Privatizing U.S. drinking water: costly and eco-unfriendly

We turn on the tap, and clean water flows. Most of us take this service for granted because we consider water, necessary for life, a basic right. In fact, this notion stems back to an ancient Roman legal precedent called the public trust doctrine. This fundamental tenet says that crucial natural resources, especially water, belong to everyone.

But 1.1 billion people worldwide do not have access to clean water, according to the United Nations. Waterborne diseases such as cholera and dysentery kill 2.2 million a year. This was true in the United States until government took over our water infrastructure as a public health measure.

However, now many aging U.S. municipal water systems are deteriorating. One-fifth of our drinking water is lost to leaks, while overworked treatment plants release 1.2 trillion gallons of raw sewage into waterways annually, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Stark estimates show that Americans will need to spend up to $1 trillion by 2019 to make necessary upgrades. Unfortunately, federal funding for water systems has plummeted, and some strapped communities have turned their facilities over to private companies, hoping the private sector will make water system improvements government hasn't.

Thirteen percent of U.S. municipal water systems have been privatized already, mostly turned over to European multinational companies with misleading names such as American Water Works and United Water.

Privatization advocates argue that corporations can best provide and update water infrastructure. However, early adopters, including Atlanta; New Orleans; Indianapolis; Jersey City, N.J.; and Lexington, Ky., have seen privatization fail by a number of measures.

Water prices usually rise shortly after privatization -- sometimes dramatically. Privately owned water utilities charge customers significantly higher rates than those publicly owned: up to 50 percent more, according to Food & Water Watch, which compared rates charged by publicly and privately owned utilities in California, Illinois, Wisconsin, and New York.

High water prices can be catastrophic for the poor. In Bolivia in 1999, the government granted a 40-year water privatization contract to a Bechtel subsidiary. Rates increased immediately by as much as 200 percent. Many families were paying one-fifth their income for water, which resulted in rioting, government instability, and Bechtel's withdrawal from the country.

In some parts of the U.S., new industry-backed laws allow utility managers to turn off water due to customer nonpayment. In Pennsylvania in 2005, managers cut off water to thousands of people unable to pay their bills.

The significant environmental costs of privatization are just as troubling. Some companies push expensive, environmentally destructive schemes to increase water supply -- such as desalination plants -- because their profits are tied to how much they spend on infrastructure improvement. High-cost projects generate huge profits for the corporation, while draining public coffers. Tampa Bay Water partnered with private company Veolia Water to build the largest desalination plant in the nation. The facility cost $158 million and will serve just 10 percent of the area's water customers.

The simple, inexpensive solution to meeting U.S. water needs is not privatization but conservation. California, the country's biggest water consumer, could cut its wasteful use of water by 20 percent in the next 25 years, while meeting the needs of a growing population, a healthy agricultural sector, and vibrant economy, according to the Pacific Institute. Stormwater capture is also an important, less expensive strategy. But corporate water managers have little interest in conservation because the more water they sell, the bigger their profits.

One of the best and cheapest ways to assure a clean water supply is to let nature work. In 1989, New York City contemplated a new $6 billion water filtration plant. Instead, the city spent $1.2 billion over 10 years to purchase and restore its watersheds, allowing a 2,000-square-mile forest to clean the water. Other communities, such as Auburn, Maine, have done likewise. Private companies oppose this watershed approach, because it reduces the need for costly treatment methods, thus reducing water prices and profits.

In fact, water privatization can actually reduce water quality. In the United States, the National Association of Water Companies lobbies congress and the EPA to block higher clean water standards, which it views as an unnecessary expense.

For all these reasons, communities are breaking contracts with corporations. The list of the disenchanted includes Laredo and Angleton, Texas; Felton, Stockton, and Santa Paula, Calif.; Buffalo, N.Y.; East Cleveland, Ohio; Bridgeport, Conn.; Rockland and Lynn, Mass.; and Milwaukee, Wis.

A 2005 poll by an independent research company found that 86 percent of Americans support a national, long-term trust fund for water infrastructure. So do I. This solution would allow us to update aging community water systems, while keeping our drinking water securely in public hands.

Americans have a fundamental right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Clean affordable drinking water is essential to life; it too is an inalienable right.

Erica Gies is a freelance reporter whose work has been published by the International Herald Tribune, Wired News, Grist, E/The Environmental Magazine, and The San Francisco Bay Guardian.

(C) Blue Ridge Press 2008