Privatizing water: could it happen here?

Water, the next oil: many big companies have already been betting on that for years now. Do we want privatize companies controling our water supplies for their profit, running up prices at our expense? We can prevent that, and we should get on with it.

Jeneen Interlandi wrote for Newsweek 8 October 2010, The New Oil: Should private companies control our most precious natural resource?

…privately owned water utilities will charge what the market can bear, and spend as little as they can get away with on maintenance and environmental protection. Other commodities are subject to the same laws, of course. But with energy, or food, customers have options: they can switch from oil to natural gas, or eat more chicken and less beef. There is no substitute for water, not even Coca-Cola. And, of course, those other things don’t just fall from the sky on whoever happens to be lucky enough to be living below. “Markets don’t care about the environment,” says Olson. “And they don’t care about human rights. They care about profit.”

Well, that couldn’t happen here. Or could it? What about this:

Many of us have no idea where our water comes from….

Do you know what’s upstream of you, that might be getting into your water? Do you know what’s downstream of you, that your runoff migh be getting into? If you’re like me, you’ll have to look that up.

Remember what Ben Copeland said: Orlando, Jacksonville, and Tallahassee “all have their straws in that same aquifer.” The Floridan aquifer, which is the source of most of our drinking water. Our rivers and streams help replenish the Floridan aquifer, but we’re using it up faster than rain falls.

The article goes on about Bolivia privatizing water as a condition of “austerity”, until violent street protests got water back in the public domain. And about Beijing’s water table so deep its wells are 2/3 of a mile down (3500 feet). Valdosta’s water used to bubble out of the ground; it was artesian. Now Valdosta’s wells at Bemiss are 800 feet deep, and we’ve been in a protracted extreme drought for a year, with groundwater levels at historically low levels. All this affects people, agriculture, forestry, and wildlife: nothing lives without water.

The main problem with this argument is what economists call price inelasticity: no matter what water costs, we still need it to survive. So beyond trimming nonessential uses like lawn maintenance, car washing, and swimming pools, consumers really can’t reduce water consumption in proportion to rate increases. “Free-market theory works great for discretionary consumer purchases,” says Hauter. “But water is not like other commodities—it’s not something people can substitute or choose to forgo.” Dozens of studies have found that even with steep rate hikes, consumers tend to reduce water consumption by only a little, and that even in the worst cases, the crunch is disproportionately shouldered by the poor. In the string of droughts that plagued California during the 1980s, for example, doubling the price of water drove household consumption down by a third, but households earning less than $20,000 cut their consumption by half, while households earning more than $100,000 reduced use by only 10 percent.

Recently we saw what happens when local water doesn’t flow. People weren’t happy, and many of them had to depend on buying privatized water from stores, at much greater expense than from public waters supplies or wells. This is a very clear case of what Wendell Berry asserted long ago:

The mentality that exploits and destroys the natural environment is the same that abuses racial and economic minorities…. The mentality that destroys a watershed and then panics at the threat of flood is the same mentality that gives institutionalized insult to black people and then panics at the prospect of race riots.

Add to all that centralized baseload coal, gas, and nuclear power plants burn water.

We need to prevent getting into a privatized water war situation. We need to deploy solar and wind power because they don’t burn water, and we need water conservation now.