Driving through Barnstead, New Hampshire, north of Concord, it might strike you as a typical, small New England town. But scratching beneath the surface, you find that there’s nothing at all typical about Barnstead or its residents.
In 2006, Barnstead became the very first municipality in the nation to prohibit corporations from privatizing its water. Through an overwhelming Town Meeting vote, the community adopted an ordinance banning corporations from massive water extraction projects.
Water as Profit
Corporations have been targeting New England towns for their water, to bottle and sell for profit. Barnstead understood that it could be slated for extraction. Pumping operations can extract hundreds of thousands of gallons of water a day from local aquifers. Water depletion, dry wells, and harm to local ecosystems all were of concern to residents.
Faced with the potential of their water being privatized, community members were determined to be proactive to safeguard the local water system. Barnstead residents observed what was happening in the nearby Towns of Barrington and Nottingham, where for years community members had fought to keep the USA Springs corporation from taking their water. Nearly $500,000 and countless hours of volunteer labor were spent, yet they found they still could not say “No” to the corporation’s proposal to extract over 300,000 gallons of water a day. Why? What was happening?
Community members in Barnstead learned that the corporate directors of USA Springs, living nowhere near Barrington or Nottingham, had more rights to decide what happened to the water in those communities than the people who lived there. And they would have the same rights to Barnstead water. They learned that our constitution—supposedly written to protect the rights of human beings—was now able to be wielded by private corporations to override local, democratic decision making.
What to Do?
Learning about the work of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, residents came together and decided to assert their right to protect the local water systems and their right to local self-governance by codifying it into law. They asked CELDF to draft an ordinance for Barnstead.
CELDF drafted the ordinance, hand-in-hand with residents of Barnstead. And for a year, residents participated in Democracy Schools, conducted research, and held community meetings to talk about what they were learning about our system of governance and the need for change if they were to protect their water.
Residents proposed the ordinance as a warrant article for the Barnstead Town Meeting.
In March 2006, residents of Barnstead voted 136-1 to adopt the ordinance, called the Barnstead Water Rights and Local Self-Government Ordinance, making it the first community in the country to ban corporations from water extraction. The ordinance also stripped water corporations of their rights when they came into conflict with community rights, and asserted the right of the community and its residents to local self-governance.
Following Barnstead’s lead, now other communities in New Hampshire, as well as Maine and California, are following in the community’s footsteps.
Want to learn more? Interested in what you can do in your community? Contact CELDF’s New England Organizer, Gail Darrell, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (603) 269-8542.
by Doug Pibel, Yes! Magazine
by Gail Darrell, Read the Dirt
December 24th, 2012