Separated by over 500 miles, Detroit and Baltimore share a few common qualities. Both once thriving steel towns, the cities now face major economic problems. While a recent Pew poll ranked Detroit worse than Baltimore across several important indicators such as unemployment, median household income, poverty and those without health insurance, both of these cities with large African American populations are hurting. This is particularly evidenced by one indicator not featured in Pew’s poll that nonetheless speaks volumes about the overall health of each city—residents of both cannot afford to pay their water bills.
Last summer, thousands of Detroit residents who were behind on their water bills lost access to water service, and in March, Baltimore announced it would disconnect water service for 25,000 customers. If you’ve followed this issue in the mainstream media as we have, you’ll know that many publications are reporting “delinquent payments” as the cause of this crisis. But what they’re actually both experiencing is water affordabilityproblems.
Many of us take for granted the fact that when we turn on the tap, water flows out of it. But many low-income people in the United States can no longer count on that. Instead, they must choose between spending their limited financial resources on transportation to low wage jobs, or heating their homes; between buying medicine and keeping their water on. It’s a perpetual losing battle and in many cases, water falls by the wayside.
In Detroit, nearly 40 percent of residents and more than half the city’s children live in poverty. The city’s unemployment rate as of February 2015 is 12.5 percent—more than twice the national rate. Over the last decade, water and sewer bills there have more than doubled. Nearlya quarter of all Baltimoreans live in poverty and one-third of Baltimore households earn less than $25,000 a year. Yet the typical household paid about $800 dollars a year on water and sewer services, as water rates have tripled over the past 15 years and continue to increase. The economic conditions in these cities simply prohibit many from being able to afford water service.
The United Nations Development Programme set a threshold for affordable water and sanitation at three percent of household income. Water rates in each city exceed that by considerable margins.
What’s particularly tragic and frustrating about the water shutoffs in Detroit is that they could have been avoided. In 2006, the Detroit City Council approved a Water Affordability Plan, supported by the Michigan Welfare Right Organization and the People’s Water Board. The DWSD chose to implement its own plan instead, directed towards households at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The plan’s major flaw is that it’s only applicable after a customer is facing or experiencing a water shutoff. Similarly, the 10/30/50 water plan developed last year by Mayor Mike Dugan and the DWSD also requires households to already be behind on their bills to qualify.
In Baltimore, one-third of residents cannot afford their water rates based on this UN metric. Baltimore’s existing low-income assistance program is also inadequate. The city currently offers a grant of $161 to certain low-income residents who are behind on their bills. But the typical annual household water bill after accounting for the grant is $643—still unaffordable to many, particularly the one in five households that earn less than $15,000 a year.
Why wait that long? Why wait until the house is burning down to make sure it’s supplied with figure extinguishers? Why not make water more affordable so that nobody is ever forced to choose between going hungry or enjoying unfettered access to safe, clean, affordable water? Water is not a privilege, after all. It’s a human right, as recognized by the United Nations.
It is clear that instead of shutting off water service to low income people, both cities need more effective assistance programs. The Water Affordability Plan proposed by Detroit community advocates is preventative, allowing water customers to avoid have their water service shutoff. The plan is based on income, and qualification is determined by the ratio of a household’s utility bill to its income. What’s key here is that a customer doesn’t have to already be in default to qualify.
The larger issue however, is that local water bills are increasing because federal funding to community water systems has declined dramatically. The federal share of capital investment in water systems peaked in 1977 at 63 percent, but fell to a record low of 7 percent in 2006 under the Bush administration. After a slight boost in 2010 to 12 percent from the Obama administration’s economic stimulus plan, it fell to 9 percent last year. Water service is too important to be left to the whims of politics, which is why we need a steady, dedicated source of federal funding in the form of a water trust fund. The experience of those in Baltimore and Detroit who are without water illustrates this very point.
Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times published Water Defense’s results of testing it has conducted on recycled oil field wastewater used to irrigate crops in California. Over a two-year time period Water Defense’s Chief Scientist, Scott Smith, collected samples from treated water sold to the Cawelo Water District. The results? The water contained powerful industrial solvents toxic to humans—higher than he’d seen previously at oil spill sites. Industry officials and the water district told the Times they think the water is safe for crops, citing that they are complying with testing requirements.
