Estimates to refurbish our nation’s aging water infrastructure are reaching trillions of dollars, and communities confronting this challenge are becoming the center of a debate over the role private companies should play in providing essential services such as drinking water.  And, unfortunately, that means that misinformation and misleading claims are flowing abundantly from anti-private water activists. 

If you drive north of Santa Cruz, California, you will find the small town of Felton, home to 4,000 people who live surrounded by a forest of towering redwoods and portions of California’s coastal mountain range.  Once known as a productive logging community, a decade ago Felton became an example of the folklore far-too-often spun by activists about private water companies.  

ADVERTISEMENT

Groups like Food & Water Watch, working alongside a local Friends of Locally Owned Water (FLOW) group, developed a scheme to increase Felton’s taxes by $535 a person instead of accepting the recommendation of the private operator to raise rates to replace the town’s aging water infrastructure.  Felton went ahead with the plan to re-municipalize their water system in 2008. When activists declared victory and left town, control of Felton’s water system was turned over to the San Lorenzo Valley Water District.   

Under public control, despite the promises made by activist groups of lower water bills, San Lorenzo’s general manager admitted in public testimony that, given the new $535 annual bond tax residents were paying, water costs had not decreased. Making matters worse, between 2009 and 2010 the water district accumulated a $2.7 million operating loss. Public control brought no savings, but what it did bring were huge deficits.   

Faced with the reality of failing infrastructure, the water district approved rate increases of 12 percent in 2009; 8 percent in 2010; and 15 percent in 2011.  The increases didn’t stop there. In October 2013, the water board approved raising rates 14 percent in 2014, 11 percent in 2015, and another 11 percent in 2016.   

A decade after activist groups left Felton behind, hailing it as a marquee victory, water customers have seen their rates double.  Based on the rate increases, an $80, every-two-month water bill in 2008 will turn into $156.35 in 2016.  And taxpayers will continue to foot the $535 bond tax each year until 2036 to finance the cost of buying their system from California American Water.    

Organizations operating on the far extremes have long opposed any role for a private company in providing what they deem should be a government-provided service. Yet private companies successfully provide essential services everyday: water service, electricity, telephone, emergency response and highway construction, to name a few.   

I am alarmed by the pattern of activists deliberately misleading communities with incorrect and incomplete accounts, which are easily disputed if one evaluates news reports and publicly available information.  

Then there is the money.  Did you know that 90 percent of the funding Food & Water Watch raised in 2011 and 2012 – a total of $20.8 million – came from 11 anonymous donations?  Why anonymous? Donors are funneling millions of dollars into a series of foundations that then turn around and feed millions into activist groups such as Food & Water Watch and Corporate Accountability International.  It’s not just the amount of the donations that alarms me, but also the intentional effort to be secretive.   

Private water companies have been providing quality service to American communities for well over 200 years. To make sure communities are not misled again, like they were in Felton, it is important to have truth from the tap.    

Deane is the executive director of the National Association of Water Companies which has just launched TruthfromtheTap.com.