FW water system works; why break it?

Posted Monday, Aug. 26, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Fort Worth’s water and sewer systems are well-run operations and the envy of its neighbors.

Meanwhile, in 2012 water rates in neighboring Blue Mound were 3.5 times higher than Fort Worth’s. Blue Mound Mayor Alan Hooks wants to gain public control of his city’s water system.

The last thing Fort Worth should want to do is ruin a good thing.

However, a little over a month ago, 11 companies — including Spain’s Cintra and subsidiaries of French multinationals Veolia Environnement and Suez Environnement — submitted information to the city proposing different models of privatization.

While none of these proposals entail full private ownership of the systems like in Blue Mound, even piecemeal privatization can be problematic. Over the next several months, a city task force will evaluate the submissions and select a preferred scheme.

Fort Worth should take these corporate proposals with a healthy dose of skepticism. In Blue Mound and across the country, water privatization has failed to live up to its promises, often increasing costs, worsening service quality or both.

The heart of the problem is that water privatization forces the public to give up local control over an essential service.

Water is necessary for life and is without substitute, and it should not be controlled by private interests.

Citizens deserve a say in their local water resources, but the only choice we have is at the ballot box through the election of public officials who oversee our system.

This ballot-box accountability is the backbone of our democracy, and with privatization, we lose it. We cannot vote corporate executives out of office, and complex, serpentine contracts with private companies limit the actions of city government.

Fort Worth should not expect water privatization to save the city money. Although private water companies often claim otherwise, academic studies have found that there is no statistical difference between the efficiency of public and private provision of water.

In fact, privately run water systems have extra costs that are not inherent in publicly run systems. This includes the profit requirement of private firms, procurement costs, contract monitoring and oversight costs and the cost of transitioning the workforce.

In recent years, dozens of local governments have brought their water and sewer services back in-house to save money. In July, Weslaco, Texas, ended a water and sewer contract with CH2M Hill — another company interested in Fort Worth’s system — after determining that public operation was less expensive than continued private operation.

Service can suffer after privatizing water operations. Private water companies may cut corners at the expense of public health and safety. They may use lower-quality materials or downsize the workforce, which can slow responses to customer service requests and impair maintenance.

Gladewater officials questioned the company’s cost-cutting practices, such as having its operators split their time at other cities.

There are better options than privatization. Fort Worth should explore public- public (instead of public-private) partnerships to enhance the performance of its water utility.

By working together with other government entities, the city can leverage the capacity of its water and sewer systems to reduce costs and improve service quality. Simple practices like bulk purchasing or intergovernmental collaboration can achieve real savings.

Instead of sacrificing local public control, our public officials should be stewards of our water resources. They should protect public accountability and seek to provide the highest-quality service at the most affordable price.

Eleanor Bravo is the Southwest organizer for the consumer advocacy nonprofit Food & Water Watch. She is based in New Mexico. www.foodandwaterwatch.org

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