive and then moving beyond that to the resilience questions of what are we doing or not doing that is standing in the way of our thriving.

Catherine Price

So when we think about what a path forward is, it’s taking action to invest and support water as a human right in our most vulnerable and underserved communities.

Margo Farnsworth

We’ve done the looking we need to take action, and that goes for inner-city areas. And in the Cumberland Basin, you know, you have part of Appalachia. And so there are underserved communities there.

So indigenous people have not received their fair share of action and attention within this whole equity and diversity justice movement. So doing work in those realms.

Catherine Price

One of the reasons we wanted to take a close look at water as a human right was to help us break down the issues we see and understand ways that we can move forward. So far, we’ve mostly looked at water issues in the theoretical what could happen, how these challenges might surface. But right now we see water crises. In February of twenty twenty one, the Southeast experienced an unusual cold weather event, the freezing temperatures put stress on the aging infrastructure in cities like Jackson, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee, leading to broken water mains and leaks throughout the system.

Strict water conservation and boil advisories were put into place for residents. Suddenly, people can’t cook, can’t clean, can’t bathe or drink water. Just like we’ve heard numerous times in this series, the aging water infrastructure is a threat to the ability to provide clean, safe and sufficient water. The updates needed to the system are vast, and for some residents in Jackson, Mississippi, they feel that those updates have simply been kicked down the road over and over again, ignoring the needs of this community.

The challenges to water as a human right are happening now, even if we’re thinking about what we can do in the future to thrive, we need to also consider what we can do right now, as Margo said, what is standing in the way of our thriving. As we close our series, I want to leave you with one question what is clean water worth to you? I know it’s worth a lot to me, and I’m assuming it’s worth a lot to you as well.

So remember that that clean water you value so highly is a human right. And we all must do what we can to champion that right for all people in Tennessee and beyond.

I’d like to thank Carol Bucy Mekayle Houghton, Margo Farnsworth, Jenny Dodd, Ron Taylor and Elaine Boyd for joining us in this series. You can find full transcripts of these episodes, along with links to more information on our website at Cumberland River And a final thanks to HumanitiesTennessee for supporting the development of this series.

Be sure to subscribe to be notified of new episodes of River Talks.

This project was funded in part by a grant from Humanities Tennessee, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.