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U.S. News & World Report
Copyright 2002 U.S. News & World Report. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 18, 2002

Top of the Week; Spotlight

Watering Hole
Marianne Lavelle

Most Americans take it for granted that they can drink tap water. Sure, many have filters designed to screen out traces of lead and other bad stuff--just to make sure. And others opt for bottled varieties. Still, they generally trust what comes out of the faucet. But should they?

Thirty years after Congress passed the Clean Water Act, lots of communities are having trouble paying the escalating tab for safe drinking water. The cost of repairing and replacing long-neglected water mains and treatment plants in thousands of cities and towns nationwide is estimated to be as much as $1 trillion. And they can't count on the federal government for help: The Bush administration plans to cut funding for water and sewer projects by 10 percent, diverting the money instead to prevent terrorist attacks on water systems. So, local leaders are increasingly turning to private companies.

Sixteen percent of Americans now pay private water operators, many of them foreign. Not everyone's pleased. "Water is basic. It is a necessity of life. Should West Virginia risk losing control over its water?" asks the state's deputy attorney general, Silas Taylor. Last week, Taylor petitioned to block the $4.6 billion sale of his state's largest water provider to British Thames Water, a subsidiary of the German conglomerate RWE. Just weeks earlier, the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, bowing to public pressure, abandoned plans to hand over control of its water supply to a French company. Meanwhile, officials in Stockton, Calif., are negotiating a $600 million contract with Thames and its Colorado partner, OMI. Residents--who were set to vote on privatization--are crying foul. But Mayor Gary Podesto says his community may have no choice. "This is something," he says, "we all have to look at."

-Marianne Lavelle

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