By Mary Grant
At the end of July, United Water backed out of a water conservation task force in Rockland County, N.Y., in the wake of a scathing report about the company’s practices. This is its latest offense in an ongoing effort to build a boondoggle of a desalination plant, a project that could generate serious profits for the company while hiking water bills for the nearly 300,000 people it serves throughout Rockland County.
United Water, the U.S. water arm of French multinational Suez Environnement, first proposed desalinating Hudson River water in 2007. Soon after, a coalition of residents, elected officials and area groups formed the Rockland Water Coalition to oppose the company’s scheme and promote sustainable water management practices. (Food & Water Watch is a proud member of the Rockland Water Coalition.)
Last November, after years of tenacious organizing, the coalition’s efforts bore fruit when state regulators ordered the company to suspend its desalination plans and work with a county task force to study conservation measures. Earlier in 2014, Rockland County set up the Task Force on Water Resources Management to reduce water use and preserve water supplies in the county.
Around that the time, United Water CEO Bertrand Camus, Suez’s top ranking U.S. executive, promised that the company would be an active member of the task force. Explaining its involvement, a company spokesperson waxed lyrical in the local newspaper, “We are part of the fabric of the community.”
Now, the company has pulled out of the task force and says that it will pursue its own sustainability initiatives and consider the task force’s ideas but only if it can increase rates. Food & Water Watch warned three years ago that United Water can’t be trusted.
One of the company’s excuses was that it does not agree with everything that the task force says. In particular, it took exception to a report produced for the task force by an independent consultant. In response to the state’s November 2014 order, the task force hired Amy Vickers, an award-winning expert on water conservation and efficiency, to analyze United Water’s water system.
Vickers found that the company keeps unreliable records, replaces pipelines too slowly, inadequately monitors for leaks and wastes a large volume of water — an estimated 2.5 million to 3.3 million gallons a day. Her preliminary analysis determined that water conservation and main repairs could save a significant amount of water, making the company’s desalination plant of dubious value.
In response, the company vehemently attacked her findings, labeling them “overtly adversarial,” “closed-minded” and “aspirational advocacy.” Instead of studying how to address concerns raised by the report, the company went so far as to hire a firm to counter the report’s findings.
As Harriet Cornell, chair of the task force, wryly observed, “It is obvious that the independent study analyzing United Water’s data has touched a nerve and caused consternation at United Water.”
United Water’s commitment to conservation is questionable, and the company wants to charge residents for the money it sunk into a desalination plant that it now admits it doesn’t need for at least a decade.
The push is on to protect Rockland County’s water. Right now, state regulators are considering whether to order the company to completely abandon the desalination project. Check out the Rockland Water Coalition to get involved and learn more.