Cool, Clear, Water–For a Price

Cool, Clear, Water–For a Price

Washington, DC


Washington, DC

Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke’s “Who Owns Water?” [Sept. 2/9] is a reminder that fresh water is rapidly becoming a commodity–and no longer an inalienable human right. Corporate interests, assisted by governments and free-trade agreements, are privatizing water distribution worldwide, and companies that get in on the ground level of this Ponzi scheme will be the Standard Oils and Gettys of our generation.

In Michigan, we are seeing the “Who Owns Water?” debate play out in Mecosta Township. The Perrier/Ice Mountain water-bottling company has secured a permit to pump up to 576,000 gallons of spring water per day out of the Great Lakes Basin. In September 2000, Governor John Engler’s own former special adviser for strategic initiatives and current US chairman of the International Joint Commission, Dennis Schornack, wrote the governor a “conscience-clearing” memo saying that the use of state funds to help Perrier build a bottling facility in Michigan would be a political liability. The memo pointed out that Perrier stands to clear up to $1.8 million per day from this free resource. But the governor’s support of Perrier hasn’t been nearly enough of a political liability. We must turn up the heat. If we don’t, more and more bottling plants will be permitted. Our lake levels are low, and families and farmers who rely on well water are having difficulties. The Perrier plant is setting a dangerous precedent.

After the US performance at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa, it is clear the Administration does not believe water is a human right, but is, in fact, a commodity to be bottled and sold to the highest bidder. Make no mistake, the public-private partnerships the Administration so actively promoted in Johannesburg are the first step in privatizing water distribution throughout the world.

In the not-too-distant future, our Great Lakes may be for the water-bottling industry what the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is to the oil industry. The progressive community must raise the profile of this issue and get behind the efforts of groups like Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation before it’s too late.

Water is more valuable to human life than oil, and we need leaders and decision-makers who understand that. It is up to us to hold our leaders accountable and inform them that, in the words of Barlow and Clarke, “commodification of water is wrong–ethically, environmentally and socially.” Let’s get to work!

Environmental Adviser to
US Representative David E. Bonior

Traverse City, Mich.

Thanks for staying on top of the global water scandal. Are you aware of the 1,300-member grassroots organization in Michigan fighting Perrier (now Nestlé Waters North America) head-on over ownership of water? From what we can tell, this is the first court case that directly addresses “Who Owns Water?” The purpose of the lawsuit, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation v. Perrier/Nestlé, is to prevent Nestlé from privatizing the water under the guise of “reasonable use.” We think the sale of water violates public trust and public domain principles; if it does, it will avoid international trade rules. As the group’s attorney, I can tell you this has been quite a battle.

Recent data and groundwater models by Nestlé’s experts predict that pumping the groundwater will drop the flow of a stream by as much as 20 percent in times of “average flows” (although nature doesn’t operate by averages) and, by simple arithmetic, drop the flow up to 35 percent during low base flows. It will also drop the level of a small lake by at least three inches. If this is “reasonable,” companies like Nestlé will gain a gigantic windfall at the expense of the environment and citizens who have asserted a sovereign interest in this water. The lawsuit seeks to prevent such a disastrous precedent. The trial is scheduled to begin in May. Contact


Sandy Valley, Nev.

Our rural area has been fighting a water privatizer (water pirate) who wants to sell our water to an adjacent basin–for profit. We have been loudly saying that public water should not be privatized for profit and then sold back to the public. The company here is Vidler Corporation, a subsidiary of Pico Industries. And they think their checkbook can buy everyone.

Our state water-resources engineer awarded them only a fraction of what they requested, but they can build it up by buying water permits from residents of our valley. We are appealing the decision. We do not want these people or any privatizers draining our basin. The desert Southwest is alive with these privatizers.

Water should not be privatized any more than air. You are absolutely right–it belongs to the planet, not corporations. It seems to me that these corporations know that global warming is going to change the picture of water availability on the planet. And they want to get their greedy hands on it before anyone notices. Well… we’ve noticed.


Hillsboro, W. Va.

Here in West Virginia we should be quite used to being exploited for our resources and thrown on the trash heap–look at the devastation caused by mountaintop removal! Now West Virginia American Water, which owns many public water supplies in our state, is the target of a German company. If our municipalities struggle to provide water to communities, how is it these big multinationals can do it profitably? I think they will sell it on the open market for a profit.

Will we be standing in line at community water pumps or paying ten times what we do now for water in ten years? Those who argue that our public service commissions will protect us don’t really understand power and politics in this country, nor have they read the fine print in NAFTA. While the Bush Administration has us worried about external threats, it is selling our water, our forests, our minerals and anything else of value to the highest corporate bidder.


New Orleans

Readers will be pleased to know that the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board recently voted against privatizing the city’s water system. At $1 billion, the bids would have been the largest water-privatization contract in US history. A diverse coalition of churches, community groups, labor unions and environmental organizations united to show massive public opposition to the bids; public champions then led the board in voting no. Let this victory for the people be a testament to the power of organizing–and hope that other cities will follow suit in protecting public resources.

Public Citizen

Austin, Tex.

Libertarians point out that privatized water will not be wasted or overused. Geoists point out that natural resources, like water, air and land, are the heritage of all mankind, and are naturally owned by all. Why set these good ideas against each other? Bulk water should be sold by governments at auction–ownership at the source and the primary revenue remain the people’s. The increased individual wealth (distributed directly or through reduced taxes) allows each person to purchase enough water to meet domestic needs, as domestic use is only a minuscule portion of total water use, and thus of revenues. The water conservation effect is enormous. Once water is a commodity, its use must become economically justified. The essential part of this equation now missing is law that says water is owned by the people and may not be privately owned at its source.


Fairport, NY

Free and reduced-cost water subsidized by federal and municipal government has caused wasteful excesses of this precious resource. There are advantages to a market-based approach to water distribution. People in arid San Diego or Tucson pay the same for water for lawns and golf courses as I do in water-rich upstate New York. With proper laws and a solid conservation plan, putting a price tag of true cost on water can curb its use and create further incentives for water conservation.



When the price of water is allowed to rise to a point that reflects its importance and scarcity, it will no longer be wasted through outdated practices like flood irrigation. The free market is the best way to make sure water gets to those who need it rather than being wasted or polluted, as it has been under our collective-ownership system. Freedom is better than socialism, and the sooner we learn that, the sooner we’ll stop wasting and killing what’s left of the planet.


New York City

Water politics goes further. There are two liquids that dominate the Middle East, and it’s not clear whether oil or water is more valuable. In all the quasi deals to allow the Palestinian people some semblance of a homeland, Israel always makes sure it retains the sources of water in the region. Controlling life’s liquid will allow it to control the geography and economy and force the conquered to come begging with hands out and pails empty. Any honest arrangement that would end the terrorism must give the Palestinians rights to the region’s water. Without that, there can be no peace.


Orinda, Calif.

Every government owns its water; it does, however, permit the use of the water and must do so prudently. If a government fails to properly regulate the use of its water, as many do, bad things happen. The private sector may own facilities that convey water, or have a contract to operate a water system, and they are frequently, particularly in the developing world, a good substitute for inefficient and unqualified government employees. The issue is whether the profit that is agreed to offsets the government corruption and/or inefficiency that may exist. Private companies have technical expertise far greater than most government organizations, but they must be regulated to be sure the public gets value for money. It is very hard for governments in the developing world to meet their social obligations and properly manage water, increasingly an administrative and technical challenge. I believe in, and have many years of experience in, government water management. The inclusion of water in the global assault on the private sector is misguided and counterproductive in the search for badly needed control of water use.


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