LunchUP: Nicole Van Lier, "States of Water in Lake St. Clair: Appropriating Water Across a Contested Transboundary Waterscape"
PhD Student, Human Geography – University of Toronto
In the Lake St. Clair (LSC) watershed, access to adequate water (in quantity and quality) remains socially and spatially uneven. Persistent water struggles over the past 50 years are explained in part by four intersecting features that in combination are distinct to the region: 1) the watershed is home to some of the most industrialized and polluted waterways in North America; 2) it nonetheless supplies drinking water to more than six million people in Michigan and Ontario; 3) only the waters on the American side of the border were ceded by a treaty and so title to the waters remains contested; 4) access to clean water continues to be socially and spatially uneven despite the existence of abundant freshwater resources in general terms. The paradoxes that make up LSC’s hydro-geography have informed a series of ongoing struggles over two interrelated types of water appropriation: water consumption and water pollution, each of which carry profound implications for water access. Detroit communities have been working to restore water service to the more than 100,000 residents disconnected since 2014, while the DWSD has struggled with cost-intensive upgrades to treat a water supply contaminated by petrochemical wastes, and has endured political pressures to privatize and commodify municipal water under 35 years of imposed state and federal oversight. Across the lake, Indigenous water defenders in Walpole Island First Nation have been working for decades to protect waterways from oil and chemical discharges; to reduce their exposure to contaminants by calling for modernized wastewater treatment infrastructure; and to assert their title to unceded waters and lake beds in the LSC watershed. This research investigates how Michigan and Ontario have represented and negotiated water appropriations for people and for industry in a politically, economically, and ecologically variegated waterscape. I aim to explore the relational structures that shape states’ relationships to water in a transboundary context where both the ways water is appropriated and the jurisdictions through which appropriations are sanctioned, continue to be actively challenged by multiple local constituencies. I will share very early insights from a portion of this larger project and welcome your questions and feedback.