In 2010, the citizens of Trenton, New Jersey, were asked to sell part of their water system for $80 million to New Jersey American Water, the largest private water utility company in the state. Despite the company’s best lobbying efforts—a $1 million spending spree that included an onslaught of advertisements, telephone calls, and door-to-door canvassers—the voters weren’t persuaded. They rejected the privatization attempt by nearly four-to-one at the ballot box.
“Private control of the water supply could lead to decisions driven by profit,” explained Jim Carlucci, a third-generation Trentonian and longtime community activist who volunteered for Stop the Sale, the campaign against privatization. “We were able to put our message across that this was a very bad deal for the city.”
In recent months, however, lawmakers in New Jersey have passed legislation that attempts to silence the voices of communities like Trenton. The Water Infrastructure Protection Act (WIPA), signed by Governor (and presidential candidate) Chris Christie in February, empowers municipalities to sell their water utilities to private corporations without a public vote.
Privately operated water systems already supply water to roughly half of New Jersey’s population. But before WIPA, local governments interested in auctioning off their water utilities were required by law to finalize deals through a public referendum. Now communities with aging systems that meet a set of broadly drawn emergency conditions can sell their water utilities without a ballot measure, making it even easier for private companies to gobble them up. Opposition to the law is mounting from grassroots organizations, unions, and national environmental groups.
“It’s a great deal for water companies. It’s a terrible deal for citizens,” says state Senator Bob Smith, a Democrat from Middlesex, who opposed the bill. “Let’s call it what it is: greed.”
The private water industry was instrumental in passing WIPA. In 2010, Christie formed a privatization task force to determine “areas where government services and functions can be provided by the private sector.” Two of the group’s five members have ties to private water companies, with one serving as a former chief lobbyist for New Jersey American Water. And the chair of the task force, Dick Zimmer, was a former Republican congressman whose tenure in the 1990s included an attempt to privatize the Tennessee Valley Authority. Between the time of the bill’s passage in the State Senate and its signing, American Water, the country’s largest publicly traded water and sewer company, contributed $50,000 to the Republican Governors Association, which Christie then chaired.