Who Controls the Spigot?

I don't know a thing about publicly traded commodities. I could barely point out the difference between a stock option and a stockade. But I hear things. And what I've been hearing about is water.

Just before Christmas, thousands of Detroit residents had their utilities cut off—including their water. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department introduced an aggressive "structural adjustment" plan of utilities debt collection. Those who couldn't pay the hike in water prices had their water turned off, and DWSD workers cemented the valves shut to keep residents from turning their water back on.

In California, Illinois, Georgia, and Kentucky, local communities are fighting to regain control of their water from RWE, the German industrial giant. RWE recently completed an $8.6 billion takeover of American Water Works, paying nearly three times the company's book value. The deal covers more than 800 water systems serving 15 million people in 27 states and three Canadian provinces. Critics say RWE is carrying too much debt and is heading for an Enron-esque fall that will leave private citizens footing the bill.

In New Orleans, the water battle has been at a fever pitch for the last two years. United Water Resources, privately owned by French company Suez, and USFilter, owned by Vivendi, also a French company, are vying for control of New Orleans' water and wastewater system. (For the record, Suez just got kicked out of Atlanta for its abysmal performance, and Vivendi has a stack of environmental complaints against it, including one for dumping untreated sewage into the Mississippi.) To state the obvious, private companies are beholden to their shareholders, not the distinguished citizens of New Orleans.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 2003
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