In a video released today, Scott takes us to the meeting point of the freshwater and the recycled water for irrigation. Scott told us the tar balls and oil slicked water he saw were just like what he witnessed from the Gulf oil spill. We talked to him about how this practice has been monitored, and what this news means for advocates for our food and water.
Darcey Rakestraw: You’re obviously passionate about exposing water contamination from the oil industry. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved in this work?
Scott Smith: The world is running out of clean water and we must educate millions of people quickly if we are to protect our water resources for future generations. I am passionate about diagnosing water contamination problems and solving them with environmentally responsible solutions. The real problem in California and many other states stems from elected officials and regulators not serving the best interests of the people they represent, allowing the oil industry to pollute while refusing to adequately test the water or enforce proper testing.
My life and business were wiped out in oil contaminated flood waters in 2006. When I realized that there was no effective technology to remove oil from water, I became obsessed with developing a technology that could. I developed one based on biomimicry, which was adopted in the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster in 2010. My invention helped preserve and protect the sensitive wetlands of the Gulf Coast.
While working side by side with fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico, I witnessed people getting very ill from the oil contaminated water and yet the water was being declared free of oil using testing methods that were incomplete and gamed. Believe it or not, it was the elected officials and regulators that were gaming the test results.
When I discovered this, I felt obligated to educate the rest of the world in order to drive changes in water testing. I made it my life’s mission and developed new testing methodologies that could not be easily gamed and could detect the full gamut of chemicals in the water, from oil and related chemicals to endocrine disrupting metals and metalloids. You can’t solve any problem until you identify the problem.
DR: How did you join up with Water Defense?
SS: In 2013 during the ExxonMobil Pegasus pipeline oil spill in Mayflower, Arkansas, I was testing and identifying oil and chemicals downstream while the regulators and elected officials were declaring the water safe and clear of contamination. I ended up on a few YouTube channels and in the news. It was at this time, John Pratt and Mark Ruffalo of Water Defense found me, reached out to me on Twitter, and set up a meeting with me later in the year. Shortly after that they asked me to join them at Water Defense. We have done a lot of work since then on putting together a system that will empower people and communities to know how their water is being harmed by polluters. Mark told me this was where the environmental movement was weak. They did not have good, easy to deploy, independent and relatively inexpensive water testing. Most polluted communities had to rely on state agencies or the polluters to get test results. We saw in Dimock, Pennsylvania how the state agencies were withholding test results to keep from embarrassing themselves. They did not want to take responsibility for the contamination that was happening on their watch.
In all my travels I have come to see that this is the norm. We came to realize that we must let data lead the debate and that we were not getting great public water data. This is a game changer. Water does not lie. We can’t solve the problem without knowing what the problem is. Now we are armed with credible data. We can give that data openly to the public. Now they can debate with real science that is free from political contamination. They can literally take control of their own water quality. That changes everything. We have to put polluters on notice. We are watching you. We are there. The jig is up. They cannot be expected to regulate themselves and the entire way we monitor water on the state level could use real updating.
DR: How did you decide to focus on this issue (testing recycled wastewater used on California crops), and how did you commence collecting and testing the samples cited in the Times article?
SS: Initially, a few people concerned about the issue contacted me. They wanted to know if the recycled oil wastewater sold to farmers and used in the irrigation of crops (i.e. almonds, tangerines, grapes, etc.) being promoted by the fossil fuel industry and state officials was free of chemicals of concern. I always viewed California as a leader in protecting the environment and quite frankly could not even believe what people were telling me. I thought that in no way could it even be possible that oil wastewater could be used to irrigate the food we eat everyday throughout the country. Since the Gulf oil spill in 2010, I have been to over 50 disasters where I have conducted water testing. So, I agreed to go to Kern County, California to investigate. Needless to say, I was absolutely shocked when I found myself surrounded by food crops with the smell of oil coming off the irrigation water. It was worse than what I smelled during the BP Gulf oil spill. When the test results came back we found dangerous and toxic chemicals in the irrigation canal system. This water was presumably already treated. The levels of these toxic chemicals exceeded what I have tested in official oil spill disasters. But this was not even an official oil disaster in Kern County. This was irrigation water to which workers and the community were exposed. If this were any other industry or a company not involved in oil production, regulators would have stepped in and fined the responsible party and/or shut them down. It’s incredible.
