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Close locks to stop carp

The current response of state and federal agencies to the threat of Asian carp in Lake Michigan is dangerously inadequate, conservation groups say.

The Alliance for the Great Lakes, the National Wildlife Federation, and two Great Lakes groups called on the Army Corps of Engineers to close all Illinois locks and gateways leading to the lake last month, after carp were detected beyond an electric barrier.

Long-term, they say, the electric barriers are insufficient and that hydrologic separation of Lake Michigan and Mississippi River ecosystems – joined by the construction of the I&M Canal in the early 19th century and the reversal of the Chicago River in 1900 – is the only permanent solution.

“Those locks should have been closed down as soon as fish DNA showed up past the barriers,” said Joel Brammeier of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.  “We need to keep the locks closed until we know that carp are not breaching the barrier.

The groups’ call was seconded by the Natural Resources Defense Council.  “This is an emergency and calls for quick and decisive action,” said Josh Mogerman. “There needs to be a real physical barrier preventing carp from making their way into the lake,” including sand-bag barriers where no locks exist.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel called for closing the locks in an editorial late last month.

“Everything’s under consideration,” said Lynn Whelan of the Army Corps when asked about shutting down the locks.  “There’s nothing that’s off the table.” But “there has been no decision made.”

The Army Corps operates the locks and along with other agencies makes up the Asian Carp Rapid Response Team.

The giant, voracious Asian carp have the potential to completely displace native species and decimate the $7 billion Great Lakes fish industry as well as recreational boating opportunities.

According to Mogerman, Asian carp now constitute 90 percent of the aquatic life found on portions of the Illinois River.

The state is dumping the fish toxin retonene on a six-mile stretch of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal starting today.

The action is being depicted as a response to the discovery in September that Asian carp had breeched the barrier.  In fact, it has long been planned in order to facilitate a temporary shutdown of the electric barrier to conduct maintenance.

In 2003, a scientific panel convened by Mayor Daley called for studying separation of the two water systems.  The Alliance took up the call in 2005 and last year issued a preliminary feasibility study of separation.

Brammeier said the Army Corps has moved too slowly on a study of physical separation that was funded by the Water Redevelopment Act of 2007.  “We have an agency that’s supposed to act, that’s got funds to act, that’s sitting on its hands,” he said.

Whelan said the Corps started preliminary work this summer on the study, which she described as a comprehensive analysis of how to contain aquatic invasive species up to and including physical separation.

One opponent of a temporary closing or a permanent separation would be the shipping industry, which hauls 25 million tons of coal, sand and gravel and iron ore through the Chicago water system every year.  The Alliance’s feasibility study discussed various alternatives available, including intermodal transfers.

“Now is not the time to be deferring to any one stakeholder,” Brammeier said.  “Now is the time to be looking at the big picture.”

Chicago water – still for sale?

Michael Hawthorne does a great job getting perspectives from mayors and managers of other cities that have looked into — and experienced — leasing municipal water systems; for community and nonprofit sources in several of those cities (and for links to reports from several nonprofits), see Newstips’ October 20 piece, which first discussed the city’s interest in privatizing the water system.

It was on October 21 that the Trib’s editorial board asked Daley about water privatization and he revealed that consultants had recently completed a study of possible asset sales.  “Nothing is off the table,” he said at the time.

Now Jacquelyn Heard tells Hawthorne, “The mayor is not thinking at all now or even in the near future about leasing any more assets.”

That’s because the economic crisis means he’ll have to wait a year or two.

Industry observers we’ve talked to say there are two basic dynamics at work across the country:  cities are utterly desperate for new funding sources, but citizens get crazy when you start talking about selling off their water systems.   For now, however, there’s no way to finance a big deal like that.

For Daley it will depend on how much control over the City Council he has, when the time comes to consider a deal.  That and his own cost-benefit analysis — between a big chunk of money and a likely storm of popular outrage.

That’s why one element of the orginal Newstip deserves a little more attention:  the effort by Illinois PIRG and Ald. Scott Waguespack to pass an ordinance establishing greater transparency and accountability in asset sales and leases.

More on water

Yesterday Mayor Daley told the Chicago Tribune editorial board that he recently met with consultants who presented him with options for future privatization deals.  He wouldn’t give details but said, “Nothing is off the table.”

Daley said he would not answer a question about whether he’s considering privatizing the city’s water system — a prospect raised here on Tuesday — “because it would stir up too much controversy,” as the Trib puts it.

Coincidentally, La Voz de los Abajo, a local Honduran solidarity group whose efforts were covered here in July, is showing Until the Last Drop, a new documentary about water privatization in El Salvador, tonight at 7 p.m. at Carnes Asadas, 4014 W. 26th .

