The coming water wars
As multinational corporations seek control of New England’s public water supply, the next environmental battleground could be your kitchen sink

A GROWING TORRENT: 23 Bay State communities already have privatized water-delivery systems, only a few of which are long-standing arrangements.

GET READY FOR the next big environmental battles — let’s call them water wars — as multinational corporations seek control of New England’s public water supply, bottled-water sales soar, water pollution worsens, and cities and towns struggle to pay for much-needed improvements to water pipes and sewage systems. Looking around at April’s shower-soggy ground, it might be hard to believe that one of our most basic human needs is becoming a scarce commodity, something to be bought and sold on the open market. Sure, there are water shortages in the American West. And it’s terrible that corrupt governments are allowing private corporations to profit from water crises in, say, South America. But these things couldn’t happen here, right?

Well, maybe not in the same way, but that doesn’t mean we’re home free. In progressive communities, water pollution and water conservation have been on the radar at least since the late 1960s. Now, activists say, new water-related concerns — namely, water privatization, the effects of the bottled-water industry, and a pending decline in water levels and purity — are starting to emerge, which require new strategies.

Tackling water issues presents a terrific opportunity for grassroots activism, organizers say, because each town or city has its own local concerns — political, geographic, and historical.

Take, for example, Lee — a town of about 6000 in Western Massachusetts. Last year, Concerned Citizens of Lee united to beat back an attempt by the North American arm of French multinational company Veolia Water to take over the municipal wastewater and water-treatment facilities.

Or how about the couple dozen environmental activists who gathered at Worcester’s Clark University on a Saturday in March, for the first of what organizers hope will be an annual water conference? They came from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Washington, DC, and there wasn’t a water bottle in sight. On view instead was a growing network of water warriors.

David and Goliath

"Some things should never be commodified," says Jonathan Leavitt, the organizing director for Massachusetts Global Action, which battles corporate globalization and coordinated the water conference at Clark. "High on that list are things that essentially we need to live." With water, he explains, "you don’t have an option — it’s not a luxury."

Yet water commodification seems to be well under way — in places as far away as India and as close by as Holyoke and Lynn. In 2001, the latest year for which privatization statistics are available, water and wastewater privatization shot up 13 percent nationwide, after a huge 84 percent jump through the 1990s. Of the 80,000 local government entities in the country, 1300 have privatized wastewater and 1100 have privatized water services. And "it’s been trending up," says privatization expert Geoffrey Segal, of the Reason Public Policy Institute, a Los Angeles nonpartisan think tank that promotes economic choice and competition.

Improvements to (or construction of) water- and sewage-treatment systems can be prohibitively expensive — all the more so in the face of declining federal and state financial assistance over the past five years.

It’s under these strained circumstances that huge, international corporations (primarily with European roots) come into the picture. They offer to lift the burden of providing water or wastewater services from the shoulders of municipal governments, in return for long-term, multi-million-dollar contracts — and the wherewithal to charge water consumers higher prices than they currently pay.

Put aside for a moment the question of whether any of us feels comfortable entrusting our local town aldermen or city councilors with crafting a big-money international trade contract. Here’s what activists say is the real problem: would we rather leave control of our water services in the hands of elected officials, or in the pockets of business executives who’ve already moved on to the next town to drum up more contracts?

It’s not necessarily that privatization is bad (though many activists think it is), says civil- and environmental-engineering professor Paul Kirshen, who teaches in Tufts University’s water-management program. "It’s just one of the many management techniques that has to be properly applied and supervised to respond to our global water crisis," he says. "But so far, there are very few cases where that’s been successful."

Municipal officials in Holyoke hope their experiment in water management might be one of the exceptions. Aquarion Water Company, a Bridgeport, Connecticut–based British subsidiary, came knocking in the city of about 40,000 last year. In November, Aquarion came close to closing a 20-year contract with the city — one that Holyoke mayor Michael Sullivan, some members of the city council, and the Department of Public Works support. The 700-page deal, which activists have succeeded in holding up, would give Aquarion $24 million to design, build, and operate Holyoke’s sewage-treatment system, and to remove and revamp the town’s combined-sewer-overflow (CSO) system.

CSOs are engineered to allow rainwater to drain into sewage tunnels; if those tunnels get too full, they overflow into rivers and oceans. Recognizing the negative environmental impact of such a system, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued CSO-removal mandates, and is threatening steep fines if Holyoke doesn’t remove its CSOs by July 1. Obviously, the city is under considerable pressure to approve some version of an infrastructure-improvement project.

