The Value of Water Coalition was formed by large, well-resourced water and wastewater organizations to change the way we think about water. The rest of us need to know that we may not like the way they think of us and our rights to water.
Remember Total Recall? It’s the film in which the powerful shut off oxygen to punish the powerless, all the while hiding the truth that still functional ancient Martian technology could produce oxygen for all – had the elite not hidden the oxygen and the truth.
In this country, we use water with little thought of its special value. But recall that we sent rovers to Mars to search for water, because, as far as we know, life everywhere depends on water. If Mars once had flowing water, then Mars may also have had – or even have – life.
Water. It’s the invisible thread that weaves together our daily lives. We often take it for granted and we easily forget that there is simply no substitute for water. Although Americans consume a lot of water, few people realize what is required to treat and deliver water every day or how wastewater is cleaned so that it can be safely reused or returned to the environment.
The typical American household uses 260 gallons of water every day, making our nation’s water footprint among the largest of any country in the world.
Should We Care What the Value of Water Coalition Members Say About Water?
NAWC tells us we use a lot of water and should celebrate water, but NAWC and other VoW members fail to make clear how regular people should treat water. Should we conserve water? Or pay more for water and wastewater also known as sewage? If so, why? Do they want to raise prices so private water companies make bigger profits, or do they want us to invest in high quality water and water services for the benefit of us all? The VoW Coalition does a poor job in explaining its goals.
Perhaps the VoW could do a better job explaining its views if its members were people. Instead, its members are large organizations with some connection with water.
This is not to say that the VoW ignores people. A VoW campaign asks us to become “a voice for water” and has created e-learning modules and online campaigns to persuade us that Water’s Worth It and videos “to raise awareness about the value and importance of water, water-related issues, and the water profession.”
There is one VoW member that provides particularly useful information and resources for the public and the water industry – the American Water Works Association (AWWA). For example, a video narrated by former AWWA executive director Jack W. Hoffbuhr lays out what can only be described as a thrilling history of the challenges of providing safe drinking water. It is nothing less than a tale of heroes who have saved millions of lives.
Unfortunately, much of the material provided by other VoW members fails to tell us what the VoW Coalition has in mind for people and for water. For example, they ask us to value water, but fail to explain what valuing water means. Is “valuing” akin to online “likes?” Does valuing mean charging more for water or ensuring that water and water infrastructure are kept in good condition and protected? Or are their goals something altogether different?
Looking for Clarity From the Members of the Value of Water Coalition
To answer these questions, it makes sense to start with Ben Grumbles, the project manager for the VoW Coalition and president of the US Water Alliance, another member of the VoW. If anyone can explain the VoW’s goals and processes, it should be VoW project manager Grumbles.
Indeed, he has been immersed in water for years. Grumbles served as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Assistant Administrator for Water during the George W. Bush administration. During that time, Grumbles produced an EPA report that was used to prohibit the EPA from regulating fracking. In a recent interview, Grumbles explained the VoW’s goals as changing how the country views and values water.
Since the VoW has not provided clear information about their goals, we are left to ferret out their intentions from statements and actions of VoW members and from water experts who are not members of the VoW.
For example Mary Grant, a Food and Water Watch researcher, observes:
The water industry wants to promote conservation by pricing water. But that is not a viable option if our goal is to lower water use. Pricing water disproportionately affects low-income people, while people who are wealthy do not always cut back their water use in the face of rising water costs.
It is hard to set water prices high enough to get wealthy homeowners to cut back on lawn watering and other discretionary uses without making basic water use unaffordable for low-income households.
So pricing in itself is not an effective way to promote conservation. It’s better to use other demand management strategies, including rebates so people can install low water use equipment in place of old and leaky equipment.
Grant adds, “There is a cost to treating and delivering water, and no one is saying water service should be free. The question is how to allocate those costs.”
According to Noah Hall, a professor, water law expert and associate dean for academic affairs at Wayne State University School of Law:
The fundamental issue is not valuing water, but when to charge a market-based rate. If we don’t use market value, then what is the policy choice we are making?
Water is a public resource, so no one really wants to make a pure market allocation. But if we don’t make a pure market allocation, then who pays for it? Most common allocations still recognize basic human needs and then figure out who pays how much.
What, then, are the goals of the members of the VoW Coalition? Are they all like-minded, or is there a diversity of views among them?
An Introduction to the Members of the Voice of Water Coalition
The VoW Coalition is currently made up of 13 member organizations, including Grumbles’ organization, the US Water Alliance. Three of the member organizations – the American Water Works Company (AWWC), now called American Water, the Water Environment Federation (WEF), and the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) – were the subjects of an earlier Truthout story on water privatization.
Other members of the VoW Coalition that promote privatization are Veolia, Suez Environnement / United Water, National Association of Water Companies and CH2M HILL.
Beyond these details are differences in the organizations’ functions, such as whether they work with water or with wastewater or provide materials for the water and wastewater industries, such as pipes. Some of the organizations, such as Xylem and the US Water Alliance, have created online videos and other materials to promote VoW goals. Some operate solely within the United States, while others are multinational organizations.
In short, the VoW is a group of associated but highly diverse organizations. Here is a brief summary of each of these water organizations, with links to more information.
- Xylem – formerly, ITT Water and Wastewater – is a multibillion-dollar private water products company that operates in more than 150 countries. Xylem’s motto is “Let’s Solve Water and its video – It’s Not a Question of What Water Costs, It’s What It’s Worth – asks, “Wouldn’t it be great if we paid less for things than they were actually worth?” These videos suggest that at least one VoW member wants the price of water to increase. Other Xylem videos may be found here.
