Hands Off!: Monetization plan for Providence water will hurt RI residents and imperil crucial resource

To safeguard the clean and affordable water that the Providence Water Supply Board (PWSB) delivers to more than 60% of Rhode Islanders, our legislators should reject two bills that enable Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza to monetize the public water utility.

Treating water as an asset for profit places its cleanliness, affordability and accessibility at risk and endangers lives. It subverts the careful stewardship that Indigenous inhabitants of this land have exercised and makes us active participants in creating ecological crises. Why? Because when companies treat an inalienable human right as a profit center, massive rate hikes, poor maintenance and service and environmental violations follow.

Legislators have introduced two bills, H5390 and S0324, that would enable Rhode Island’s public water supply systems and management districts to enter into transactions with “any public or private operator” of a water supply or water management system. While the surviving entity could be labeled a public utility, operations will be private.

If these two bills pass, private profit, not the public good, will drive decisions about water quality, maintenance and service. Viewing water as a commodity allows companies to justify higher rates, selling water for export or cost-cutting measures that could damage our water infrastructure. Secondary deals could affect land use and groundwater quality in ways that will damage Rhode Island’s ecological stability.

The bills explicitly prohibit review or oversight of any transaction by the Public Utilities Commission and the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers. These watchdogs are also barred from regulating rate increases. The inclusion of private operators in the legislation, combined with the removal of public oversight, open the water system to exploitation.

The multinational companies that responded to the Request for Qualifications Mayor Elorza issued in December include Veolia North America, Suez and Poseidon (in a joint bid), and Connecticut-based Aquarion. Veolia’s attempts to cut costs by changing a chemical water treatment increased lead levels in the water systems in Flint, Mich and Pittsburgh, Penn. Gary, Ind, ended its contract with Suez early, due in part to a 26-count federal indictment on conspiracy and felony violations of the Clean Water Act. Hingham, Mass, spent more than a million dollars in its losing battle to buy its water utility from Aquarion.

Such problems are the rule, not the exception, when private companies operate or manage water utilities, because companies depend on high rates and corner-cutting to make profits. In 600 cities studied by Food and Water Watch, private operators caused massive rate hikes, boil water advisories, broken water mains, workforce downsizing and overwork, neglected infrastructure, improper metering and more. Many municipalities have bought back their utilities for tens of millions of dollars, and must spend more to fix problems caused by companies’ attempts to cut corners for shareholder profits.

Elorza’s administration asks us to believe giving up our water will resolve an unrelated fiscal problem: the $1 billion unfunded city pension. But the PWSB is valued at a fraction of the amount needed to fund the pension. And such deals regularly fail. In city after city, far less money comes in than is projected, and a slew of extraordinary new public health costs, social ills and environmental problems arise, as well as expensive litigation and contract renegotiation, while public participation, oversight and stewardship of water is lost.

At particular risk from raised rates and reduced water quality are members of Rhode Island’s most vulnerable communities, including low-income people of color and Indigenous people, the elderly on fixed incomes and children. While there is no question that the city needs money, trading our water for it means trading away our health and our future.

Gillian Kiley is a member of The Water Is Life – Land and Water Sovereignty Campaign, an all-volunteer group of concerned community members. It is led by people of color, black and Indigenous members, youth, faith communities and environmental advocates.

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