Op-ed: How do we make our water system safe?

As published in the February 3, 2016 Daily Mail:

The Daily Mail Opinion page published an editorial Jan. 20th headlined “Flint a cautionary tale for publicly owned water” intended to show that a water crisis can occur in a publicly owned system as well as a privately run system.

There is undoubtedly much that we can learn from Flint’s water crisis and some important parallels to draw between our situation and Flint’s much more severe problems.

Untangling which agencies and individuals are responsible for Flint’s crisis is an ongoing controversy. But what is clear is that the critical decision to switch Flint’s drinking supply to the Flint River, known to be heavily polluted, was made while Flint’s government was under the control of an unelected emergency manager who was appointed to pull the city out of financial distress and whose decision-making authority superseded that of any elected officials in Flint.

Switching to the Flint River was cheaper than a contract to buy water from Detroit, the city’s long-term water supplier. Flint’s crisis illustrates just how horribly things can go wrong when financial needs are prioritized over public health and the need for a safe water system.

For those of us here in the Kanawha Valley, the real question is not, “Are all public water systems better than private?” (the answer is clearly “no”), but rather, “What can we do to make our water system reliable and safe?”

We hear again and again from people who know our water system is not working for us. We hear this from businesses that have to shut down when there is a leak or boil water advisory, from elected officials frustrated with long response times to repair leaks and from people on fixed incomes who cannot afford a 28 percent rate increase.

West Virginia American Water chooses not to be transparent or accountable. The company has tried to narrow the scope of the Public Service Commission’s investigation into the 2014 water crisis, arguing earlier this month that the PSC should drop the investigation entirely. The company has fought to keep documents, such as its emergency planning manual, out of the investigation.

But the company still plans to seek PSC permission to raise our rates to include its expenses from the water crisis (on top of the currently pending increase). It doesn’t want us to know what it did, but it wants us to pay for it.

West Virginia American Water is not prioritizing the investments we need to have a safe and reliable water system.

We still do not have an alternate water source, more than two years after the water crisis. Frequent main breaks have cost local businesses millions of dollars, and this problem will only worsen unless the water company increases its investment in replacing mains.

But W.Va. American Water’s rate increase proposal reflects its accountability to its parent company, not our community.

The rate increase includes no plans to increase the rate of main replacement, nor to construct an alternate intake. The proposal will, however, double the dividend payments that we pay to New Jersey-based American Water, from $5.7 million in 2014 to $11.5 million in 2016.

The only realistic alternative to continuing with W.Va. American Water is to create a public water system. Nearly 90 percent of water systems in the country are publicly owned, and they reap the inherent benefit of not having to spend millions of dollars a year of ratepayer money on shareholder dividends.

In creating a public water system, we need to build in the transparency and accountability that are lacking in our current water system. Our community should determine the priorities for investment in our water system.

Flint is a wake-up call. It reminds us that public health must be the top priority for any water system. It also reminds us that just because a water system is public does not guarantee that it is safe.

Public participation and transparency are vital for holding a public water system accountable to the needs of the community.

The challenge of creating a successful public water system is not a good reason to continue with the alternative that we know is not working. We can choose to continue with W.Va. American Water and its rising rates, worsening infrastructure problems and lack of transparent decision-making, or we can work together to create something better.

Cathy Kunkel is a member of the steering committee of Advocates for a Safe Water System.