Wastewater treatment might not be as sexy as drinking-water treatment, but it’s an integral part of any municipal water system. And, "operating or owning sewage-treatment plants means that a private corporation has a foot in the door," points out Ruth Caplan, of
the Water Allies Network and the progressive organization Alliance for Democracy, "making it easier to position themselves to operate the whole system."

Community activists, incensed that they were being left out of the process, aggressively sought a chance to provide input. Led by the newly created Holyoke Citizens for Open Government (HCOG), they were successful in stretching out the public-comment period and getting the proposed contract posted on the city’s Web site. HCOG gathered almost 500 residents at a public meeting in Holyoke High School to discuss the negotiations; last weekend, the group sent out a direct mailing about the proposed contract to all city water consumers.

"Small municipalities are being eaten for lunch by large multinational corporations," says Carolyn Toll Oppenheim, a Holyoke resident who is among HCOG’s core leaders. "So the buck has to stop in those little places."

For Oppenheim, this privatization battle is about everything from democratic principles to economics (it’s almost certain that rates will rise if the contract is approved). She doesn’t have to look further than across the state, to Lynn, for an example of a private contract gone terribly wrong.

In 2000, the city of Lynn was under similar pressure to remove its CSOs (a process called sewer separation). The city entered into a $48 million contract with German subsidiary USFilter — after a bidding process that, along with the contract itself, was severely criticized by the Massachusetts Office of the Inspector General just months later. The project went awry when both parties disagreed about the terms of the contract. Lynn flat-out fired USFilter in March 2004.

"I felt that there were some really misleading representations made about all the cost savings that they were realizing by privatizing it," recalls Janet Werkman, who was first assistant inspector general when the 2001 report was written. "In fact, I didn’t see any savings at all."

Worried that her city might repeat Lynn’s mistake, Holyoke city councilor Elaine Pluta has been an outspoken opponent of the Aquarion contract. She’s also been sharply critical of the bidding process. "They didn’t use the right numbers," she says of consultants hired to analyze Aquarion’s bid.

This time around, the state inspector general is stepping in early. Last week, IG Gregory Sullivan sounded a warning in a letter to Holyoke’s mayor: "It is not our role to assert ourselves into a local public policy debate," the letter read. "[H]owever, as the city contemplates this long-term commitment it would be prudent to ensure that all information relevant to the privatization decision is accurate and complete."

Could all this happen in Boston? Not likely, experts say. The city and surrounding municipalities get their water, their wastewater services, or both from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) — a giant system that pulls 230 million gallons of water a day from reservoirs in Central Massachusetts. But Ria Convery, MWRA communications director, acknowledges that several years ago, "they came knocking on the door here."

Evidently, when they got no response, they moved on to smaller conquests.
FOUNTAIN OF LIFE: although water use has declined since the 1980s, systemic water-management problems remain, and that threatens both the quality and the quantity of the wet stuff.

Blue gold

Corporations aren’t stopping with your tap water and your toilet. The four biggest water bottlers — Coca-Cola (Dasani), Pepsi (Aquafina), Nestlé (Poland Spring), and Danone (Evian) — are putting down roots in places like Maine, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, California, and Florida. Some draw directly from natural springs; others (like Coke and Pepsi) simply take municipal tap water, add some minerals, and package it. Either way, bottled-water plants are inserting straws into US water sources and sucking hard.

In 2003, bottled-water sales reached $35 billion worldwide — up from just $300 million 30 years ago, and $22 billion five years ago. Sales of bottled water surpass those of beer, coffee, and milk, and are second only to soda. That, combined with the growing private water-management industry, is why Ruth Caplan (who is based in Washington, DC, and also serves as chair of the Sierra Club’s Water Privatization Task Force) often calls water "blue gold," or "the next oil."

"Corporations want to treat water like they would any other resource," Caplan says. "They want to prospect for it, they want to mine it, and they want to sell it to the highest bidder.

"When we begin to sell water in bottles," she continues, "it begins to make people think of water as just another product, as opposed to something that is being held in the public trust."

Perhaps realizing that philosophical arguments won’t make much difference to gym-going, convenience-seeking, health-conscious bottled-water drinkers, the Polaris Institute of Canada, an activist resource center, recently released Inside the Bottle: An Exposé of the Bottled Water Industry. In the report, the institute presents evidence of both the environmental and the health-related risks posed by bottled water, calling into question whether it’s really the better alternative to simple tap water.

