Water: What motivates us to care?

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By Gary Wilson

We live in an age of abundance when it comes to basic comforts.

If we’re too hot, we simply turn up the air conditioning. Too cold? Crank up the heat.

Want water?

Just turn on the tap, it’s always there and it doesn’t cost much.

Don’t like what comes from the tap? No problem.

Trot down to the nearest mega-store for your choice of privatized water with the best names corporate marketing  can dream up.

But with this easy abundance, what motivates us to care, especially when it comes to water?

Is it the money?

A sleepy bill in Illinois has been winding its way through the legislative process  and now rests on the governor’s desk waiting his signature.

It’s a technical piece of legislation that makes it easer for  municipalities to regain management of water service that  has been outsourced.

Why would a city want to unscramble that egg? It was hopefully a considered decision to relinquish control of community water.

My theory is that it’s about the money.

Leaders in five Chicago suburbs are ticked off at their service provider, Illinois American Water, for raising rates beyond what they see as reasonable and there’s nothing they can do about it. That’s why they’re pushing the bill that would make it easier to set water prices.

A lead sponsor for the bill is state Rep. Emily McAsey, D- Lockport,  who represents communities impacted by the rate increase.  The dramatic price spike garnered her attention.

McAsey told the Lemont Patch news serivce  about a senior citizen couple who were having a hard time paying their water bill after the rate increases.

“ With that as the backdrop, we worked really hard to push forward this legislation,” she said.   I contacted McAsey’s office to see if there were other factors behind her decision to support the bill but did not receive a response.

Is it that simple? We don’t care who controls our water as long as it’s available and cheap?

I asked  two  water privatization experts for  their views.

Noah Hall,  an environmental  law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, doesn’t  take issue with private ownership of water systems.

Hall is comfortable with privatization as long as there is “good management and accountability, which can be accomplished through either public or private operational management.”

He believes that a system run by a corporation may even  drive rates that would generate conservation and long term benefits for the Great Lakes. His perspective: It doesn’t matter if public or private employees treat wastewater or run water systems. What matters are results.

Emily Carroll, the Chicago organizer for Food and Water Watch,  sees it differently.

“Many citizens may get involved in fighting water privatization because they see the practical consequences of skyrocketing water rates,” Carroll said.

“But high prices are often coupled with poor customer service in the form of water quality woes, wasteful water practices and poorly maintained infrastructure. Many communities see local control and public accountability as the key to avoiding these risks.”

Where does that leave us?

Hall is right  that higher rates could  lead to conservation. It happens with our driving habits when gas prices are sustained at high levels.  We take local vacations and bundle our trips. Market forces will eventually change our behavior and that should apply to water too.

But his acceptance of privatization relies on responsible corporate management and that’s a stretch these days as corporations are focused on what’s best for themselves and shareholders. They’d include the interests of their customers, but that’s a thin argument.

And I agree with Carroll’s premise that citizens are drawn to care about water control when they see prices going up. But I’m not sure they care much beyond that as long as water is abundant and inexpensive.

After all, Wal-Mart has built a wildly successful business based on getting more for less.

That’s our consumption centered culture. I doubt many of us are concerned about the proliferation of coal-fired power plants in China that fuel the manufacture of all the stuff we consume, as long as it’s cheap.

I’m not a fan of privatizing many government services and water especially should remain under public control. Once that control is surrendered it’s not easy to get it back.

But we have to find a model that focuses on conservation and funding of infrastructure and I doubt that that can happen if we’re relying on elected officials.

They don’t see a political future in telling constituents to use less and pay more for it because it’s the necessary and right thing to do.

I’ve asked more questions than I’ve answered. It’s a complex issue and there are no easy practical or political solutions.

But we’ve got to figure this out because our current cheap and unlimited water on demand model isn’t sustainable.

6 thoughts on “Water: What motivates us to care?

  1. Yes you’re right, with easy abundance we don’t see the whole picture that yes we are running out of water. Today is the time to conserve and care for water, whether it be from rivers, groundwater, store-bought, etc. The key i guess to caring for water is public awareness. Not all people know we are losing water because just open your faucet, go to the grocery, and there’s water.
    The government must must really impose ways on how even normal citizens can get motivated to conserve.

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  2. Lots of people live in rental properties. The management of these properties can decide to slow down the water pressure being released into the apartments/units. This way it lessens the wastage of water especially by those who are not very conscious about conservation. It is also good to promote this idea to homeowners seeing how it can help with water conservation.

  3. Here in MI we have a Repuglican governor and legislature that is forcing privatization of gov’t services, including municipal water service. If climate change reduces water sources in the region how long will it be before a segment of the population cannot afford water? Oh, that will never happen, because Repugs don’t believe in climate change.

  4. Missing in this discussion is the fact that the source of the water supply – be it lakes, rivers or groundwater is not included in the cost of the water. Water is considered public and is ‘free’ to use. But what about water treatment costs? For instance here in western Lake Erie water treatment costs from algae can cost a water treatment plant thousands of dollars daily in extra treatment.
    There is no national water fund to protect the source water that could decrease costs to ‘produce’ safe tap drinking water.
    Maybe this is where this discussion should lead to.

  5. Before rates start increasing to the point that people notice, we need to finish installing individualized water meters just like the electric meters. Then municipalities can begin targeted water consumption reduction campaigns and begin increasing the rates. And yes, I think that this needs to be run by municipalities, not private corporations.

  6. Echo readers,

    John from the Chicago area asked me to post the following comments.


    Maybe we shouldn’t charge people a flat rate for water use, but an aggregated-rate that encourages conservation. For example, reduce the rates if you use x-amount (good conservation level), maintain rates at “average use level”, and charge high rates if you use more than is reasonably necessary. That way, we give people a financial incentive to conserve (shorter showers, less laundry, don’t water lawn, etc) and provide them the education and tools to encourage and teach them to use less. Are our local governments able to implement a concept so simple?

    I’m a big believer in the carrot rather than the stick. Most environmental problems have an economic basis. Solutions will be driven economically also. If people have the carrot to “make” some money, they might be inclined to do so.

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