About 60 concerned residents packed a small room at the Sierra Senior Center in Oakhurst last week to discuss the future of water in Eastern Madera County -- a meeting that focused on the possible dangers of privatizing water systems.
The March 22 meeting, that included speakers and a showing of the documentary "Thirst," was organized by residents in response to recent proposals to explore selling the county's 34 sewer and water districts -- 18 of them in the Mountain Area -- to a private company.
Consultants from American Water Company approached the county in April, 2012 about purchasing the county's special water districts, and in September, the Madera County Board of Supervisors directed staff to create a committee to explore the issues of privatization.
On March 8, after several public meetings and a survey that polled rate-payers, the county's utilities committee made the recommendation to end the water privatization effort -- advising that staff take the issue back to the board of supervisors to work on internal improvements and limited outsourcing to a private company -- likely only billing and invoicing collections for the districts, said county engineer Kheng Vang.
"Again, these are all just recommendations to the board of supervisors," Vang said. "The board of supervisors will take action on it (privatization) April 23. I think the main action will be whether or not we will continue with the committee's recommendation to end the outsourcing, or we move forward with the actual outsourcing, which will probably be several actions later."
With stock in water rising nationwide, water utilities within struggling counties like Madera County have become easy and enticing "entrees" for big companies like American Water Company, said area resident Lynn Jacobsson, who spearheaded the March 22 event.
Companies that purchase water have a history of raising rates significantly and putting districts in debt, then selling them to another firm, she said.
According to foodandwaterwatch.org, American Water Company -- who proposed buying Madera County's water -- owns water utilities in 34 of the 50 states and as of 2010, was bringing in $2.7 billion in revenues and $268 million in net income, Jacobsson said.
At a recent meeting about water privatization, an investor sitting next to Jacobsson told her that he wished he had "another quarter million to put into stock" for American Water Company, although he was attending the meeting to oppose privatization in Madera County because "he lived here," she said with a smile.
Tony Ward and more area concerns
Panelist Tony Ward, an area resident who served on a former county water oversight coalition appointed by the board of supervisors, spoke about many water issues locally. He also serves on the Madera Oversight Coalition, but spoke at last week's event as a private citizen.
To avoid a monopoly of privatization, Ward said a better option for improving water and lowering rates could be uniting the county's many special districts to form a large water district that could be run by a local board, still beneath the county's jurisdiction.
A common concern about uniting has an ironic element because "from 145 all the way to Mammoth is all granite fracture" with the same water flowing through it, he said.
"We don't seem to want to share," Ward said. "Somehow we have to get everyone together."
Homeowners with wells would also be affected by a neighboring company pumping out nearby groundwater if privatization occurs, he said. When Ward moved to the Mountain Area in 1989, he said groundwater was available 200 to 400 feet down. Now, in the Coarsegold area, some wells are as deep as 1,000 feet, he said.
He warned of water that will likely be taken from the mountains for the proposed 5-190-home Tesoro Viejo (Rio Mesa) community to be located off Highway 41, three miles north of Ave. 12.
Currently, every special district has its own fund for improvements, and do not receive dollars from a general county fund, said Sarah Rah, with the Community Utilities Council, a grassroots citizens group that formed last year to discuss water privatization issues.
"The county needs to spend more time and more effort with these districts and work through the process of doing a rate increase, but with a limited staff, we have very little time to do outreach," said county engineer Vang.
"I do not paint the county in black," Rah said. "They've cut staff at 50%. We need to step up and help them manage our water."
Area resident Doug Hampton, whose home is a part of MD40, said he is concerned about how the county is currently managing its special districts. In the past, he and the 40 other homeowners in his district were presented with a price increase for water that increased "three-fold" and seemed unreasonable.
After looking into the increase, he said he feels the county mismanaged close to $12,000 of his district's reserves, including installing unnecessary water meters when his district pays a flat fee, he said.
Water concerns on a larger scale
Panelist Lloyd Carter, president of the California Save Our Streams Council, radio show host and a former Fresno Bee reporter who now writes about water issues at lloydgcarter.com, spoke about water concerns on a larger scale.
Carter presented some alarming figures -- including that each year, 70 million people die of water-born illness; only 50 years worth of groundwater remains in the Midwest; and that "the Pentagon said the wars in this century will not be fought over oil, they will be fought over water."
Meanwhile, two-thirds of all domestic consumption of water is used on landscaping, he said.
Billionaires are now also buying up water at an increasing rate, and are making millions selling bottled water, he said.
"The profits should be coming back to the state of California, not to private industries -- that's what I hate about privatizing," said speaker Walt Shubin, a Valley farmer and environmentalist whose also worked extensively on water issues.
Along with the three panelists who spoke at the March 22 event, the theme of the documentary "Thirst," also urged communities not to sell their water to private companies.
The documentary explored the dark side of water privatization in the City of Stockton, Bolivia and India.
"In history, our ancestors considered water an offering, a holy vision, the basis for life, the essence of life. All such beliefs have changed now," said Rajendra Singh, interviewed in "Thirst" for his involvement in leading a national movement in India against water privatization. "In our childhood, we never imagined buying bottled water ... and now, water is selling at the cost of milk. A poor person can not afford to buy it ... Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola in India pump our water, taking it from under poor people's land. But the water they fill in bottles -- whose water is that? This is the water of our civil society."
The movie also featured speakers at a Third World Water Forum, including an Indian woman who asked:
"How will they increase water resources availability? They keep talking about financial resource doubling, they don't talk about river flow doubling, stream flow doubling, well water doubling. That's what women talk about."
The scenes from Stockton included groups of citizens lining the streets, chanting "let the people vote" after their city council and mayor voted to sell Stockton's water to a private company.
"They really don't know what's going on," said another Stockton man in the film. "And they shouldn't have the right to vote our water rights away."
"We made a difference," said area resident Marc Sobel during last week's event. "We people showed up at the supervisors meetings and gave them help. We came to the committee meetings they had and we packed the room like this ... the supervisors found out we care about this issue. We need to pay attention because they will be back."
In an effort to stay involved in the discussions about special districts and water privatization proposals, a group of residents banded together -- unassociated with the county-appointed committee to explore privatization -- to form the Community Utilities Council.
To get updates from, and participate in, the grassroots council, leave your contact information and the name of your service district on the voicemail at 1-888-789-1634, (559) 877-7272 or email Sarah Rah at email@example.com. The council also has a website: privatizingmaderacounty.com.
For more information and requests for help in solving water issues, residents can call Madera County's general phone number for all questions -- 311 -- and ask for county engineer Kheng Vang or special districts manager Steven Norman. Vang can also be reached at (559) 675-7817, ext. 3351 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Knowledge is power and you people are the majority -- the people who are speaking up," said Shubin. "So let's keep doing it."