Inside the Bottle claims that in the United States, where tap water faces strict EPA regulations, bottled water faces less-stringent, and less-frequent, Food and Drug Administration monitoring. (Both the International and the Canadian Bottled Water Associations have responded to the report, insisting that their product is strictly monitored, which has prompted a fevered debate on Polaris’s Web site at

The report also shows that by drinking water out of a plastic bottle (the manufacturing and disposal of which can add to air and water pollution), "you’re holding part of the smoking gun that’s led you to the bottled water" in the first place, says Karl Flecker, education coordinator for Polaris.

Then there’s the matter of personal economy: consumers pay between 240 and 10,000 times more for bottled water than they would by taking a glass from the faucet.

Even the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) feels the need to compete with bottled-water mania. "Bottled water may taste better than the water that comes out of your tap," the agency’s Web site reads, "but it’s a lot more expensive and isn’t necessarily ‘healthier.’"

Trickling down?

Chugging bottled water may seem particularly unnecessary here in Boston, where no one denies that the drinking water is generally clean, safe, and tasty. But local environmental watchdogs say contamination and conservation are areas that remain relevant, and that more funds are needed to manage both effectively. Without such efforts, we’re likely to see a decline in both water quality and water levels.

"There’s not nearly enough money going out on the federal level," says Mike Davis of Clean Water Action. "There are definitely some really good people over at [the state DEP] that care about our water, but unfortunately, they don’t have enough resources to go out and work with people in these local cities and towns throughout Massachusetts, to protect their drinking water." In fact, DEP’s drinking-water budget has been cut 25 percent since 2001.

With more money, the state and its cities and towns could start taking proactive steps toward renovating pipes and storage tanks, and could more effectively test local water supplies for thousands of contaminants. (Right now, federal law regulates about 100 contaminants — a mere drop in the bucket compared with the approximately 75,000 industrial chemicals that could make their way into the water supply but aren’t subject to drinking-water tests.)

"Obviously, you can’t go out and test for thousands of chemicals because it costs too much money — testing is expensive," Davis explains. "But what you can do is ... you can do an inventory of chemicals that are actually used in your water supply, and you can narrow them down and say, ‘Okay, what do we really need to work on?’"

According to an EPA report titled The Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Study, as of six years ago, the state’s drinking-water system needed a whopping $5.8 billion over the next 20 years — $4 billion to replace aging water mains, $1.3 billion for treatment plants, $460 million for water-storage facilities, and $170 million to develop new water sources — just to maintain then-current standards. At that point, Congress had allocated only $3.6 billion for such efforts nationally between 1997 and 1999 — and that was before Republicans controlled all three branches of government.

We could also use more-creative water-usage plans, to preserve current water levels, says Bob Zimmerman, who serves as executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association. "De-watering" is the term he uses to describe what’s happening to much of Eastern Massachusetts. Zimmerman has spent 14 years struggling to protect and restore the once-foully polluted Charles River. Now, he’s worried that the water he’s fought to keep clean is in danger of disappearing.

In a perfect world, planners would have engineered a water system that allows the natural water cycle to work the way it’s supposed to, Zimmerman says. Instead, with the MWRA, we have a system that takes water from one place (primarily the Quabbin Reservoir) and shuttles it through pipes and storage tanks until it comes through our faucets. Then, it’s treated as sewage at Deer Island and diffused out the end of a nine-and-a-half-mile-long pipe into Massachusetts Bay.

Meanwhile, towns like Dedham, Wilmington, and Reading are clamoring to join the MWRA system (which already covers 21 "core communities" — including Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville — that use both water and sewer services, and 40 more that tap into one or the other). On the upside, Convery reports that water use has come down significantly since the 1980s (from 340 to 230 million gallons per day). But the systemic problems remain, regardless of whether usage is up or down, Zimmerman contends. "We throw water away," he says. "That doesn’t work. It’s not the way the environment works. It’s incumbent on us to keep water where it belongs — when it falls out of the sky, to keep it where it falls, when we take it out of the ground, to return it to the ground. There’s no reason for us to run out of water.

"Unless we change our ways, the demand in the megalopolitan area will be such that the MWRA won’t be able to meet the demand."

Take it from Paul Robillard, director of the Cambridge-based World Water Watch — we don’t want to get to that point. Like many of the activists involved in water struggles, Robillard has traveled to regions in Latin America, Asia, and Africa where water shortages are more than just an inconvenience — they’re a security and health disaster.

Beyond its importance as a material and biological necessity, "water has a sort of spiritual value," says Tufts’s Kirshen. "Everybody wants to be near water. People always try to site restaurants near water, they always walk by the water, water is a large part of religious ceremony — water is life, that’s what people say."

Deirdre Fulton can be reached at

Issue Date: April 8 - 14, 2005