Tap dreams - Page 6

Who controls what we drink? Corporate water comes to (and from) San Francisco
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A similar plant the company is hoping to construct in Huntington Beach will be about $50 more per acre foot.

When asked if $2,100 per acre-foot was a reasonable figure for desalinated water in California, Maloni said, "That's nuts."

What does all this illustrate? That even among a small cast of purported experts there's little consensus on several fundamental issues.

Adding more fuel to the fires of public skepticism is that a third of the funding for the PPIC report came from Stephen D. Bechtel Jr. — heir to the Bechtel Corp., which has come under tremendous criticism for its moves to privatize water around the world.

"That is very upsetting to us. They would stand to gain a lot with a contract to build a peripheral canal," said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of Restore the Delta.

PPIC's Ellen Hanak said the funding didn't affect their findings. "It's really much more linked to the fact that the foundation is really interested in the environment and water is a part of that."

Linda Strean, the PPIC's public affairs officer, told the Guardian that it was Bechtel himself who wrote the check, not the foundation. It's the first time Bechtel has given to PPIC.

But considering Bechtel's past performance managing water, it doesn't inspire much confidence.

BECHTEL'S BIG ADVENTURES

In April, Cesar Cardenas Ramirez and César Augusto Parada, traveled from Guayaquil, Ecuador, to San Francisco. The two men were on a fact-finding mission: they wanted to know more about the company that owns Interagua, the company that is supposed to deliver the drinking water that only occasionally comes out of the taps in their homes.

One of the first things they discovered is that 50 Beale St. doesn't necessarily advertise itself as the home of Bechtel — one of the world's largest private corporations, with global construction and infrastructure contracts amounting to billions of dollars annually.

In Guayaquil, water service has been problematic for decades. During the 1990s the country received a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank to improve basic infrastructure. The money was given directly to the government, but like many World Bank and International Monetary Fund loans granted throughout Latin America at the time, it was predicated on an eventual privatization of the water service contract.

The money helped — water conditions improved, and the city seemed to be on track to bring service to outlying areas. But in 2000, the city, abiding by the loan conditions, requested bids to run the water and sewage systems. No bids were received. Leaders scaled back provisions that kept some control in the hands of the government, and they got one response. In 2001, Interagua, a company owned by Bechtel, took over water service.

"Since the contract, nobody has been able to drink the tap water," Cardenas, who represents the Citizen's Observatory for Public Services, a watchdog group formed in Guayaquil to monitor the water contract between the government and Interagua, told the Guardian. "Prior to the contract you could drink the tap water, although there were some sections of the city where the plumbing was old and inadequate."

Even though Interagua is managing a public service, because it's a private company, information about its exact responsibilities have been elusive. The Observatory does know that Interagua pays nothing for the water it draws from the local river, is guaranteed a 17 percent rate of return, and that it has a minimum mandate to expand service. What's also known is its citizens' experience — during the first six months of the contract, some rates were increased 180 percent.

Bechtel's SF office refused to meet with the two men or answer their phone calls, e-mails, and letters, which highlights the inherent problem with corporate control of water — a lack of accountability.