Winnipeg, and the surrounding communities, are presently beholden to the same old game of staged ideological political chicken between the city and the province, and unfortunately our water supply (imagine a barrel of water) is set to collide in between. Thus far most of the spectators have gathered just in front of the barrel of water in protest, and they nervously hold their ground as Sam Katz floors his Nissan Quest towards the barrel while screaming at the top of his lungs: “This is not the privatization of our water system, we are searching for strategic partners!” Gary appears less threatening trying to look “green” while idling his Ford Escape Hybrid on the other side of the barrel, but rest assured he is ready to slam on the gas and roar towards the barrel. In fact he is the one who dared Sammy and the city into this game of political chicken in the first place.
Water, literally the lifeblood that sustains virtually all species on the planet, is an emotional subject. It is even more distressing when we consider the fact that, although water is the most abundant substance on the planet, we are using our precious water resources faster that it can replenish itself.
We all know that a man dying of thirst would undoubtedly give his life savings for a cup of fresh water, but would it be morally just to profiteer in such an occasion? None of us want to end up in the predicament of the dehydrated man, which is why the water we drink, like the air that we breathe, is a public good that should remain common to us all. It is not something that should be commodified for the benefit of a few.
Given the stakes then, it is not surprising that citizens are understandably alarmed about the City's proposed replacement of the Waste & Water Department (W & WD) with a Municipal Corporate Utility (MCU) and what that would mean to them and their water bill. Certainly a debate about our water usage and the impacts of our current capital and water intensive sewage system is well over-due, but the current debate is being framed around ideological hyperbole rather than objective analysis on the facts.
The proponents of the MCU need to provide us with more detail, we need more than naked assumptions. They claim that synergies will result in a 1.0%, and 1.5% reduction in costs in the first and second years respectively through purchasing synergies, but they do not specifically outline what these purchasing synergies are. We need details! Provide us with a list what the W & WD presently buys, from whom and for what price, then provide us with some details on how the MCU intends to lower these costs. The MCU model is supposed to be more responsive and thereby more likely to attract private investment. Corporate model, or not, with sewage contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars I do not suspect that it is that difficult to entice private firms to bid on them, and it is not entirely clear why a corporate model is automatically more responsive (other than the right-wing ideological assumption that business can always do everything better).
Entering into a 30 year contract is tantamount to entering into a marriage, it is not a decision that should be taken lightly. Yet in less than a year the City wants to move from the courting process to the altar. Is it wise to marry someone known for less than a year? Could we find a great partner? The “conservative estimates” of 10-15% reduction in costs might be attainable if this is the case. On the other hand, the partnership could be a disaster, as was the case for Hamilton and Atlanta, and we may be left with a hefty divorce tab. Perhaps prudence would dictate that we go back to the drawing board and sketch out a few more details before this motion is rushed through City Council?
Those who oppose the MCU have similarly distorted the facts with an ideological lens. They have incorrectly labelled the debate as the “complete privatization of or water” a “monumental robbery” and a sure fire way to “hike water rates”. To be fair, this is not an accurate reflection of the present MCU proposal, and water rates are already slated to continue to increase regardless. Threats toward privatization of our water supply exist, and it is good that we have an active vanguard of citizens who serve as watchdogs to prevent this from ever occurring; however their ideological viewpoints, and perhaps their party loyalties, have kept them from focusing on the true marionette master who is pulling most of the strings.
As reported by Bartley Kives of the Winnipeg Free Press (WFP) in his article “Debate about water utility not deep enough” notes:
The province... is in love with the utility. Six years after forcing Winnipeg to engage in a $1.8-billion upgrade to waste-water treatment that the city can barely afford, the Doer government will soon be forced to order bedroom communities such as Stonewall and East and West St. Paul to make sewage upgrades of their own.
The Doer government was correct in mandating that municipalities remove Nitrogen and Phosphorous, but this means very little when they provide neither the correct direction nor the adequate funding for municipalities to achieve this objective.
Given the City's present cash-strapped financial situation, and the Mayor's ideological pro-business predilections, should we be surprised the City is presently entertaining the idea of private funders?
The province's “plan” as indicated in their draft Public Land Use Polices (PLUPs) released this past March is to have Winnipeg contract sewage services to neighboring municipalities. Should we be surprised to see the City of Winnipeg follow the direction as recently outlined by the province?
Isn't the city ultimately still dependant on the province to pass a regulation under s. 212 of The Winnipeg Charter to establish the corporation?
Regardless of whether it is performed by the present city-owned Waste & Water Department or a future Corporate Municipal Utility extending sewer services out into Winnipeg's commuter-shed, this is a poorly thought out idea as it will clearly lead to more urban sprawl!
Winnipeg already faces an estimated infrastructure deficit of $7.4 billion and the South End sewage treatment plant is already operating at capacity and due to the population growth (caused by new developments in the South End of Winnipeg like Waverly West), and it will require significant upgrades to accommodate the required volume. Winnipeg already faces the difficult task of managing the competing objectives of rehabilitating the aging infrastructure in the city centre while also incorporating new developments within the perimeter. New developments will undoubtedly bubble up from the sewage infrastructure as it extends out beyond the perimeter, thereby compounding these problems even further.
While both the City and the Province see this as a win-win way for Winnipeg to generate revenue while achieving Nitrogen and Phosphorous removal on schedule, they have clearly not taken the time to look holistically at the larger picture. The corresponding urban sprawl will decrease Winnipeg's population density further and with fewer people to service more infrastructure the obvious result will be a reduction in service, increased taxes, or both. Our city will become even more car dependent resulting in further greenhouse gas emissions, valuable agricultural land will be paved over, and the few remaining wetlands (the kidneys of the planet) which remain on the outskirts of the city will needlessly be drained. In short the revenues do not justify the additional costs.
The framing of the debate as left vs. right, or public control vs. private control misses the deeper issues that lay underneath. As much as this debate is about the public control of our infrastructure, it is perhaps even more about how we intend to design our city in the years to come. At the Mayor`s Environmental Symposium in April of 2009 numerous participants outlined urban sprawl as an issue of concern. We cannot change the sprawl of the past, but we do have the ability to stop the sprawl of the future. The line in the sand has to be drawn somewhere. Speak up Winnipeg! And not just to Katz, Doer needs to hear you as well. We only have one barrel of water and it really doesn't matter if Katz or Doer hit the barrel first. If the barrel spills we are all in trouble!