On a global basis, we’ve entered a water crisis, and there are pressing issues on international, national, and state fronts.”
Whiskey is for sipping, and water is for fighting," says a Mainer, aptly quoting Mark Twain in Tapped, a documentary about how the bottled water industry imperils the environment and local economies. Nisha Swinton is on the front lines of that fight. As the Maine organizer for the nonprofit organization Food & Water Watch, Swinton works with residents to protect their groundwater from corporate exploitation. In Maine's case, the corporation seeking to bottle, ship, and sell water from local aquifers is Nestle, the owner of Poland Spring Water. As Swinton says, "Maine has a lot of water—but it's the people, not corporations, who should have control over it. I strongly believe that fresh water is a human right."
Swinton, a longtime activist, majored in international studies with an emphasis in environmental studies and economics at The University of Iowa. Those disciplines got some real-life grounding during a study abroad in Senegal, where fishing communities were struggling to hold on to their lands. Later, while living in New York City, Swinton produced segments on social and environmental justice issues for a community-run radio station. Throughout, she maintained an interest in law but wasn't sure how best to pursue it. "After much consideration I decided a JD program wasn't for me," she notes. "But living in New York, I became increasingly interested in the mix between social justice concerns and environmental degradation. The VLS curriculum was a good fit."
At VLS, she found an atmosphere that welcomed environmental advocacy and professors dedicated to training new advocates. Swinton offers an example: "Professor Grijalva made me love administrative law. He used his wealth of knowledge about Indian law to make what could have been a mundane admin course into an engaging one. I was equally impressed when I took his Indian Law course-he is a wonderful spirit and an inspiring professor."
Swinton's VLS connections are now a vital source of help to her work, as she explains. "I'm working with other activist groups on groundwater legislation for Maine, and I can discuss our next steps in this legislation with VLS professors and students." She hopes the legislation will benefit the entire region. "The New England states can learn much from one another's past work in protecting their groundwater rights," she says.
In addition to legislative work, Swinton gathers scientific and technical research for Food & Water Watch and educates citizens about water issues. "It only takes about five minutes to dispel the myths about bottled water being cleaner and to get the message across about the environmental effects of shipping and plastic bottles," she says. Some issues aren't as clear-cut: "Some tap water is substandard-but we need to improve those municipal water systems, most of which haven't been touched in decades."
One of the benefits of working for Food & Water Watch, she says, is its organizers' ability to move into new areas, geographically or logistically. "On a global basis, we've entered a water crisis," she says, "and there are pressing issues on international, national, and state fronts." In fact, Swinton was inspired to contact Food & Water Watch for a position after attending a lecture by a leader of Bolivia's anti-privatization water wars of a decade ago. "Water's the last of the commons," she says. "It's the next oil."