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Editorials

Robert Powelson: Experts, not activists, should be included in water conversation

| Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018, 9:09 a.m.
Robert Powelson
Robert Powelson

A Sept. 27 article in the Tribune-Review described “experts” urging Pittsburgh City Council to be cautious when considering privatization for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. It is a stretch to describe two of these individuals as “experts,” when really they are representatives from activist organizations.

These so-called “experts” are from organizations seeking to prevent communities from learning all of the available solutions to the water challenges they face. These organizations are fundamentally opposed to water companies, believing that only the government should be involved in the provision of water services, even when the government has failed to do so adequately. A prime example is the disaster in Flint, Mich., which would not have happened if a private company had run the system.

These activists ignore the vast amount of data demonstrating that drinking water quality violations occur significantly less often in water systems owned and operated by water companies, as opposed to public water systems. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that drinking water quality violations occur 24 percent less often nationally for regulated water companies than publicly owned systems. Further analysis looking just at Pennsylvania found that figure to be 37.4 percent less often in the commonwealth. When it comes to providing safe and reliable water service, it is crystal clear that water companies are leading the way.

The article reports that rates were also a topic of discussion at the September public meeting. The single biggest driver of rates is infrastructure investment. The six largest private water companies in the U.S. cumulatively invest nearly $2.7 billion annually in their water systems. Compare that figure with the total $2.3 billion appropriated in 2017 for the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, and you’ll start to get a picture of water companies’ strong commitment to infrastructure investment.

As former chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, I’ve seen firsthand what happens when water systems are mismanaged or necessary infrastructure investments are delayed. Data shows that water rates are going up at the same rate — about 7 percent per year — for both government-run and private water utilities as responsible utilities make the necessary infrastructure investments. Responsible utilities ensure that their rates cover the full cost of providing water services instead of trying to keep rates artificially low by deferring investments or using other municipal funds to subsidize rates.

Stronger compliance record. A record of strategic infrastructure investment. Unparalleled water system expertise. These are all significant benefits of working with a water company, but benefits I am sure Pittsburgh City Council heard nothing about in the meeting. That’s why Pittsburgh would be better served if it brought in actual experts, not activists, for this important conversation.

Robert Powelson is president and CEO of the National Association of Water Companies.

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