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June 2nd, 2014

The Tricks and Ploys of the Corporate Water Barons

By Mary Grant 

The lengths some companies will go to stop communities from gaining local control of their water systems can seem completely crazy. Tomorrow, voters in California’s Monterey Peninsula will go to the polls to decide whether to take the first step toward buying their water system from American Water’s California arm. 

In the lead up to tomorrow’s vote, the company just added another quarter million dollars to its greasy public relations campaign against the ballot measure. The company’s war chest now totals $2.4 million — 24 times the amount raised by pro-local control group Public Water Now. As we told you earlier, if the measure passes tomorrow, the local water district will study the feasibility of purchasing the water system from the company, and if the study finds that public control will save money, the district will take steps to buy the system.

Last month in Oxford, a small town in Massachusetts, a corporate lobbyist reportedly pulled a fire alarm to stop a re-vote on a measure that would have finalized the town’s purchase of its water system from Aquarion Water Company, which is owned by the Australian bank Macquarie. Five years ago, Oxford voters approved spending $6.7 million to buy their water system, but a recent court decision set the purchase price at $8.2 million. This latest measure would have made up the difference, but it didn’t pass the first vote and the false fire alarm interrupted its reconsideration.  

This wasn’t the first questionable action by corporate advocates in Oxford. A couple weeks prior to the town meeting, a corporate consultant sent around a forged letter claiming to represent a pro-public control advocate urging his neighbors to vote against the public control measure. The town will get another chance to vote on the purchase at a future annual town meeting. 

Last week in Missoula, Mont., the Carlyle Group’s infrastructure fund, which ultimately owns the city’s water system, told a court that it doesn’t actually own the city’s water system and therefore can’t be sued to sell the system to the city. A week earlier, the company announced that it was going to sell the city’s water system along with two California companies by the end of the year. So, the company can’t sell the system to the city because it doesn’t own the system, but it is selling system. If this doesn’t make sense to you, you’re not alone. This legerdemain appears to be an attempt to use the courts to undermine a widely popular effort; more than 70 percent of Missoulians support local public control of their water system. 

All this corporate ballyhoo, dubious racket and offensive nonsense cannot stop a community united for local control of its water services. But it does make it harder, so it is all the more important for community members to get together and organize to protect their water resources.  

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