DR: Were you alarmed by the findings, or did you expect the wastewater to show these levels of contamination?
SS: I found it incomprehensible that not only does the State of California allow this to go on, but that municipalities within the State actually brag about the practice of using oil wastewater for irrigation with incomplete and inadequate water testing.
DR:In a video on the Water Defense website, you talk about how companies and local officials typically take “instantaneous” water samples from the surface to test for contamination, but your testing involves testing the entire water column over time. Can you expand on why this approach is better?
SS: The instantaneous water testing is equivalent to a split second picture or a still camera. Water Defense cumulative water testing, on the other hand, is essentially a video security camera that monitors what exactly is flowing through the water over time. It is not an issue of Water Defense testing being better per se, but more complete in that if the chemicals are in the water, cumulative water testing will find them. While the instantaneous testing is helpful, and has its place in the toolbox of water testing, you can easily get a non-detect for that split second in the water when there are actually dangerous chemicals present. Instantaneous testing is subject to variability versus cumulative testing, and this can lead to false non-detects for instantaneous testing. Lastly, if testing isn’t ongoing and independent, it is impossible to know what is in the water. The good thing about our testing is that it’s very easy to deploy and very difficult to foul. We also happen to be independent. We are just trying to get the truth out to people and let them decide for themselves. People deserve to be told the truth. We believe water doesn’t lie. When testing is given priority then we can solve the problems.
DR:What did you think about the response of water officials quoted in the article? They seemed to downplay the findings.
SS: I really feel for the water officials as they are in a tough spot. They are confused and scared. I look forward to working with them in a cooperative and transparent way to preserve and protect the precious and declining water in California. There is no reason to be confused or scared because we can all work together to monitor the contamination and stop it. This doesn’t have to be this way. But someone has to be responsible here. Someone has got to oversee what is happening here. There seems to be a huge lack of oversight. It may cost more money on the front end, but when people start getting sick it’s only going to cost that much more. We don’t want to wait for the worst-case scenario, when all it takes is a little bit of common sense to know that if you aren’t careful you will be harming people.
DR:What other projects are on the horizon for you and Water Defense that you’d like to tell us about?
SS: I have never been more optimistic and excited about the future because it is our plan to make Water Defense open-source cumulative water testing a common thing. This is not rocket science. The Water Defense testers can be deployed by anyone. They are pretty much fool proof. We want to empower millions of people to be citizen scientists and monitor all the waterways in the country. In a few months, we plan to formally launch the “We Are There” campaign. It will be focused on taking action in the field with citizen scientists to deploy Water Defense open-source cumulative water testing to find water contamination. We want to bring people together to remove and stop the contamination. I have also recently consulted with the EPA on the proposed changes to oil and chemical spill regulations. This would include adoption of open-source cumulative water testing along side the grab sampling being used today.
The good news is each person that reads this can take part in changing the laws to better preserve and protect our water. By writing to his or her elected officials and demanding they contact the EPA to support these changes, people will be doing a lot to keep this type of thing from continuing to happen.
As the start of summer draws ever closer, Americans and international tourists will begin to flock to U.S. National Parks, Forests, and other public lands for summer vacations, recreation and appreciation of our natural heritage. But there is something threatening the future of these lands and the communities that surround our national parks. Fracking.
President Obama’s Bureau of Land Management finalized thin, new rules for regulating fracking on public lands back in March. When these rules were proposed in 2013, more than 650,000 public comments were delivered demanding an outright ban on the practice instead. By the end of 2014, oil and gas companies had leases on over 34 million acres of U.S. public land. Over 200 million more acres – about a third of all federal land – can be targeted with drilling and fracking.
Here are a few more key statistics taken from Food & Water Watch’s new fact sheet that was released today:
About 20 percent of U.S. oil and gas reserves and resources are beneath federal public lands;
In 2014, companies drilled 2,544 new onshore oil and gas wells on federal land;
Almost 90 percent of wells on federal lands are fracked, and regulators are inspecting less than half of the wells they identify as having high-risk of environmental impacts;
More than 2 billion gallons of water — about 3,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth — is mixed with chemicals and injected beneath public lands each year;
Likely about 100,000 gallons — or over 18 truckloads full, assuming 130-barrel tanks — of liquid wastes spilled onto public lands each year;
Production of oil, natural gas and natural gas liquids (e.g., propane, butane, etc.) in 2013 from federal public lands led to more than 292 million tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions, or about what 61 million cars emit in a year; and
Counties with larger amounts of federal lands protected from oil and gas extraction had significantly higher per capita incomes, with about $1,000 extra in each person’s pocket for every 25,000 acres protected.
