Water hysteria

Elizabeth Brubaker
National Post
March 23, 2002

They were all wet before and they are all wet again. Under the banner of Water Watch, CUPE and the Council of Canadians are turning their attention to keeping the private sector out of Toronto’s water and wastewater systems. Their arguments are as specious as ever.

Water Watch last made an appearance in Halifax, where it loudly but unsuccessfully opposed the city’s plans for a harbour cleanup. After decades of feet-dragging, last year the city determined to solve its notorious pollution problems by hiring a private consortium to build and operate several sewage treatment plants – at a cost that beat the city’s own estimate by $50-million. Try as it did, Water Watch failed to discredit privatization. Undeterred, the coalition has brought its fight to Toronto.

Yesterday, to mark World Water Day, Water Watchers gathered in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square to warn Torontonians of the perils of public-private partnerships, or P3s, as such arrangements are known. Armed with catchy slogans such as "Don’t P3 in our water," they invited passers-by to sign petitions and distributed leaflets raising the spectre of price gouging, unsafe drinking water, and more closed beaches. Had the wind not interfered, they would have also spun their Water Wheel of Fortune in a game that has multinationals raking in profits while saddling the public with debts.

The cause of the sound and the fury is Toronto’s decision to look at alternative "governance models" for water and wastewater services. The current arrangement is an underfunded, ineffective, inefficient, politicized mess that has, for example, the city’s finance department reading meters and Corporate Services hiring staff. Even Mike Price, the General Manager of Water and Wastewater Services, calls the resulting tangle of inter-divisional and inter-departmental transfers "artificial and arbitrary." Not surprisingly, no one at city hall knows the true costs of providing water and wastewater services in what is one of the continent’s largest water utilities.

To make matters worse, political interests, such as a fear of raising rates to pay for needed investments, have consistently trumped public health and the environment. The system has become rundown and decrepit, leaving Torontonians with lead water pipes, low pressure, polluted rivers and closed beaches.

Mr. Price bemoans the city’s now "desperate need to invest in infrastructure." It will cost billions of dollars to upgrade the water and wastewater systems, parts of which are more than 100 years old. With less than $120-million in water reserve funds, the city is ill-equipped to meet this challenge.

Politics have also kept water managers from using the available dollars efficiently. Three years ago, when the Works department determined that its water supply and water pollution control divisions had 540 unnecessary workers on staff, city councillors caved in to union pressure and promised no layoffs in the department for almost two years.

The city’s chief administrative officer is now studying alternatives. One option on the table is the creation of a utility corporation that would take a more businesslike approach to providing services. In distancing councillors from water and wastewater operations, it would help depoliticize pricing and management decisions. It could also pave the way for greater private sector involvement in operations and maintenance.

The prospect appalls Water Watch. "The city plans to give away control of our water," it warns. But surrendering control is not on the city’s agenda. The proposed utility corporation would be city owned. The city would be its sole shareholder, appoint its board, set out its objectives, and determine what decisions require council’s approval.

In fact, establishing such a corporation would enhance regulation by helping to free council from the conflicts of interest that have prevented it from requiring better performance by its Works department. It would enable council to focus on the issues that matter most – not on creating unnecessary jobs and keeping prices artificially low, but on demanding the safest water and the cleanest beaches at the best price.

Water Watch also worries that establishing a utility corporation could limit the public’s access to information and reduce its input into decisions about water rates and services. Although these are legitimate concerns, public oversight need not be incompatible with the proposed reforms. When incorporating its new utility, the city should require it to disclose comprehensive information about its environmental, public health, and economic performance. The city should promote accountability in other ways as well, such as by requiring independent audits and establishing the utility’s full legal liability for its performance.

But Water Watch is not interested in making reforms work, especially if they mean involving the private sector. It wants to preserve the status quo at any cost. Its efforts to scare the public border on the absurd. One leaflet confuses the establishment of a utility corporation with a give-away of water itself. Another stresses that our bodies are 70% water, as if that has anything to do with who should operate utilities.

The machine promises to pump out still more propaganda. Water Watch envisions a political lobbying campaign that will "overwhelm," according to its internal action plan. "Our community and union leaders will also flood the councillors with letters, faxes and e-mails – our members need to also fill their fax machines, clog their computers, get the councillor’s staff aware that they have to take notice." This campaign will identify privatization with just about every ill under the sun, including terrorism.

While Water Watch’s hysteria may be laughable, the effects of its disinformation campaign could be deadly serious. Last year, the coalition helped defeat Vancouver’s plans to have a private firm design, build and operate the city’s first water filtration plant, leaving Vancouverites with substandard drinking water.

Should the labour unions and their fellow Water Watchers likewise succeed in scaring Toronto’s councillors away from P3s, they would foreclose an alternative that holds great promise for the city. The private operation and maintenance of publicly owned and regulated facilities could bring tremendous expertise, impressive efficiencies, annual savings of more than $100-million, and stricter public oversight. The city’s crumbling infrastructure demands no less.

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