FIXING THE AGING INFRASTRUCTURE IN ATLANTA, GEORGIA
AND MONCTON, NB
North American cities are facing the
daunting task of repairing or replacing century-old
pipes and valves that make up our water and wastewater
systems. The problem lies is finding the financial
capital and the political will to pay for neglected
water systems. Taxpayers tend to take the flowing
taps and flushing toilets for granted. And politicians
may not be willing to risk votes by raising water
and sewer rates.
In the United States, recent studies
estimate that it will take between $150 billion
and $1 trillion over the next three decades to upgrade
that country’s water systems.
In Canada, the figure lies at $90
billion over the next 20 years.
THE ATLANTA EXPERIMENT
The Chattahoochee River is where
Atlanta gets her drinking water, and discharges
her wastewater. In the summer of 1998, then mayor
Bill Campbell signed a Federal Consent Decree in
order to settle a lawsuit brought against Atlanta
by people concerned with the constant polluting
of the Chattahoochee.
These concerned groups- both upstream and downstream
from one of the fastest growing cities in North
America- were joined by state and federal environmental
protection agencies. (Read more
about the environmental lawsuit against Atlanta
Then Mayor Campbell committed Atlanta to find a
way to comply with the regulated amount of bacteria
Atlanta could discharge. In other words, he committed
Atlanta to finding billions of dollars to replace
and upgrade pipes and treatments plants.
Privatizing the water system could
defray the millions of dollars Atlanta was paying
in environmental fines, and could only help in the
future investment to improve the pipes. Clair Muller
is Chair of the Utilities Committee and has been
a councilmember in the City’s north end for
Clair Muller: We
knew that that was going to be a huge, huge bill
and that was why I think the administration at the
time started looking at privatizing the water.
WINS THE WATER CONTRACT
Joseph Reid was Deputy Chief Operating
Officer for Bill Campbell. He remembers that for United
Water, and the privatization movement, the Atlanta
contract was considered the beachhead for major North
Later that year, Atlanta requested proposals from
private water companies to operate and maintain
their water system. United Water Services Atlanta
(a joint venture between United Water Resources
of New Jersey and the French giant Suez) came in
with the lowest offer. Their bid would save Atlanta
$20 million dollars a year. United Water was granted
a twenty-year contract to operate and maintain the
water system that serves over a million people.
Joseph Reid: This
was post-Olympics which means that it was actually
a city that was known world wide now. And it would
be a great opportunity for any company to showcase
what privatization could do in a city like Atlanta.
And this is more or less the Mecca of the south, the
capital of the south if you consider it that. So if
you could privatize Atlanta, you could go then after
Detroit, you know, New York, some of the other cities,
other major cities.
August 2002, the privatization showcase had gone
awry. Atlanta was now controlled by a new mayor-
Shirley Franklin. She presented United Water and
the public with a detailed report that showed United
Water was in default of the contract. (see a letter
from the City's water commissioner to United Water
outlining her concerns )
The City claimed that United Water was not meeting
the most basic requirements: That staffing levels
were too low; That they had defaulted on a multitude
of maintenance obligations That United Water violated
state and federal safe drinking water laws. (see
attached letter about
violation of drinking water laws)
Councilmember Clair Muller began getting complaints
from her constituents almost immediately into the
Clair Muller: We
noticed a huge increase in customer complaints –
everything ranging from the inability to get water
service for a new house to having a meter changed
if it was faulty. But more specifically: leaks.
We were in a period of drought just about the entire
time that United Water ran our system. And citizens
just were infuriated by trickling or gushing water
that would be running down the street because it
seemed like such a waste. We were under water restrictions
and yet the water was leaking from the pipes.
Greg Johnson, a resident of Atlanta,
noticed a leak in front of his house on the street.
There was a small river of water flowing down the
street during a time when the city was restricting
the use of water to residents. When he called United
Water to have the problem fixed no action was taken
(see a letter of complaint
written by Johnson to United Water)
A hundred people were ready to move
into their high-rise condominiums in the Museum
Tower in downtown Atlanta. Developer Satish Lathi
discovered there was no water for a sprinkler system.
He had to put in a new water line and estimates
that he lost nearly $1.5 million. (read Lathi's
interview with the fifth estate )
Following the August 2002 report,
United Water was placed on a 90-day probation period.
By all accounts, United Water did make serious improvements
in areas like meter installations, and billing.
But it was not enough for the contract to continue.
THE END TO PRIVATE WATER
Clair Muller: We
were told that they could save us twenty million a
year and they only saved us ten. Not only did they
only save us ten, but the customer service really
United Water ran Atlanta’s water system for
four years. The final straw came in January 2003
when the City released an audit that showed United
Water had failed to save the city $20 million a
In a press statement issued jointly with the City,
United Water’s Chairman at the time Michael
Chesser said: "United
Water is proud to have made significant improvements
to the city's water system including the virtual elimination
of an enormous and unexpected backlog."
At the same press conference, a city official said:
"We have a contract
that doesn't work; it simply doesn't work…the
residents of Atlanta cannot get good water under the
contract, and United Water cannot make money under
Suez, the French company that owns United Water declined
to be interviewed by the fifth estate.
faces serious challenges in the future. One of the
fastest growing metropolitan areas in North America,
with a population of more than 4 million, the greater
Atlanta region is growing at an average rate of 80,000
people a year.
As it continues to grow and expand its infrastructure,
Atlanta is also charged with finding three billion
dollars over the next decade to overhaul its entire
wastewater system to comply with environmental laws
and upgrades and replacements to the pipes.