Sierra Club and Partners Work to Prevent Privatization of Water and Sewer Systems

Water system doesn't go down the drain

Courtesy Morguefile

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.

National Sierra Club opposes privatization of water and sewer systems 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 was a member of the Lehigh Valley Group and served as both Group chair and newsletter editor. Published March 2006

Water and Sewer Privatization on the Horizon for Allentown, PA in 2013

Now, eight years later, the City of Allentown, next door to Emmaus, plans to lease its water and sewer systems for 50 years.  Allentown's Mayor Pawlowski proposed the lease to raise funds to reduce the city's unfunded pension liability for police and fire.  Many citizens and organizations are outraged and fighting to prevent the lease and seek a referendum.  Dan Poresky, Chair, City of Allentown Environmental Action Committee, Bill Hoffman, Former Controller, City of Allentown, Rich Fegley of Allentown Brew Works, Glenn L. Hunsicker, President, Citizens for Common  Sense, and Sam Bernhardt, Pennsylvania Organizer, Food & Water Watch addressed a press conference and attended an October 2012 council meeting where they spoke against Allentown's water-sewer lease and called for a referendum to oppose it.

The citizens are sure that they can get the requisite 2000 signatures for a referendum in May but the Council will most likely approve the leases before then.  The opposition  hopes that the Council will be swayed by the overwhelming opposition to the lease. “Poresky said if the voter referendum effort succeeds, but council finalizes the lease before the May election anyway, the referendum may seek a court injunction injunction against council's vote... a case could be made that they are defying the will of the public.” (

Update:  As of August 1, 2013, the process of privatization is moving on as the Lehigh County authority is taking an extra week to wrap up the sale of bonds for financing (The Morning Call).  The citizens in opposition did not prevail. 

Updated by Barbara Benson, Water Co-Chair and Lehigh Valley Group Member, 2013