- Veolia serves people in approximately 550 North American communities and industrial facilities, while treating more than 2.2 billion gallons of water and wastewater a day. Veolia actively promotes water privatization through videos such as A Veolia and Vancouver Partnership and Better Than Both Municipal and Private Sector. On November 14, 2013, TIAA-CREF announced that it was removing Veolia Environnement SA stock from its Social Choice Funds portfolio as a response to a number of problematic actions by Veolia. More on Veolia can be found at Food and Water Watch’s report on Veolia.
- US Water Alliance was established in 2008 with the goal of breaking down “silos” and building a national platform for holistic water policy that unites “people and policy for water sustainability in a changing climate. That means convening, inspiring, and educating to change Americans’ views, values, and management of water – from quantity to quality, above and below ground.” Its initiatives include the Urban Water Sustainability Council, a forum for green infrastructure and sustainability through its annual One Water Leadership Summit. Its Statements of Principle include Principles in Support of Resource Recovery and Principles in Support of Green Infrastructure Solutions to Stormwater Pollution.
- Suez Environnement / United Water was founded in 1869 as the Hackensack Water Company and is now a subsidiary of Suez Environnement. United Water’s annual report says of sewage sludges that they “were for a long time considered to be a problem but are now part of the solution: they are an interesting source of energy and can also be reused as fertilizer or fuel.” United Water promotes privatization as “one of the most efficient and cost-effective ways to provide safe water reliably” by providing the funding needed to upgrade US water systems. A Food and Water Watch study found that United Water performed poorly and, as a result, lost contracts in the United States. More recently, a July 2014 Reuters report identified Suez and Veolia as part of a trend for European countries to end water privatization.
- National Association of Water Companies (NAWC) defends water privatization as “a solution born of necessity and growing in popularity.” It calls itself “the voice of the private water industry and the only organization that represents this group of quality water service providers, innovation drivers and responsible partners.” Some of NAWC’s organizational members are also direct members of the VoW, including American Water, CH2M HILL, and United Water.
- National Association of Clean Water Agencies(NACWA) was established in 1970 by a group representing 22 large municipal sewage agencies, which came together to secure federal funding for municipal wastewater treatment and improve the quality of the nation’s waters. NACWA now represents the interests of more than 300 public agencies and organizations engaged in sewage operations. Among the issues NACWA focuses on are the Supreme Court’s weakening Clean Water Act jurisdiction and finding uses for byproducts of the process of breaking down sewage. More recently, NACWA has joined forces with the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) and the Water Environment Federation (WEF) to develop the Water Resources Utility of the Future . . . Blueprint for Action.
- MWH Global says, “As the global leaders of the wet infrastructure sector, we see firsthand how critical water is for life on Earth. We continue to partner with organizations who strive to ensure every single community – and every human being – has access to clean water. That’s why responsible wastewater recycling and effective environmental water treatment are so important to us.” MWH designs and constructs water and waste treatment plants, water reservoirs, pumping stations and water pipelines in the United States and abroad.
- CH2M HILL is best known for privatizing the city of Sandy Springs, Georgia, but it also has strong connections with privatization globally and across industries, including wastewater infrastructure, drinking water infrastructure, and water operations. The Sourcewatch report on CH2M HILL shows a history of troubling incidents involving water services. The event with the largest “Yuck!” factor is the July 2013 Traverse City, Michigan, water park incident, when CH2M HILL’s new wastewater system rerouted toilet water into the town’s waterpark.
- American Water Works Association (AWWA) was founded in 1881 as a professional and educational organization focused on a wide range of water issues. Its stated purpose is promoting “the exchange of information pertaining to the management of water-works, for the mutual advancement of consumers and water companies, and for the purpose of securing economy and uniformity in the operations of water-works.”
Its purposes include:
Advancing the knowledge of the design, construction, operation, water treatment and management of water utilities and developing standards for procedures, equipment and materials used by public water supply systems;
Advancing the knowledge of the problems involved in the development of resources, production and distribution of safe and adequate water supplies;
Educating the public on the problems of water supply and promoting a spirit of cooperation between consumers and suppliers in solving these problems; and
Conducting research to determine the causes of problems of providing a safe and adequate water supply and proposing solutions thereto in an effort to improve the quality and quantity of the water supply provided to the public.
Foreseeing the Future of Water and the Roles of the VoW Coalition – Does It Take a Wiki?
In 2011, Citigroup economist Willem Buiter predicted that “water as an asset class will, in my view, become eventually the single most important physical-commodity based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals.” But some American cities are fighting this commodification of precious water resources and have engaged in successful campaigns to take back or “municipalize” public water utilities.
Is that possible?
Many of the VoW organizations have some connection with water privatization, but the history of water privatization has not been particularly successful. Indeed, in April 2014, when Anna Lappé reviewed the World Bank’s promotion of water privatization, she found that the World Bank Group continued to promote water privatization even though its project database showed a 34 percent failure rate for private water and sewerage contracts entered into between 2000 and 2010.
These results are not exactly encouraging for the future of water and our relationship with water. Many people are so overwhelmed by the burdens of life, taking care of their families, and the need to earn a living that they lack the energy – and knowledge – to take action.
What the powerless need is power, but it is unlikely that the powerful will invite the powerless in for tea and conversation. So how then can the powerless amass power to protect themselves?
History has shown that the only way the powerless gain power is when they are organized. That was the story in Total Recall. Oxygen was controlled by the powerful and used to cow the powerless, until they were organized and motivated to fight for their rights. Organization can take many forms today, including wikis and other ways to share information.
In the case of water and our future, the organizations sketched out here are ones to watch. And the rest of us need to be organized around issues we care about.