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“Total Recall,” Water and the Values of the Group Called Value of Water Coalition
(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout, after Magritte)

“Total Recall,” Water and the Values of the Group Called Value of Water Coalition

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout, after Magritte)

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.

The National Association of Water Companies (NAWC), one of the members of the Value of Water Coalition (VoW), reminds us of the many ways that water is essential for us all:

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.

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.

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