Some of the suspense was taken out of today's Montana Public Service Commission meeting to discuss the proposed sale of Mountain Water to the Carlyle Group after the city brokered a deal with the new buyer. According to reports, Missoula has the option to purchase the water system in the future. In exchange, the city and the Clark Fork Coalition, two outspoken critics of the Carlyle Group deal, agreed to offer their support.
The agreement hasn't appeased everyone. Sam Schabacker is a senior organizer for the consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch, and a graduate of the University of Montana. His organization has been closely following the situation in Missoula.
"The proposed sale to Carlyle is precedent setting," he says. "It's their foray into domestic water system ownership. We're very concerned about the implications. Missoula is on the front lines of the global movement to stop water privatization. That's why we're involved."
Schabacker says the agreement between the city and Clark Fork Coalition and the Carlyle Group may change the dynamic of the conversation, but not the immediate issue.
"This deal leaves many unanswered questions," he says. "Is this what Missoulians want? What guarantees are there that Carlyle will be willing to sell to Missoula? How long out is 'the future'? Ten years, 20 years, 30 years? The reality is that Missoula negotiated a deal to allow a private, multinational corporation to buy its water system in the hope that Carlyle will sell it back to the city sometime in the future. That's quite a risk to take with one of Missoula's most precious public resources."
Today's PSC hearing begins at 1 p.m.
In the meantime, Schabacker answered a few other questions with us last week to help put the issue into perspective.
1. What is Food & Water Watch?
Food & Water Watch is a consumer organization that works to make sure everyone has access to safe, clean water and affordable food. We have been involved in stopping multinational corporations from taking control of public water systems, and supporting local communities that want to take public control over a privately owned water system, all over the country. We also have an international staff that have been involved with the successful efforts of the Bolivian social movements to kick Bechtel out their country after the corporation privatized much of their water system over a decade ago.
2. What's so wrong with water privatization?
Water privatization—when a private corporation controls, owns, or manages the water or wastewater system—invariably leads to higher rates for consumers, laid off workers and environmental degradation. The reason? The modus operandi of private water corporations is making a profit—that's it, and that's all. Raising rates, busting up the union at the water plant and laying off workers, providing lousy service or being sloppy with environmental compliance are ways to raise profits. And the evidence bears this out: We've done comparison studies of public and private utitlities across the country, and the evidence is quite clear: on average, water rates are 1/3 higher for privately run water systems, workers can expect to earn 10% less at their job, and the horror stories of bad service or sewage spills into wetlands and rivers are legion.
In comparison, publicly owned systems are operated for the benefit of everyone. Without a profit motive, rates are kept lower, workers take more pride in providing an public good for their neighbors, and the environment is protected. Ultimately, local control over your water is the best way to go.
3. What action, if any, has Food & Water Watch taken with the proposed sale of Mountain Water and its parent company to the Carlyle Group?
We have been providing support to local organizations [including the Clark Fork Coalition] that have been working to make sure that Missoula assumes public ownership and operation of Mountain Water. From providing fact sheets and films, to offering advice, to putting people in MIssoula in touch with other communities who have fought this battle before, we're trying to support their efforts on the ground in Missoula to take public control over Missoula's essential water resources.
4. Why should local residents care about this issue?
Missoula is naturally blessed with fairly abundant water resources. As a student at UM, I can remember learning—even in my Economics courses—about the vital role that water plays in the economy: tourism, drinking water supply, jobs. Most likely, if a multinational corporation is able to take over the system, residents will see much higher water bills, poor service if you have a problem, and there's a big potential for negative environmental impacts and sewage spills—either into the Clark Fork, the aquifer under the city, or one of the many streams and creeks around town. Imagine floating the river during a hot summer day with sewage all around you. Those are all very real risks that have happened in other parts of the country.
5. Missoula certainly isn't the first city to face this situation. Can you offer examples of how other cities have dealt with private operators of their water or sewer systems?
Big and small cities all over the country have faced this problem. Felton, CA provides some parallels with Missoula. The residents there fought a private corporation to take local control over their water system. It was a long battle, but ultimately, they were victorious and now they are reaping the benefits with significantly lower water rates. You can learn more about other cities by visiting our website. There are numerous case studies, reports, and statistics there.
At the end of the day, Missoula will only take control over its system if local residents get involved and demand that their elected officials do everything in their power to make sure Mountain Water becomes publicly owned and operated. That's the one overarching lesson from everyone community that has ever been successful: community involvement and organizing.
6. Knowing what you know about the situation in Missoula, what's an ideal outcome for local residents? Why?
Water is too precious a resource to be bought and sold by a multinational corporation like Carlyle. The ideal outcome would be for Missoula to take public ownership and local control over Mountain Water. In doing so, Missoula stands a strong chance of enjoying the benefits of public ownership—lower water rates, more efficient operation and environmental protection.