Orcas Highlands, WA
Never underestimate the will of a community — even a small one — to fight for local control of its water resources. Few places demonstrate this better than the tiny community of Orcas Highlands in Washington State.
For years, Orcas Highlands residents received their water through Rosario Utilities, a small privately owned company. However, after Washington Water Services, a subsidiary of California Water Service Group, purchased Rosario Utilities in September 2007, alarms went off for many residents.
In a single stroke, Washington Water Services acquired Rosario Utilities and secured a 60 percent increase in water rates. Orcas Island residents felt they did not have adequate input in the decision, and organizing through their Homeowners Association, they stepped up efforts to acquire local control of the utility.
In the fall of 2007 Orcas Highlands residents set about educating the community about value of local control by holding public meetings and screening of the film Thirst. Their goal was to gather enough petition signatures for a vote on annexing their private water utility to the publicly owned and operated Eastsound Sewer and Water District.
At a meeting in December 2007, the San Juan County Council approved the petition for a referendum vote on annexation, and in February 2008, more than 70 percent of voters in the Rosario, Vusario and Orcas Highlands communities approved the annexation.
Unfortunately, Washington Water Services rejected the Eastsound Sewer and Water District’s offer to the purchase the Rosario water plant, so in 2009, the district began exploring alternative water sources for its recently added service areas. It has encountered some difficulties with the well drilling project and the effort was stalled in 2011, but once the district identifies a viable option, the next step will be to purchase the water lines from the company, possibly by pursing an eminent domain action if necessary.
- Visit the website of the Orcas Highlands Homeowners Association (external link)
- Communities Reject Private Control of Local Water Resources (press release; February 21, 2008)
- Faulty Pipes: Why Public Funding — Not Privatization — Is the Answer for U.S. Water Systems(report; September 2008)
- Municipalization Guide: How U.S. Communities Can Secure Local Public Control of Privately Owned Water and Sewer Systems (report; July 2012)