The figures on public lands and fracking are alarming, but there is hope to protect these cherished places and to stop the climate pollution from such extraction from happening. On Earth Day, U.S. Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), members of the Safe Climate Caucus, introduced the Protect Our Public Lands Act, H.R. 1902. The legislation is the strongest anti-fracking bill introduced in Congress to date and would ban fracking on federal public lands.
Colorado is a headwaters state: the Colorado, Platte, Rio Grande and Arkansas Rivers all start here and wiggle and weave their sparkling ways through the Rocky Mountain State before reaching their far-flung mouths at far lower elevations. John Fielder was just a teenager when he visited Colorado on a school science trip in the 1960s, but he knew it would one day be his home. He could not have known that as a renowned nature photographer, Colorado’s expansive public lands would become his muse – one he would be compelled to protect from threats like fracking. I recently spoke to Fielder about his art, his love of Colorado and what moved him to join Food & Water Watch’s “Don’t Frack Denver” campaign to keep fracking out of the Mile High City and the public lands that form its watershed.
Sandra Lupien: How did your strong connection to nature develop? John Fielder: I had an inspiring middle school science teacher who, each summer, would pack seven kids in a station wagon and take us on trips across the United States. We visited public lands like national parks, and learned hands-on about geology and biology. That experience planted the seeds for an appreciation of science and nature. In college, I had a chance to explore Colorado working for my uncle in the geology department of his industrial company.
SL: How did you find your way to photography? JF: In high school I was inspired by an art teacher who helped me be creative with paintbrushes. Then, in 1973, I first saw the work of Eliot Porter, a contemporary of Ansel Adams, but he shot in color. Like Adams, Porter was both an artist and an advocate for the preservation of the landscapes he captured so sublimely. The very next day I rented a 35mm camera and started taking pictures with Kodachrome.
SL: Did you study art or science in college? JF: I studied accounting! And after college I had a well-paying career in department store management in Colorado, but I quit after eight years to pursue a career as a nature photographer.
SL: What’s your favorite spot in Colorado? JF: I’m a nature egalitarian. It’s all good, especially in the right light. But, at heart, I’m a mountain guy. Colorado has 28 mountain ranges, and as far as I’m concerned this is the most beautiful place on Earth. Right now, I’m sitting in my second floor home office in Summit County looking at the Gore Range. I see, at 13,560 feet, the peak of Mount Powell climbed first by John Wesley Powell in 1869. It’s got to be my favorite place in Colorado – the Eagles Nest Wilderness.
SL: What has changed about the Colorado landscape since you started shooting it? JF: Let’s go from high to low. Up high – between 10,000 and 14,000 feet elevation – not a lot has changed. The hard rock mining industry effectively went out of business in 1893 when the price of silver crashed, and many of these places are now protected American wilderness. But lower, from 10,000 feet down to 3,300 feet [the lowest elevation in Colorado] there’s been a lot of impact from oil and gas, and human development. When I moved here in 1972, Colorado had 2.3 million residents; now there are 5.4 million. In addition to the homes, we see oil and gas infrastructure in those very backyards, as well as on America’s public lands.
SL: Why are you concerned about fracking in and around Denver? JF: Most of the exploration is north of Denver in Weld County, but it’s all along the Front Range, and Denver’s in the middle of it. To me, the single greatest travesty of oil and gas exploration is having a well in your backyard. One’s sense of sight, smell and hearing is violated when you drive up and down the Front Range. To the north of me in Summit County, one of the West’s most beautiful mountain basins known as North Park has oil and gas infrastructure. I spent a week in that area photographing cattle ranches; all night I listened to the sound of a new well being drilled. Closer to Denver is South Park – the South Platte River Basin – comprising 280,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, which is being considered by BLM for oil and gas exploration. That watershed provides drinking water for Denver and its suburbs.
