According to Denise Vedder, public affairs manager for the San Diego County Water Authority, “The whole issue is a big-picture policy matter.”
Players on both sides of the debate agree on at least one thing: building and maintaining the infrastructure necessary to deliver water is expensive. Thus, Starmer says, it’s impractical to have — at least in terms of facilities — competition in a given municipality. “It’s a monopoly, but it’s better to have a public monopoly than a private one. There’s an inherent conflict when a private entity runs a system because they have to make a profit and answer to their shareholders. Because their revenues go up when people use water, there’s no incentive to conserve. Also, to keep their costs down, private companies won’t invest in the infrastructure to repair or replace aging facilities.”
Irrespective of the merits of keeping San Diego’s public-sector monopoly in place, San Diegans, by dint of Proposition C, have given their imprimatur to privatization. However, Starmer claims that the voters “didn’t get all the facts” about the hidden costs of privatization, financial disincentives to conserve water and invest in infrastructure maintenance.
But what are the “concerned citizens” really concerned about? The “Trends” study — not so much via tables and graphs but by the color of its verbiage — furnishes a few clues; e.g., its characterization of cities considering privatizing as “facing the auction block.” Online comments and links, as well as the Watchers’ bios, provide more insight. To wit, “Guest,” the commenter who launched the broadside at Sanders — and who invoked the rallying cry of Cochabamba, site of Bolivia’s 1999–2000 anti–water privatization riots — also provided a link to the website of Sam Bozzo, a leftist documentary filmmaker. Bozzo, who fancies himself a water-obsessed Michael Moore, is the man behind Blue Gold: World Water Wars, which spotlights “aquavists” decrying the specter of a “water cartel” that they charge will be used to (among other things) “control local dissent.”
Although Food and Water Watch disavows a political agenda, their “green goddess,” Maude Barlow, turns up in some pretty liberal locales. Barlow, the Watchers’ chairperson, is a well-known Canadian environmentalist — prominent in the anti–free trade movement and deliverer of a fiery speech at 2010’s G-20 economic summit in Toronto, where protesters stormed the streets. She’s also the national chairperson for the green activist group Council of Canadians, as well as a “councillor” at the World Future Council, an unabashedly socialist bunch headquartered in Germany.
Whatever their ideological objections to privatizing San Diego’s water, Food and Water Watch has no inkling of what corporations Sanders may be courting; nonetheless, they maintain that the oversight of a City-appointed water board is preferable to a corporate board of directors because the former are “more accountable.” “It’s an issue of scale. The largest water companies that operate utilities in the United States are multinational, which further removes them from accountability to communities they serve.” Citing a case study from Gary, Indiana, where aquatic behemoth United Water was ousted after complaints of mismanagement, Starmer opined, “Clearly the company owners weren’t living in the community where that wastewater was being treated.”
Mayor Sanders’s office refused to comment on the City’s plans.