Director Jason Wallach will speak.  (See Kari Lydersen’s review at In These Times’ Working blog.)  The event will raise funds to help send a local delegation of human rights observers to Honduras.

Chicago water for sale?

With Chicago facing a half-billion-dollar shortfall – and Mayor Daley ruling out increases in taxes, fees, and fines – could the city which has pioneered the leasing of major public assets be looking into a long-term lease of its water system?

“The City of Chicago Department of Water Management is said to be considering a lease of its water and wastewater system,” reported the Public Works Financing newsletter in April.

A water department spokesman didn’t confirm or deny the report, but was dismissive. “I hear these rumors periodically, but so far there hasn’t been anything to it,” said Tom LaPorte.

Such a move wouldn’t come without opposition – first of all from the union representing rank-and-file workers in the water department.

“In general privatization is a bad idea,” said Anders Lindall of AFSCME Council 31. “It places a middleman between taxpayers and the government that serves them, a private-sector middleman whose concern isn’t good quality public services but profit.”

Using upfront payments from the sale or lease of assets to pay for operational costs “is the road to fiscal ruin,” he said. “It’s like burning your furniture to heat your house.”

Akron, Milwaukee say ‘no’

Other cities in the region, contending with their own fiscal crises, have recently struggled with the issue. In Akron last November, voters defeated a ballot initiative to approve the long-term lease of the city’s water system by a two-to-one margin. By a similar margin they passed another initiative requiring voter approval for any future sale, lease or transfer of a public asset.

In a city hard-hit by the foreclosure crisis, “people are already so stretched, and the prospect of having to pay higher rates for water and sewer services hit home pretty strongly,” said Greg Coleridge of Northeast Ohio AFSC. He worked with labor and community groups to organize the Citizens to Save Our Sewers and Water, which educated residents about the costs of water privatization and passed petitions to get the issue on the ballot.

Coleridge said early education was crucial — including community screenings of a number of documentaries on water privatization — “so when the big p.r. machine comes along, people already have a deeper understanding, and they won’t be so easily fooled.”

In Milwaukee, the Common Council voted in June to put on hold the hiring of consultants to solicit bids for a 99-year lease of the city’s water system, after a coalition of labor, community, and environmental groups came together to oppose the proposal.

Keep Public Our Water “came together really fast,” said organizer Corinne Rosen. People were concerned about water rates going up and water quality going down, as well as fiscal responsibility and the secrecy of the decision-making process, she said. And while the idea is down it may not be out; KPOW is keeping an eye on things — and pushing for a council resolution against privatizing the city’s water works.

Private operation of municipal water systems often means frequent rate hikes, with private utilities charging as much as 80 more than municipalities for water, as well as lower quality service, with deferred maintenance and backlogged service requests, according to a recent report from Food and Water Watch. The group opposes corporate control of food and water resources, and assists local organizing efforts around the world (including those in Akron and Milwaukee) to keep water in public hands.

The report deals with two types of privatization, explains FWW organizer Jon Keesecker, management and operation contracts, where cities hire private companies, and leases or sales, where companies pay municipalities so they can collect user fees themselves.

People’s first concern about such deals is often rate hikes, he said, along with water and service quality. Beyond that, though, “with something as essential as water, people really want the accountability of public control,” he said.

Indianapolis considers sale, Fort Wayne buys back

In Indianapolis, a private company has operated the water system since 2002; the deal included a five-year rate freeze. Five years later, rates went up 29 percent, and this April they went up an additional 12 percent (after the water company requested a 17 percent hike). In September another rate hike request was submitted – this time for 35 percent. Also in September, Mayor Greg Ballard proposed selling off the water and sewer utilities to outside operators; part of his argument is that it could bring rates down.

Meanwhile, state and federal authorities are investigating environmental violations by the Indianapolis water company, and residents sued last year charging the company systematically overbilled 250,000 customers. (A judge ruled they lacked standing; the city is the company’s only customer.)

This month the Illinois Commerce Commission is holding hearings on a request for rate hikes ranging from 28 to 50 percent by Illinois American Water Company, which serves 317,000 customers from Chicago’s southwest and western suburbs to southern Illinois. It’s the latest of a steady string of rate hikes. (American Water bought up local private water utilities in the area starting in the 1980s.)

In Homer Glen and Orland Hills, where water rates are dramatically higher than in neighboring towns that draw the same Lake Michigan water through municipally-owned systems, officials are considering using eminent domain to take back their water systems, according to the Southtown Star. Other municipalities, including Peoria and Pekin, have mounted similar efforts over the years, but American Water has beaten them back.