SL: What’s your big picture view of oil and gas extraction in Colorado? JF: I don’t want the “extractive” to destroy the “attractive,” and by that I mean Colorado and most Western America states are beautiful, biologically diverse places. Oil and gas exploration and fracking do nothing but damage everything that we sense: sublime mountain views, the sound of gurgling creeks, the smell of clean air and the taste of clean water and the touch of powdery aspen tree bark. The problem is that two of our four public land management agencies, BLM and Forest Service, have a legal mandate to manage those lands for multiple uses. That means they are obligated by law to both protect the land, and to allow – if not promote – the leasing of public lands for mineral exploration. The latter is antithetical to the grand “picture,” which is that people are healthier, happier and more economically prosperous in societies that protect nature, not destroy it.
SL: What’s your bottom line? JF: My degree is in accounting and my background is in merchandising, and I’m an environmentalist! I believe that ecology and economy – with the same Greek root, “eco,” meaning “house” – are symbiotic. History shows that societies that protect their forests and their water sources last longer than those that destroy nature and biodiversity. My belief that the oil and gas industry has no place in Colorado is based as much on economic science as it is on ecological science. Oil and gas industry jobs are short-term jobs, lasting only as long as the oil remains. The death of hard rock mining in the West economically stranded millions of people for decades. Tourism and recreation saved the day, and those jobs can last as long as we preserve nature. I would like to think that people appreciate the morality of protecting four billion years of the evolution of life on Earth, but some don’t. I hope for everyone’s sake they will consider just the economics and realize that states like Colorado are far better off basing their economies on the “attractive” than the “extractive.”
It feels like spring only just arrived, but as of tomorrow we’re less than a month away from the official start of summer: Memorial Day. National parks and forests across the country will welcome millions of hikers, campers, photographers “picnic-ers,” and others this summer: people looking to leave home for a while and enjoy America’s natural beauty.
But oil and gas corporations want to visit the United States’ public lands for a very different reason: to profit off their oil and gas reserves via fracking.
Send an email to your members of Congress to support and co-sponsor the bill to ban fracking on public lands.
Did you know that about 20 percent of U.S. oil and gas reserves and resources are beneath federal public lands? Some of these public lands are next to our most beautiful national parks, including Glacier National Park in Montana, or national forests like George Washington and Jefferson National Forests in Virginia and Shawnee National Forest in Illinois, to name a few.
But it can be hard to visualize the scope of the danger that fracking poses to our public lands. That’s why Food & Water Watch created a map to help illustrate the vast span of public lands across America, and illuminate where Big Oil and Gas corporations aim to drill and frack through it. Explore the map.
Explore the map and see where fracking can harm public lands.
The yellow areas are U.S. federal lands. The red areas in the map are where — given inconsistent data — there are oil and gas deposits. Lands in red are where there’s already been a wave of drilling and fracking for oil and gas, or where companies envision fracking before long. The overlapping orange areas are public lands that are either being fracked now, or could be soon. Check out the blue pins to learn about specific public lands and how they’re at risk from fracking.
Fracking on public lands such as these is dangerous on many levels: it introduces toxic chemicals to water; it disrupts the habitats of millions of animals, including endangered species; it poses serious risks to human health, such as breast cancer; and it spurs on climate change. The production of oil and natural gas in 2013 from federal public lands led to more than 292 million tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions, or about what 61 million cars emit in a year.
No amount of regulation will protect our public lands, health, drinking water and climate from the impacts of fracking. About 90 percent of federally managed lands are available for oil and gas leasing, while only 10 percent are reserved for conservation, recreation, wildlife and cultural heritage.
We can all agree that individual water conservation – efficient toilets and washing machines, shorter showers and smarter landscaping – should be expanded and embedded in our culture. But restrictions on households are not enough to dig us out of our water woes. Given that residential and municipal uses account for less than fifteen percent of California’s annual water use, we must ask: who is guzzling California’s water and what should Governor Brown do to rein in these users?
Below we identify some of California’s most egregious water abusers and offer some commonsense steps for Governor Brown’s consideration.
