Benjamin Franklin said, “When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water.”
This old adage might sting a bit more for those areas grappling with water scarcity. As water issues come to the fore, it might be time to revisit one of the tenets we hold so dear in the United States: The Bill of Rights.
The original Bill of Rights ratified in 1791 declared basic rights such as our freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and a free press. Times changed since we shook off the British yoke, and by 1944 President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized certain limitations of the original document. In his State of the Union Address that year, Roosevelt proposed a “Second Bill of Rights.” He felt the political rights in the Constitution and the original Bill of Rights had “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness." His proposal covered employment with a living wage, farmers’ rights to a fair income, freedom from unfair competition and monopolies, social security, and education. His vision changed people's thinking and paved the way for many reforms.
Shown here is a photograph of Green Bay with nutrient and sediment loading after a spring runoff event.
50 years have now passed since Roosevelt’s revision. Pollution has rendered drinking water unsafe in areas of the U.S. Algal blooms have reportedly killed pets, sickened humans, and rendered drinking water unsafe as seen in Toledo, Ohio this summer. Hypoxic zones threaten areas of the Great Lakes from Green Bay to Lake Erie, and from the Chesapeake Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. Water scarcity plagues California and millions of people living in other arid states. Our current Bill of Rights, created to protect us in so many aspects of our lives, did not consider one of the most basic human needs—the right to access to clean drinking water.
Proper sanitation in the U.S. is not a given: wastewater infrastructure regularly receives a “D+” grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The time has come to once again revisit our fundamental Bill of Rights. Safe drinking water and proper sanitation must become a right for everyone in this country. To advance our society, the foundation of clean water must be stable and secure. Just as the United Nations has done, a “Third Bill of Rights” should declare safe drinking water and proper sanitation as basic human rights. Let’s do this now before the well truly runs dry or is rendered undrinkable.