The Coming Water Crisis
Many billions of dollars will be needed to quench America's thirst, but is private business the answer?
But in Atlanta, the experience has not been so positive. This summer, Mayor Shirley Franklin sent a formal notice to United Water that the city was dissatisfied with its performance under the 20-year contract signed with the city's previous administration. Problems cited by Franklin included the firm's staffing levels, bill collection, and meter installation. Atlanta had hoped to halve the $49 million annual cost of running its water system by privatizing; one city official says savings are less than $3 million. "You have to keep in mind that a public-private partnership is an ongoing dialogue between the customer and its private partner," says United Water spokesman Rich Henning. "We certainly have struggled. But within the last six to nine months we have dedicated more resources, and we've been listening more to the client." He calculates Atlanta's savings to be about $15 million a year but says the city should be using that money to address the infrastructure problems that United Water inherited.
Gordon Certain, president of the civic association of North Buckhead, the neighborhood hardest hit with water-quality problems, says United Water is unresponsive to complaints. "They're acting kind of like they have a 20-year contract," he says, wryly. (Of course, they do.) The company's response to complaints has ranged "from polite to totally inappropriate," he says. "They told one woman who wanted her water tested that she should get it tested herself." But resident Jacques Davignon thinks privatization "has only made the finger-pointing much more complex." He says the company and the city should share responsibility. "Let's not get on TV and beat United Water up," he says. "Let's do a little forward thinking, come up with a strategic plan."
Private enterprise also has rushed in with water-shortage solutions. The agribusiness firm Cadiz Inc. wants to store water in the barren Mojave Desert, where tidal waves of dust sweep across salt-rimmed dry lakes. The water, taken from the Colorado River and from an indigenous underground aquifer, would flow to thirsty Los Angeles during droughts. "Storing and selling aquifer water will be the key to California's future," says Mark Liggett, Cadiz's senior vice president.
Jim Andre, a desert biologist working in the Mojave, says Cadiz has no impartial scientific study of the potential impact. Environmental groups warn that drawing groundwater from the Mojave will create a dust bowl similar to California's Owens Lake region, a water grab that inspired the film Chinatown. But Cadiz says it has a monitoring system to prevent overpumping. "We have solicited tons of input from all groups for our environmental assessment," Liggett says.
Creative solutions. Other ideas seem somewhat fanciful. Ric Davidge, a former Reagan administration official, wants to siphon 10 billion gallons of water each winter from northern California rivers, pump it into 850-foot-long plastic bladders, and ship it downstate. Other entrepreneurs suggest melting Alaska icebergs. Oilman T. Boone Pickens hopes to pipeline water from Texas's Ogallala aquifer to water-short cities like San Antonio and Dallas.
Privatization projects are also dogged by accountability concerns. Industry sources worry that the terrorism vulnerability assessments U.S. water systems are developing will wind up in corporate parent offices overseas, possibly unprotected from disclosure. In New Orleans, an official highly familiar with its water system told U.S News that the Big Easy's move toward privatization lacks oversight. "The whole approach to having companies bid for the water system was `public, catch us if you can,' since after bids were taken the public had only 10 days to examine the proposals," she says.