Club helps town keep public water system

Water system doesn't go down the drain

Courtesy Gracey Stinson

By Alisa Bauman

In August 2005, the Lehigh Valley group of the Sierra Club—with help from both the Chapter and National—began working with citizens of Emmaus, Pa. to convince its borough council not to privatize its public water utility. The borough was considering privatization to raise funds for necessary upgrades to the utility, some of which were required in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Sierra Club opposes privatization because like air, water is a public resource that is required for survival, and thus should be held in the public trust, ensuring access to affordable, clean water for all. When private companies buy public water systems or obtain long-term contracts to run public systems, they do so with the intention to turn a profit. Experience shows that financially successful companies can only do so by cutting services or raising utility fees. 

Corporations also treat water as a commodity. Instead of ensuring safe, affordable drinking water for generations to come, multinational corporations are setting the price of water in the marketplace when they bottle and sell it for as much as $10 a gallon—more than three times the cost of gas. Various communities across the country and abroad have suffered greatly when corporations like Nestle have started pumping large quantities of water from local springs and aquifers, causing local wells to dry up. Others like Coke and Pepsi use municipal water, profiting from the public investment in the water system.

After the Sierra Club, Public Citizen, and other groups publicized the borough’s plans along with the possible problems associated with it, approximately 260 residents showed up to oppose the privatization during an August public hearing. Ruth Caplan, Chair of the National Sierra Club Water Privatization Task Force, traveled from Washington D.C. to the Emmaus hearing. “If water is a public trust, then there is a parallel human right to water necessary for health and survival itself,” she told the council. “Over the last decade corporations have seized the opportunity to profit from the scarcity of clean water. Our concern and that of many others around the globe is that this leads to a justification for the commodification of water—having the price determined by the marketplace.”

Thanks to this unprecedented mobilization by the citizens of Emmaus PA, the borough council later voted not to privatize the system.

Unfortunately, Emmaus is just one of many communities throughout Pennsylvania considering the short-term financial solution of selling its water utility to a private company. Keep your ears and eyes open to water privatization plans in your area and if necessary, contact the Chapter’s water committee and we’ll help rally local residents to Just Say No to privatization.

Alisa Bauman is a member of the Lehigh Valley Group and has served as both Group chair and newletter editor.

Published March 2006