Sometimes cities win. After a six-year legal battle, Fort Wayne, Indiana, last year won control of water services that had belonged to a Aqua America. According to FWW, a typical household’s bill dropped by over a third, while water quality and service improved significantly. “It’s been quite successful,” said Keesecker.

Paris says ‘non’

If Chicago were to consider water privatization, one prime prospective buyer would be Veolia Water, part of the North American subsidiary of the French multinational Veolia Environnement, the largest private water company in the world. Veolia Environnement NA moved its headquarters to the Aon building in August 2008. At the time, chief executive Michele Gourvennec noted that “the city of Chicago’s many environmental initiatives mirror…our interest in providing leading-edge environmental programs for our municipal, industrial, and commercial customers.”

Veolia operates the Indianapolis water system (now called Veolia Water Indianapolis) under a 20-year, $1.5 billion contract. In 2008 Veolia took over a $400 million contract to operate the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District, and it was listed as one of three multinationals that would have the capacity to bid on a water system takeover there.

Veolia’s “vision” is of “a future where the entire planet’s increasingly scarce supply of water fit for human consumption is controlled as a commodity to be bought, sold, traded, marketed, managed and priced for the highest possible corporate profit,” according to a 2005 corporate profile by Public Citizen. (The group argues that as a “natural monopoly,” water resources are best kept in public hands.)

Public Citizen charges that “corruption appears to be part of their corporate culture,” noting bribery convictions of company executives in New Orleans as well as France and Italy, and the jailing of mayors in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Angoulene, France, for taking bribes from company representatives. (In New Orleans in 2002, after faith, labor, community and environmental groups organized against privatization, bids were rejected by the water and sewer board — and a referendum was passed requiring voter approval of any privatization contract.)

Reviewing the corporation’s operations in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America, Public Citizen charges that Veolia has “a global track record of corruption, broken promises, environmental degradation, price-gouging, obfuscation, misdirection, and secrecy.” Nonetheless, “the world’s largest water company continues to enjoy substantial support within powerful pockets of financial and political circles.”

Founded in 1853 as Compagnie Generale des Eaux (by decree of Napolean III), Veolia took over the water system of Paris in 1861. Last year Paris decided it will not renew Veolia’s contract for water services in the city, which expires on December 31, Inter Press Service reports.

“We want to offer better service, at a better price,” said Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe.

A new model for Chicago

Chicago has led the nation in putting major public assets up for long-term lease. Its 2005 Skyway lease to a European consortium was the first such deal for an existing tollroad in the U.S.; its attempt to privatize Midway Airport (which could be revived if economic conditions improve) would have been the first of its kind too.

A recent Illinois PIRG report looks at all of Chicago’s privatization deals, including downtown parking garages and the city’s parking meters, and finds that all include contract terms limiting concessionaire’s risk. In the parking meter deal, the city is barred from issuing permits for parking facilities that charge less than three times nearby meter rates, which would seem to remove any competitive pressure to keep rates down.

In no case has there been any independent financial analysis of asset value or public interest impacts, Illinois PIRG found; the deals are developed and cut in secret, with no opportunity for public input; huge fees for lawyers and financial consultants cut into the value of deals, and sometimes raise conflict-of-interest concerns; and multigenerational leases limit options for cancelling deals and saddle future generations with rising costs and limited options.

The longer the timeframe, the harder it is to accurately gauge an asset’s value, said Brian Imus of Illinois PIRG, and it’s virtually impossible to predict changes in technology and demographics in the long run.

The report was issued in conjunction with an ordinance sponsored by Alderman Scott Waguespack, who called the parking meter debacle “a wake-up call for the City Council to strengthen the tools they have to make sound fiscal and policy decisions.”

The ordinance would require notification of aldermen whenever a public asset lease was under consideration; a public hearing at least a month before a council vote on putting out a bid; independent third-party review of asset values, public-interest concerns (which are particularly relevant in core operations like parking meters), consideration of other options; and a 30-year limit on leases of assets worth over $1 million.

“There need to be policies in place to protect the interests of the public and taxpayers,” said Imus. “We don’t have that in Chicago.”

He expects a push for hearings on the ordinance next month. A previous council effort to impose a 30-day “waiting period” was whittled down to 15 days under administration pressure. It’s not the time period itself but the independent review it provides for that’s important, says Paul Sajovek, Waguespack’s chief of staff. (In Akron voters won a 90-day review period — and the requirement that voters approve any lease of public assets.)

Imus believes it’s possible that some privatization deals could benefit the public. And while some would agree with Lindall that privatization is a bad idea generally, it’s likely many would agree with Keesecker that water services should be kept public.

