Op-ed: Public water utilities can be successful

On Sept. 10, the Daily Mail ran an editorial responding to Advocates for a Safe Water System’s call for a public water system in the Kanawha Valley.

The piece, entitled “Be careful what you wish for in water buyout hope,” offered skepticism about the feasibility of a public water system.

Creating a public water system is the only alternative to continuing to do business with West Virginia American Water, a company that has consistently failed to provide safe and reliable water service to the Kanawha Valley.

Tens of thousands of people and businesses have been without water this summer due to main breaks. The water company admits that it would take nearly 400 years to replace all of the water mains in the system at the current rate of investment.

Nearly 18 months after Jan. 9, 2014, West Virginia American Water is unprepared for another chemical spill. The company still has no sourcewater protection plan. The company has installed new chemical testing and monitoring equipment (replacing equipment that it removed 10 years ago to cut costs), but it still cannot monitor the Elk River for MCHM or diesel.

And it still has not invested in a secondary water source for 300,000 people.

West Virginia American Water’s priorities are not those of local residents. According to documents filed with the Public Service Commission, this is a company that sends about 70 percent of its profits ($5.7 million in 2014) to its parent company, New Jersey-based American Water Works, instead of investing that money here.

This is a company that intends to spend more money on meter replacement than on planned main replacement for the next five years. And this is a company that is currently seeking a 28 percent rate increase that would allow it to earn a higher rate of profit while not significantly increasing its investment in water main replacement.

Without needed infrastructure investment we are doomed to even more leaks and water main breaks as time goes on.

The infrastructure needs of the Kanawha Valley’s water system are enormous. With a public water system, more of our rates will go toward fixing those infrastructure problems, instead of sending millions of dollars a year in profits to a New Jersey-based parent company and to the federal government in corporate income taxes on those profits.

Private ownership of water utilities is the exception rather than the rule. More than 80 percent of water systems in the country are publicly owned.

The examples of the Morgantown Utility Board and the Putnam Public Service District show that public water utilities can be successful in West Virginia while protecting public health. There is no reason for a private corporation to profit off of distributing our water to us.

We know that other communities around the country have succeeded in financing public takeovers of private water systems.

Communities in Florida worked together to buy out their private water provider Aqua Florida just a couple years ago, and the city of Missoula, Mont., is currently in the process of taking over its private water utility.

With interest rates relatively low, now would be an ideal time to issue bonds to finance a buyout.

No one is saying that creating a public water system will be easy. But for anyone who has lived in this region in the last two years, it should be clear that profound changes to our water system are desperately needed.

The complexity of the challenge should not deter us from attempting to solve a problem that is so vital to the future of our community.

We have a choice: to continue doing business with a company that fails to provide safe and reliable water, or to work to create something better.

(Op-ed appeared in Charleston Gazette-Mail on 9/18/15)