Water conference makes a splash

By The Beacon | March 31, 2010 9:00pm

By Hannah Gray

In five years, more than half of the states in the U.S. will see a water shortage, according to Maude Barlow, senior adviser to the 63rd General Assembly of the U.N. and the keynote speaker of the Confluence: Water and Justice conference.

With more than 800 people in attendance, Barlow's speech was the focal point of last weekend's conference, which organizers say has received positive feedback.

"(There is) a sense of timeliness of this issue," said Fr. Tom Doyle, C.S.C., the executive vice president. "The University of Portland has taken a step to say that we want to be in front of this issue."

The weekend featured two days of panel discussions on various water issues - environmental, business, social justice and law.

"It was a tremendous success," said mathematics professor Greg Hill, who helped plan the conference. "We have the capacity to be a convener to bring together, in one place, a lot of voice that aren't normally in conversation."

The conference began last Friday afternoon with a river cruise aboard the Portland Spirit that featured a lecture about the Willamette River. The program focused on the river's role as a source of transportation for business and industry.

"I thought it was great," said sophomore Kyle Figura. "It was more of a history of Portland, and they talked a lot about the ports along the Willamette and Columbia."

Saturday's sessions began with Robert Butler, UP environmental science professor, who was joined by Seattle University's Gary Chamberlain, author of "Troubled Waters." The session offered a scientific and theological understanding of water issues in the Pacific Northwest.

"(Butler) was really good at relating what he talked about with the Pacific Northwest," sophomore Mia Hart said. "It was a good basis for leading into the political stuff."

Butler said the conference forced him to learn about the Pacific Northwest's water resources.

"I got intrigued that I was going to be in the session with Gary Chamberlain," Butler said, who bought and read Chamberlain's book. "It's not the kind of book I would have bought if I didn't have that connection with him, (and) it was really interesting."

Following lunch, "Water and Law: Clean Rivers" - with Ralph Bloemers of Crag Law Center and Brent Foster, a special counsel to the Oregon Attorney General, grabbed an audience that filled over half of the Buckley Center Auditorium.

Both Bloemers and Foster discussed specific cases regarding water. Specifically, Bloemers cited cases that upheld the federal Clean Water Act, and Foster said the Oregon Department of Justice is pursuing cases involving water law violations.

"It was a little bit difficult for me because I didn't know the context of what they were saying," said sophomore Megan Drouhard. "It was hard for me to keep up because I'm not familiar with the (legal terms used in the session)."

However, Drouhard, who enjoyed the session, noted that she was glad she attended this specific session because it encouraged her to research more.

At the keynote address in the Chiles Center on Saturday night, Oregon Attorney General John Kroger light-heatedly introduced Barlow as a "Canada's Ralph Nader."

Barlow began her speech by stating there is a myth of abundance regarding water, meaning people deceptively believe there is a infinite amount of drinkable water.

"I really liked it," junior April Vanderkamp said. "I felt like the case studies she shared were really hard to hear of how water affects other people in other places. We don't think about it here."

Barlow explained the various areas of how water affects lives around the world. Barlow, in line with the theme of the conference, talked about the social justice issues surrounded around water.

The social justice issues lay in the distinction between water as a commodity and water as a human right.

"I was very intrigued by the law aspect of the presentation," said freshman Jeff Makjavich.

However, while the case studies and statistics were bleak, Barlow is hopeful that things will turn around.

"She didn't leave me in a sense of despair," Doyle said. "We can, through our actions and decisions, change the course of history."

PowerPoint presentations from the conferencewill be uploaded online for access and participants will be surveyed, according to Doyle.

In addition to the Confluence conference, as well as the ban on the sale of bottled water on campus enacted in February, UP plans to pursue the water rights issue further.

"One thing I can say for sure, we are not going to sit still on this of issue of epic importance to us," Doyle said.