The Almond On the desert-like west side of the San Joaquin Valley, almond orchards stretch as far as the eye can see. But this nut empire is a relative newcomer to the neighborhood: in the past five years, skyrocketing global demand for the cash crop has enabled it to double in size and become the second-biggest water consuming crop in California. The arid climate and selenium-laced soils in this region make it a kind of madness to grow this thirsty crop here, where it takes more than double the water to grow almonds than in Northern California. Agribusiness giants like Beverly Hills-based billionaire Stewart Resnick are raking in profits from these crops, about seventy percent of which are exported overseas. The Westlands Water District, where many of these orchards are based, has pumped more than one-million acre feet of groundwater in the past two years – more water than Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco combined use in a whole year – to produce these nuts, threatening the region’s water supply, and causing the ground to sink as much as a foot per year in some places. What’s more, most of this crop is exported abroad—meaning, effectively, the water is exported along with it.
Factory Farms Industrialized animal agriculture is notoriously water-intensive. For example, Food & Water Watch estimates that it takes 150 million gallons of water a day to maintain the dairy cows on California’s mega-dairies. That calculation does not include the large quantities of water needed to raise the feed for dairy cows in California or to move manure into storage systems; it is just the water given to cows to drink and used to wash cows and buildings. A lack of available numbers tallying the meat industry’s water use in California presents a problem as the State seeks to tackle the drought crisis.
Alfalfa Of all crops grown in California, alfalfa uses the single largest share of agricultural water, so it clearly deserves attention. Like almonds, alfalfa is exported overseas, but is also used to feed dairy cows in California. Alfalfa is grown in some of the state’s hottest and driest areas, including the Imperial Valley, and is exported to feed livestock. Interestingly, though, acreage devoted to growing alfalfa in California is expected to shrink 11 percent this year, according to Tom Philpott and Julia Lurie in this recent Mother Jones piece, as the agricultural industry increases production of cash crops like almonds and other “pricey nuts.”
California is home to over 100 bottled water facilities that every year bottle millions of gallons of water for private profit. In Sacramento it is estimated that each year, the notorious multinational water hog, Nestlé, pumps around fifty million gallons of local groundwater to be bottled and sold for 1,000 times the cost of tap water. Nestlé pays just shy of $1.00 per 748 gallons of water it taps from Sacramento’s municipal water supply, then resells it for thousands of times more in environmentally damaging plastic bottles. While Food & Water Watch has always opposed bottled water, during a historic drought the moral imperative for ending this practice is crystal clear.
As he calls on California’s 38 million residents to conserve, Governor Brown must also take bold action to rein in uses by these corporate water abusers. The Governor oversees the State Water Board, which is empowered under the California constitution to manage water for the public good. To serve that imperative, Governor Brown should quickly take the following first steps:
Align California agricultural production with the realities of the State’s water supply. The State routinely promises water users, including industrial agricultural users, five times more surface water than it can provide. The State must reduce demands to meet the reality of California’s water supply.
Manage groundwater as a public resource to prevent depletion. The State, albeit poorly, manages surface water for the public good, but groundwater – the State’s water savings account for future generations – is largely managed privately. The State should start with immediate, sensible restrictions on groundwater pumping. In the long-term, the State should retire from production the toxic, arid lands on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley that we do not have the water to support and compensate producers fairly for their losses.
Place an immediate moratorium on fracking and the bottling of California’s water for private profit.
It’s Californians’ job to exercise their democratic rights, starting with signing this petition urging the Governor to take these bold actions. While some have suggested that people boycott almonds or make other changes in their diet, the realities of the global food system are such that corporate agribusiness will continue to abuse our water and simply export the crops we wouldn’t be buying. In other words, we can’t shop our way out of the crisis.
It’s time for Jerry Brown to exercise courageous leadership that fixes the long-time mismanagement and corporate abuse of water that threatens the future of California’s economy and agriculture. There are no easy shortcuts: the governor must govern.
Wenonah Hauter is the Executive Director of Food & Water Watch, and Adam Scow is the organization’s California Director.
Read one of our latest reports on water privatization.
The National Association of Water Companies (NAWC) has launched a new campaign, truthfromthetap.com, to undermine advocates who want municipal water systems operated and owned by local, democratically elected councils—not by big companies accountable to shareholders.
For many communities, frequent and massive rate increases are the most pronounced consequence of privatization. On average, private sector companies charge higher water and sewer rates than local government utilities. For example, a 2010 survey of the largest water utilities in the Great Lakes region found that privately owned systems charged more than twice as much as municipal systems. The researchers attributed this difference to private companies’ taxes, profits, higher overall service costs, and ratemaking practices.
