Bill Lokyo never expected to find
himself embroiled in a six-year battle over water with a multinational corporation and city officials in Stockton, Calif.
“We all thought this would
only be a one-year fight,” Lokyo says.
But Lokyo and the group Concerned
Citizens Coalition of Stockton (CCOS) felt compelled to challenge a rushed deal that turned the city’s publicly owned
water system into a for-profit venture. This month, their perseverance paid off when the city finally sent privatization packing.
“We believed that we were right,”
Lokyo says. “And when you believe that, you just can’t stop.”
In 2003, against the wishes of many
Stockton residents, the city signed a 20-year contract with the company OMI-Thames to manage its wastewater, water and stormwater
system. The CCOS, joined by the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters of San Joaquin County, filed a lawsuit under the
California Environmental Quality Act to halt the project until it allowed for public participation. Judges twice ruled in
favor of the groups, and on July 17, city officials voted to rescind their appeal and dissolve what Food and Water Watch,
a group that challenges corporate control of water resources, has called the “most notorious water privatization deal
in the United States.”
As Loyko and fellow members of CCOS
celebrate, water watchdogs mark another tally for citizens fighting to keep or regain local control of their water.
“It’s both symbolic for
the anti-water privatization movement, and it’s a real victory for the citizens’ groups of Stockton—it means
that the ordeal of water privatization is over for the city of 270,000 people,” says Wenonah Hauter, executive director
of Food and Water Watch.
More than 80 percent of Americans
fill their glasses with water owned and managed by public utilities—a market for growth that has CEOs rubbing their
hands. Across the United States, multinational corporations are swooping into towns and cities with promises of a more efficient
and economical water system if they would just turn over their taps.
But for many municipalities, it is
a raw deal. Privatization often results in exorbitant water rates, poor service, little accountability, a disregard for public
safety and destruction of the environment. City officials in Atlanta, for instance, cancelled their contract with Suez four
years into privatizing their water system after residents experienced routine boil orders, water shortages and rate hikes.
“People get at a very basic
level that they don’t want a really important public service like water to be privatized,” Hauter says. “They
don’t want the customer call center to be 1,000 miles away. They don’t want their water rates going up. Privatizations
are succeeded with environmental disasters, as [companies] try to cut corners and they don’t fix the leakages.”
Two hours from Stockton, residents
in Felton, Calif., have been trying to pry their pipes out of a corporation’s grip since 2002. Cal-Am, owned by the
multinational giant RWE, raised water rates by 44 percent and is pushing for another
increase that would raise rates by a total of over 100 percent.
The citizens’ group Felton
Friends of Locally Owned Water (FLOW) is spearheading a campaign to buy back the water system in the belief that a “locally-owned,
locally-managed water system could offer much lower rates, better service and protection of our natural resources.”
Cal-Am has refused to sell, and the group is now trying to use eminent domain to take over the system.
Jim Graham, a member of Felton FLOW,
says he was “ecstatic” to learn that neighbors in Stockton succeeded in ousting OMI.
“Their hard work and perseverance
over the years has been an inspiration to us and we’re glad to see it paid off for them,” Graham wrote in an email.
“We’re confident that we’ll prevail, too, and will be inviting Stockton folks over for a big town celebration
when it happens.”
California isn’t the only state
where citizens are fighting a tug-of-water with corporations and the city officials who approve the deals. Residents in Lexington,
Ky., have been organizing to regain control of their water from RWE, and the federal government and the Indiana Department
of Environmental Management are investigating the company Veolia Water for allegedly falsifying water quality records.**
But public control of water isn’t
problem-free. Public utilities are struggling financially to maintain and modernize water systems, and water infrastructure
is deteriorating across the nation. A 2005 report card issued by the American Society for Engineers gave the United States
a “D-” for drinking water infrastructure, warning, “America faces a shortfall of $11 billion annually to
replace aging facilities and comply with safe drinking water regulations.” An estimate by the coalition Water Infrastructure
Network (WIN) puts the funding shortfall at $23 billion per year.*
Ken Kirk, executive director of the
National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which represents more than 300 public utilities, says the lack of funding puts
the health of water at risk. “The consequences of not addressing the [funding] gap are serious and maybe even non-reversible,”
But while billions are needed to
restore and protect America’s drinking water, the Bush Administration has repeatedly cut federal funding to address
the problem. Bush’s 2008 budget actually provides incentives for the privatization
of water utilities, rather than increase funding to the public sector.
With little help from the government,
some flailing municipalities are looking to public-private partnerships to keep them from drowning.
“Some [municipalities] say,
‘Gee, maybe we should privatize and turn our facilities over to the private sector. Maybe they’ll do a better
job and we wouldn’t have to worry about it,’” Kirk says. “That isn’t going to work, and hasn’t
worked in most cases.”
Hauter, of Food and Water Watch,
says private utilities use the public’s crumbling infrastructure “to get a foot in the door.” But deteriorating
utilities, says a report from Food and Water Watch, “should not be used as a pretext to shift control of water resources
and infrastructure from the public to private sector.”
Instead, both Kirk and Hauter, along
with the WIN coalition, are pushing for a federal trust fund dedicated to supporting clean and safe public water. The government
already has similar trust funds that sustain that nation’s highways and airways.
“If trust funds are good for
highways and airports, than why not water?” Kirk says.
But as lawmakers consider legislation
to adequately fund water infrastructure, private corporations are buying up public utilities. People need to be “engaged”
and “watchdogging” at the community level to protect their water from corporate takeovers, says Hauter.
Above all, Lokyo says, the “minute”
your community hears murmurs of privatization, “you have to start getting organized, and figure out if it’s in
your city’s best interest. If it’s not in your city’s best interest, than you fight it. And you just keep
fighting and fighting until you win.”
**CORRECTION: The original version of
this story mistakenly reported that it was the city of Indianapolis that was investigating Veolia Water for mismanaging its
water supply. We regret the error.
Megan Tady is a National Political Reporter for InTheseTimes.com. Previously, she worked as a reporter for the
NewStandard, where she published nearly 100 articles in one year. Megan has also written for Clamor, CommonDreams,
E Magazine, Maisonneuve, PopandPolitics, and Reuters.
* The problems lies in the alliance formed by business and politicans. Most
elected officials are sympathetic to the neocon (Milton Freedom), big business agenda.
They thus let the infrastructure fall apart, thus creating a situation which makes privitization solution appear attractive. Moreover, the figures given and the coverage of such privitization proposals are slanted--jk.