Dialogue continues about private vs. public ownership of water rights in WNC

Katie Hicks, assistant director for Clean Water of North Carolina, speaks at a 2015 panel addressing ownership of water rights in Western North Carolina. Larisa Karr/The Blue Banner
Katie Hicks, assistant director for Clean Water of North Carolina, speaks at a 2015 panel addressing ownership of water rights in Western North Carolina. Larisa Karr/The Blue Banner

As a result of the recent lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan, the issue of faulty water systems in the United States has become a hot topic.

Last fall, the Carolina Public Press hosted a panel discussion on the ownership of water rights in Western North Carolina.

Katie Hicks, assistant director for Clean Water of North Carolina, said she believes public awareness of water rights ownership can influence many other social issues as well.

“We’re working to have meaningful public involvement and decisions about water and environmental justice, which is all communities have equal access to clean, safe environments,  and building people’s power to change issues that are affecting them,” Hicks said.

One of the most crucial issues that public officials are focusing on is the fact that many of the pipes in American water systems have not been updated since post-World War I.

“The bulk of our system, really the beginning of the core of our system, came about in the 1920s,” Lee Smith, utilities director of Hendersonville Water and Sewer, said. “So we’re dealing with some infrastructure that is approaching 100 years.”

In a report entitled “Buried No Longer: Confronting America’s Water Infrastructure Challenge,” the American Water Works Association found that in order to maintain a healthy level of drinking water service to the public, the country would have to invest $1 trillion during the next 25 years.

There is, however, another issue that is complicating the potential for a national water system restoration project, and this is demonstrated clearly in the city of Asheville.

In 2013, House Bill 488 was passed, removing control of the water system from the city and placing it under the hands of a regional authority.

The city has filed an appeal of this decision to the North Carolina Supreme Court, hoping that there will be a ruling in favor of Asheville retaining ownership of the 124,000 customers inside and outside of its lines. The state announced in January that it agreed to hear the appeal, and arguments will be subsequently be set in motion.

One of the cases that makes the city of Asheville and some of North Carolina’s water systems unique is that they have not switched over to private ownership as quickly as the rest of the country, according to a report put out by the Clean Water of North Carolina entitled “Privatizing North Carolina’s Water, Undermining Justice.”

According to the 2011 CWFC report,  69 percent of public water systems and 47 percent of community water systems in the U.S.are privately owned, although 31-45 percent of the American population does not favor privatization.

The issue of infrastructure is cited as one of the reasons so many public water systems have switched ownership to private companies. The report states many of these

systems are unable to afford needed repairs and elected officials often lack the political will to raise rates to update spending costs.

Despite this, there have been and continue to be attempts to maintain state control of North Carolina’s water systems, with many infrastructure programs throughout the state being consolidated into the Division of Water Infrastructure in 2013.   

“One of the things I really liked about the legislation was that it charged the State Water Infrastructure Authority with building a master plan for the state’s water infrastructure needs, not just approving projects here and there, but actually putting together a plan so that project approval and prioritization and how these programs all operate are really going to operate fully in concert with each other, and in concert with the state’s needs,” said Kim Colson, director of the N.C. Division of Water Infrastructure.

A new study released by the CFNC, “The Stealthy Takeover of NC Drinking Water: A Snapshot of Corporate Privatization,” shows how this insidious trend is becomingin North Carolina.

The two major privately-owned utilities in North Carolina, according to the study, are Aqua NC and Utilities Inc. Aqua NC, a subsidy of Aqua America, owns and operates water/sewer systems in more than 53 counties, while Utilities Inc. owns 98 divisions in 31 counties.

After the Division of Water Infrastructure was founded in 2013, the NC Utilities Commission decided to cement a rulemaking process which allowed utilities like Aqua to forgo commenting on certain billing surcharges that allow rates to gradually increase, according to the CFNC.

This builds on a 2004 decision by the North Carolina Utilities Commission to create an  “acquisition incentive” to encourage Aqua NC to buy rural and suburban water systems which have fallen into disrepair and need upgrades.

Although only 2.3 percent of Buncombe County’s population relies on privately-owned community water systems, according to the N.C. Department of Environment and National Resources, there is evidence that those who do receive water from these companies are suffering economically.

“When these companies are mainly concerned about their bottom line, they tend to cut on staff, they tend to cut on how much maintenance they are able to do,”Hicks said, “so in a lot of cases, we do hear of a lot of problems and slow response times, even while the rates are climbing.”

 

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