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Thursday, June 01, 2006

Small Towns Tell a Cautionary Tale About the Private Control of Water - by Tim Reiterman

In San Jerardo, a tidy but poor farmworker cooperative encircled by the black earth of Salinas Valley fields, residents have been drinking bottled water for almost five years because the tap water they buy from a private company is unsafe.
Nearby, families in the modest town of Chualar are still smarting over monthly water charges that in some instances ballooned by 1,000% or more.
And about 40 miles to the northwest, the Santa Cruz Mountains hamlet of Felton voted last year to tax each household up to $700 a year to take control of the local for-profit water system after the new owner proposed a series of rate increases.
These communities are fronts in a statewide battle over the price, quality and reliability of water that investor-owned utilities are supplying to nearly one in five Californians.
In the late 19th century, private companies delivered water to most of the state's homes and businesses. Today about 80% of the state's people live in large cities and towns served by publicly owned utilities. About 140 for-profit companies provide water to more than 6 million people, mostly in suburbs and smaller communities.
Supporters of government-run water systems point out that they, unlike investor-owned utilities, do not need to pay taxes or produce a profit. But big companies contend that they can operate with less overhead per customer.
At the core of the dispute are philosophical differences over whether an indispensable resource should be controlled by private firms.


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