Water District inflates disinfection costs

For nearly a decade, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District has resisted calls that it disinfect wastewater discharged into the Chicago area waterways system, arguing among other things that it’s too costly.

MWRD’s estimate that disinfection would cost nearly $1 billion over 20 years is widely reported (although as recently as February 23, in a letter to the Tribune, MWRD president Terrence O’Brien claimed a 20-year cost potentially greater than $2 billion).

But a 2006 study commissioned by the US EPA came up with much lower figures.

O’Brien’s $2 billion figure is found in a 2005 cost estimate by MWRD, which concluded that ultraviolet disinfection technology was most cost-effective, and if combined with filtration of suspended solids, it would cost $2.15 billion over 20 years.  (That includes capital costs of $1.56 billion and annual operating and maintenance costs of $30.5 million.)

Without filtration, according to that report, ultraviolet disinfection would cost $963 million.  Reviewing that report, US EPA consultants studied and rejected the need for filtration.

But the US EPA review also pointed out that MWRD’s estimate for disinfection without filtration ignored cost savings associated with decreased need for pump stations and electrical power, and it included buildings to house ultraviolet units, though these are generally housed (at much lower cost) in  covered channels.

Adjusting MWRD’s estimate for disinfection without filtration — $541 million in capital costs and $21.4 million in annual costs — US EPA projected $380 million in capital costs and $13 million in annual costs.  That would bring 20-year costs down below $650 million.

It would add less than $25 to the annual property tax bill of area residents, according to US EPA.

The US EPA report also provided cost estimates based of methods used by Indianapolis and by the nonprofit Water Environment Research Foundation.  Using the Indianapolis methodology, capital costs were projected at $242 million, and annual operating and maintenance costs at $8 million.  By WERF’s methodology, the figures were $118 million and $7 million.

Environmental groups believe MWRD is exaggerating the cost of disinfection as part of a strategy of delaying action, said John Quail of Friends of the Chicago River.

“It’s a false issue,” he added, since under the Clean Water Act the only acceptable cost considerations are those involving “major economic impact,” and these numbers don’t rise to that standard.

“The Clean Water Act requires that if you can clean up a water body, then you must,” said Ann Alexander of the Natural Resources Defense Council.  “The question is not whether the District wants to spend the money, it’s whether it needs to spend the money to comply with the law.”

MWRD is also doggedly pursuing scientific studies with the aim of disproving the need for disinfection, Alexander said.  A risk assessment by the District has come under heavy criticism by scientists from US EPA and NRDC.  While an epidemiological study now being ramped up by MWRD “is better quality science,” it’s not considering potential uses of the waterways, she said — and given the negative bias of such studies, a single study offers “no basis to throw away years of accumulated wisdom about disinfection, and to refuse measures that will protect the public.”

“We have known for more than a century that sewage-related waterborne pathogens are harmful,” she said.  “That is why the US EPA has set standards to protect people from them, and why pretty much every other major municipality in the country disinfects its sewage.”

The Illinois Pollution Control Board is expected to rule this year on a recommendation by the Illinois EPA — supported by the Chicago Department of the Environment — to require disinfection.  MWRD and IEPA have testified at pollution board hearings, and environmental groups will start presenting experts and arguments today.

Water everywhere…

The Illinois Humanities Council sponsors a forum on growing conflicts over water and oil tomorrow at International House at the University of Chicago.

Since it’s just a few blocks from the site of the proposed Milton Friedman Institute, perhaps they’ll consider today’s article in the New York Times, about small towns in Chile that are drying up since their water sources have been sold off.  Water privatization — less regulated in Chile than anywhere else — began in 1981 under the Pinochet dictatorship, which Friedman so prominently advised.

Plugging lakes compact leaks

Progress Illinois notes a new effort led by Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation to amend the Great Lakes Basin Compact to classify water as a public resource and not a commercial product.  They want to plug a gap in the compact (first reported here in August) that could allow massive withdrawals by water bottlers.

Environmental groups that support the compact say it is strong enough as is.  Amending the compact would be an arduous process, requiring agreement by legislatures of eight states and by the U.S. Congress.

 U.S. Representative Bart Stupak (D-Michigan), who opposed the pack (citing loopholes “anybody could drive a semitruck through”) said he might sponsor a joint resolution expressing congressional intent that Great Lakes water not be commercialized, according to an AP report.

Leaks in Great Lakes Compact?

While Great Lakes advocates are pressing for swift congressional approval of the Great Lakes Compact, groups concerned about water privatization are working to close what they call “loopholes” in the international agreement.

A coalition including Food and Water Watch, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, and the Council of Canadians is concerned that while the compact bans large-scale diversions of Great Lakes water, it provides exceptions for bottled water and for water labelled as “product.”

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