You don’t have to look far to find examples of failed privatization efforts:
Within a year of Veolia taking over the water system in Indianapolis, thousands of residents experienced billing problems and consumer complaints more than doubled. In 2005, because the company lacked proper safeguards, an error caused a boil-water alert for more than a million people, closing local businesses and canceling school for 40,000 students.
The privatized system in Gladewater, Texas violated federal water quality standards 16 times, and residents described the water as “dark brown” and “foul.” The company failed to perform work required by its contract, and its water plant operators were lacking the necessary certification.
In Gary, Indiana, after United Water downsized the workforce, residents experienced numerous service problems. In May 2008, a state inspection found that the district, under United Water’s management, violated discharge limits 84 times from 2005 to 2007.
The New Jersey State Comptroller’s Office issued a scathing audit of United Water’s Camden, NJ It found that inadequate contract supervision and the company’s poor performance cost the city millions of dollars.
It’s no wonder that communities get wary when they hear their local water system may be considering some form of privatization. To combat this resistance, the water industry’s latest PR campaign asks, “Why are activists meddling with your water?” The strategy appears to be to confuse people by equating the relatively meager resources backing public interest groups to the massive resources of industry.
Financial support from our more than 70,000 members keeps us independent of corporate and government influence—enabling us to take uncompromising positions and win strategic fights that threaten industry interests.
The growing numbers of industry-backed attacks on Food & Water Watch actually underscore our effectiveness, and are a good example of why some donors do not want their names publicized. It is their right to remain anonymous, and we guard our members’ privacy in order to protect them from harassment. GuideStar, a top source of information about nonprofit transparency and best practices, recently gave us their GuideStar Exchange Seal, demonstrating Food & Water Watch’s commitment to transparency.
Some companies, such as Amazon, Coca-Cola and more recently, Google, have backed out of ALEC because of its reactionary agenda. But in 2012 NAWC publicly defended its membership in ALEC, and, as journalist Sarah Pavlus noted, it’s not the industry’s only dubious association: American Water’s Pennsylvania subsidiary and Aqua America have partnered with the oil and gas industry on a lobbying effort to expand fracking (water companies sell the industry water used in fracking operations, and also recognize that the treatment of wastewater from fracking is a lucrative business opportunity.)
Instead of promoting private involvement in municipal water systems in the form of public private partnerships, the federal government should adequately fund water infrastructure projects. It’s understandable that communities consider private investment to improve crumbling systems: much of our country’s water infrastructure is nearly a century old, and many community leaders look to lease their water systems out to address budgetary shortfalls.
However, instances of water privatization are still pretty rare in the U.S. As of 2012, only six percent of local governments contract their drinking or wastewater services to private, for-profit entities. Since 2000, major water companies have lost 169 contracts in the United States.
That’s because communities have learned the hard way that they can do better. Part of democracy is asking local and federal leaders to stand up for what’s right when it comes to the things we can’t live without. We cannot live without water.
The real truth from the tap
These brazen water industry attacks underscore that advocates and communities are being effective in their work every day to protect our essential resources. They also present an opportunity to talk about how big companies attempt to sway the debate around important issues like how our water should be managed.
With thousands of households in Detroit and Baltimore facing water service shutoffs, and a drought looming over California, it might not seem like there’s much good news in the world of water these days. But the recent publication of Our Public Water Future: The Global Experience of Remunicipalisation highlights the advances made in communities around the globe to take back water as a public good, and reminds us that that we can and should enjoy unfettered access to safe, clean, affordable water, as long as it’s managed as a common resource, not a commodity exploited by corporations.
What is remunicipalization, exactly? It’s when a community resumes public operation and management of its water system, often after private operation has failed customers in some way. We’ve documented at length the problems experienced by customers of privatized water systems—higher rates, poor service and lack of accountability being some of the most egregious examples. It’s no wonder then that many communities opt to reclaim control of their drinking and wastewater systems. Read the full article…
This week while promoting his new music service, Tidal, Jay Z made a well intended but nonetheless tone deaf statement, gushing about the beauty of supposedly “free” water service. While tap water may seem free to a rap mogul, those in Detroit who have been living without this essential service because they cannot afford to pay their water bills are singing a very different tune. In a seemingly unrelated development, the New York Times published an editorial that day claiming that water isn’t priced highly enough and thus isn’t properly valued. Both statements were wrong, and reflect some fundamental misconceptions about how our society views and values water. Read the full article…
The water crisis in Detroit is not over. In fact, residential shut-offs are poised to continue this spring. To save lives, and to begin to satisfy the city’s dire water infrastructure needs, Detroit needs to expand the current assistance programs and enact the Water Affordability Plan (WAP) approved by the City Council in 2006. When tens of thousands of people cannot afford utility rates in a region with large income disparities, it is obvious that an income-based approach to water is the only equitable solution.
