I first realized that the fight against the Dakota Access pipeline was really about water and not oil at a rally in Washington D.C. in September. A crowd of several thousand people gathered in front of the White House, and the enthusiasm peaked as Bernie Sanders, just weeks after ending his presidential campaign, took the stage.
Sanders told the eager group that there are a lot of people who believe future wars won’t be fought over oil, but over water, and that now is the time to focus on the ultimately more precious resource.
“We cannot allow our drinking water to be poisoned so that a handful of fossil fuel companies can make even more in profits,” he said. “We stand united in saying, ‘stop the pipeline, respect Native American rights and let us move forward to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels.’”
In the intervening months, the North Dakota demonstrators—who prefer to be called "water protectors"—continued to gain momentum along with increasing national media attention.
After the Obama administration announced in September that the government would discuss with tribes how to better ensure meaningful tribal input, in early December the news came that the Army Corps was going to consider alternate routes for the pipeline and that construction in the contested area would not move forward for the foreseeable future.
Leaders of the movement celebrated the unexpected victory while also turning an eye to the future. With President-elect Donald Trump setting up a Cabinet full of fossil fuel industry advocates who denounce federal environmental regulations, the next four years will likely be filled with even more high-stakes confrontations between industrial interests and environmental activists, and clean water may well continue to be the focal point. While the seeds for a new era of environmental activism were sown in North Dakota and Flint, MI, this year, they will have to grow into something much larger to live up to the demands that will be placed upon them in the coming years.
The increasing value of clean water is not only crystal clear from an environmental perspective, but also a business one—the U.S. Water Industry grew 3% in 2015, generating $160 billion in revenues according to the Environmental Business Journal (EBJ).
EBJ Editor-in-Chief Grant Ferrier attributed the growth to new monitoring requirements to deal with the regulation of new contaminants.
"Even in the most highly regulated countries like the United States, water pollution problems continue to grow as new contaminants are unleashed and discovered," he said. At the same time regions suffering from climate change-driven drought, like California, are seeing increased investment in water recycling and reuse technology as the resource becomes even scarcer.
Michael Kelly, director of communications for Clean Water Action, said that already overwhelming challenges like climate change, environmental degradation, and industrial pollution will be compounded by the severe setbacks of a Trump-led government intent on opening the floodgates for oil.
"Climate change is water change so pulling back on our commitments in the Paris Agreement, repealing the Clean Power Plan, and slowing our efforts to reduce climate change emissions will impact our water," he said. "Oil and gas activities have huge impacts on our water—from drilling to transport to power transmission to disposal of drilling waste—reducing or undermining safeguards will impact our water, especially in front-line oil and gas communities."
Mark Yaggi, executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance, said the biggest challenge that the incoming administration poses is the “erosion of democracy and the creation of a corporate oligarchy” that could screw up the current government structure designed to prevent water pollution. He said existing laws like the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act will keep waterways clean if they are enforced.
“More people need to understand that there are political decisions made every day that jeopardize water,” Yaggi said. “Cost-cutting measures, failure to invest in infrastructure, these things happen all the time. Unless you have an informed public and advocates for the cause, deals can fly under the radar of public attention.”
Just look at what happened in Flint, MI, when a plan to provide the city with a new water source unfolded in a national drama when the water was found to be contaminated with lead.
In another example of how these problems can arise, in a large new study the EPA recently determined that fracking for oil and gas can contaminate drinking water in certain circumstances, a strong claim that the agency had not previously officially asserted. Fracking is currently only subject to a few federal regulations, and while the report suggests that tighter regulations might be necessary to prevent water contamination, Trump's pick to run the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has made it clear that he'll be fighting regulatory overreach as head of the EPA and is not interested in adding new regulations. Pruitt, who has close ties with the fossil fuel industry, has sued the EPA numerous times over the course of his career.
Yaggi said that the model that was displayed and led by the indigenous community at Standing Rock is a great model for environmental and social advocacy for a new era, and that communities need to continue to organize locally.
John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program and author of the new book Water is for Fighting Over, recently told me that the Standing Rock conflict adds to a long history of disregard for Native American water rights.
“We’ve done a poor job of recognizing and respecting the rights and values of native communities to water,” he said. “We can’t keep doing that, both for legal reasons—Indian rights to water have a special legal status in U.S. law—but also for moral reasons. Solutions to the nation’s water problems have to incorporate the values of all the affected communities.”
Nives Dolsak, a professor of environmental policy a the University of Washington and Aseem Prakash, director of the UW Center for Environmental Politics, recently expanded on the notion of involving all affected communities by applying it to the future of the overall environmental movement. They argue that the rise of Trump and his fossil fuel cronies needs to act as a wake-up call for the U.S. environmental movement—a movement that needs to “go local” in its quest to reinvent itself.
They believe that environmental concerns, which failed to gain much traction during the 2016 election, will sway the votes of more minorities and working class people if they address local issues like air and water pollution and clean drinking water. In order to expand the movement from its historical base of middle- and upper-class white urban voters, leaders will need to stop telling people what they ought to do and instead pay attention to their perspectives.
“For Native American groups, DAPL protests provide the platform to initiate a social movement that asks basic questions about environmental justice and the rights of native communities in resource-hungry systems,” Dolsak and Prakash wrote in November. “For environmental groups, DAPL protests offer the opportunity to focus attention on the social and environmental costs of fossil-fuel addiction. If they work together, these groups could create a partnership that pervades beyond the Dakota standoff, and advance each other’s agenda in meaningful ways.”
Perhaps the environmental movement can give new meaning to the old saying "water is for fighting over."