Let’s back up a bit. A few weeks ago, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) Board of Commissioners voted to increase water and sewer rates for city residents by a combined 12.8 percent, effective July 1 should the City Council seal the deal.
Mayor Mike Duggan and the DWSD developed a 10-point plan offering certain assistance programs in an attempt to help residents pay their water bills. Yet, some 26,000 residential customers still could face water shut-offs this spring, to begin after the department tackles outstanding commercial accounts and the 8,355 households that “illegally” (in other words, desperately) turned their water back on themselves. DWSD will dole out about 800 shut-off notices per day.
Detroiters need affordable water. Water is essential to life and the United Nations has recognized that access to drinking water and sanitation is a basic human right. It’s clear that Mayor Mike Duggan’s current assistance programs are wildly insufficient; they don’t address the systemic problems — like unemployment and cyclic poverty — that are a result of decades of misguided policies, and that inhibit residents from being able to pay their water bills. Put simply they haven’t, and won’t, stop the shut-offs and imminent public health consequences.
Here is why the Water Affordability Plan trumps Detroit’s current assistance programs:
Only a customer whose water is already shut off or faces a pending shut-off qualifies for the Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program. Similarly, only people already behind on their water bills qualify for the 10/30/50 payment plan program and assistance from the Detroit Water Fund. Whereas these programs act like a Band-Aid, the WAP is preventative — qualification isn’t contingent on a customer being in payment default. Rather, qualification is determined based on the ratio of a household’s income and utility bill. Under the WAP, a customer can receive help before reaching default, and avoid shut-offs and massive make-up payments altogether.
The existing water assistance program sets payments on a case-by-case basis. This creates a complicated, time-intensive billing process and requires a unique formula for each household. The 10/30/50 Plan requires at least 10 percent upfront on an outstanding balance and then spreads the rest of the balance over 24 months. It does not actually reduce the amount owed. Assistance from the Detroit Water Fund is strictly limited to: Households enrolled in a payment plan, with balances of $300 to $2,000, without any leaks in their homes, with a new meter installed and with household incomes at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level. The amount of assistance also maxes out at 25 percent of a household’s monthly bill.
However, the WAP uses a “fixed rate approach” which calculates, based on the household’s income, an affordable utility rate. This means less administrative and billing headaches and more incentive for the customer to conserve water. Not to mention the security of this approach: The WAP caps water utility payment at 2.5 percent of monthly income — what the federal government views to be the affordability threshold. This would be a huge relief for Detroit residents, as some families currently spend upwards of 20 percent of their monthly income on water and sewerage.
Under the WAP, a customer would have ample time to apply for and access the program before ever reaching default. In this sense, WAP is more accessible than existing assistance programs. Under the current Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program, qualified residents (those facing shut-offs) have only ten days to either pay the default or to apply for and be approved for a payment plan. This tight timeline, noting the mental and physical stress that comes with not having water, might keep residents from accessing Mayor Duggan’s assistance, exacerbating the crisis.
Households can apply for assistance from the Detroit Water Fund at any time if they meet all the criteria, but they receive help only if funding is available. The program depends on donations, which isn’t sustainable. And what’s worse, a household loses access to the 10/30/50 Plan and the Detroit Water Fund assistance if it falls behind on its monthly payments more than three times. These existing programs clearly do not reflect the economic reality of many Detroiters, who are living hand-to-mouth and whose livelihoods can be compromised by even minor illnesses or car troubles.
It’s past time to embrace an income-based approach to water bills that is accessible and preventative. With the upcoming shut-offs and the proposed rate hikes, it’s obvious that the current assistance programs aren’t working for residents or the city. To keep utility payments, and water, flowing, Detroit needs to swiftly and fully enact the original Water Affordability Plan approved by the City Council in 2006.
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