May 12, 2016

Turning the tide against water privatization in Wisconsin

Photo credit: Overpass Light Brigade

The pieces were in place for the water industry to take control of Wisconsin’s public water systems and reap a huge profit at the community’s expense.

Aqua America, one of the largest water corporations in the United States, had hired a former Wisconsin state legislator to push a bill that would make it easier for towns to sell or lease their water systems to out-of-state corporations by eliminating democratic safeguards.

The bill was close to becoming law. Neither the public nor the media had latched on to the issue. It seemed likely the bill would breeze through the state senate — that is, until the right people came together to stop it.

Earlier this year, Wisconsin resident and Corporate Accountability International member Julilly Kohler alerted our Challenge Corporate Control of Water team to the bill. The team saw a chance to help support a dynamic coalition of local organizations protecting their water systems, as it had done in Baltimore and St. Louis.

Senior National Campaign Organizer Lauren DeRusha connected with Kim Wright, the executive director at Midwest Environmental Advocates, a nonprofit law center in Madison, Wisconsin. Kim had organized to stop this dangerous bill when it first appeared, but with many other bad bills competing for activists’ attention, it had been hard to galvanize action.

Kim worried the passage of the bill was a foregone conclusion, but knew there is very little that is more important to people than access to safe drinking water and believed people would act if they knew about the threat.

“There was no way I could justify not doing everything possible to ward off the corporate takeover of our publicly owned drinking water supplies,” she said. “I’ve got three grandchildren. I wouldn’t want to have to explain to them someday why I didn’t try to stop this.”

A powerful partnership

For Kim, environmental and social justice are closely connected. She grew up in in Central Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln first practiced law, and she often walked past monuments honoring President Lincoln’s legacy. On summer days, she helped her grandmother, a master gardener and naturalist, tend her plants. This combination of influences inspired her to become an environmental lawyer serving the public interest.

It’s easy for Kim to see how essential water is to both people and the planet. Although most of Wisconsin’s water systems are publicly managed, she knew what water privatization meant. She had heard horror stories of water systems managed by Aqua America, the bill’s proponent.

In Florida, Aqua America charged people twice as much as other utilities. From 2007 to 2011, it violated drinking water regulations 76 times and provided discolored, acrid water.Similar stories were being told in North Carolina and Texas. Like other water corporations, Aqua America pads its bottom line at the expense of the public — seeking profit from necessary infrastructure enhancements and repairs. Other private water corporations like Veolia and Suez are also perpetuating this broken model around the world, from Hoboken, New Jersey to Nagpur, India.

“Ordinary, good people don’t always see a role for themselves in protecting water because they think their government does it for them,” Kim said. “No reasonable person could foresee their own elected officials elevating the wishes of corporate donors over something as fundamental as their locally owned drinking water facilities.”

Kim and Lauren knew that if they were going to stop this dangerous bill they needed media coverage — and fast. They quickly pulled together a press conference in collaboration with Milwaukee Riverkeeper, Sierra Club, Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, and State Senator Chris Larson, who had publicly opposed the bill.

Before the event, the Overpass Light Brigade illuminated their message on light panels in front of the state capitol: Keep water public. No water for profit. Soon after, the press conference blew the story wide open, generating front page stories. Suddenly, we were back in the game.

Building on this momentum, Kim and Lauren formed a coalition and started organizing hundreds of people to call their representatives, saying it was unacceptable for them to consider supporting the bill.

When she had first heard about the troubling bill, Kim had reached out to legislative advocacy organizations, but they were scrambling to keep up with a rash of other bad bills flowing at the end of the legislative session. This time, Kim tried a more grassroots approach, contacting people she knew across the state with details about the bill.

Dozens of people responded to her, expressing their concern. For the first time, Kim realized they might be able to stop this bill.

“I believe in the power of ordinary people,” Kim said. “Individual people are the ones who did the bulk of the organizing in this case. They showed that you can go too far messing with people’s drinking water and its future, quality, and cost. The threat of losing control of quality and cost of drinking water was clearly going too far for many people regardless of the political party they belong to.”

Proponents “abandon ship”

Given the media coverage and political climate, Kim did not think the bill would appear for a vote before the senate session ended in March. The only non-industry backer, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, had withdrawn its support, so the bill looked as good as done. On President’s Day, most of the organizers were enjoying a moment of respite. But as a last-ditch attempt, privatization proponents managed to add the bill to the agenda later in the day, signaling it likely had the votes to pass. Not to be discouraged, Kim and Lauren convened an emergency coalition call to determine how to stop this bill once and for all.

They needed hundreds of people to reach out to their senators or their hard work would be for nothing. The coalition, along with the AFL-CIO, mobilized more than a thousand people to flood senators’ inboxes and phone lines.

One Corporate Accountability International member had heard from his wife, who works for one of the targeted senators, that by 9:30 a.m. the office had received 40 calls.

In the afternoon, the senate convened. The privatization bill never came up. Journalists wrote that support for the bill was fading. Finally, at 10 p.m., the bill was quietly removed from the agenda.

In the course of a day, phone calls from people across the state had swayed six senators to change their positions. According to Senator Larson, this organizing “forced [the bill’s proponents] to abandon ship,” protecting democratic governance of water in Wisconsin.

Now Kim is working with the coalition to draft a Drinking Water Bill of Rights as an organizing tool to hold elected officials accountable to protect Wisconsin’s public water so a bill like this can never gain traction again. Already, in Wisconsin cities like Milton and Janesville, mayors have passed ordinances to ensure water stays in public hands.

Her work is part of a larger movement to protect the human right to water. While supporting organizing in states across the U.S., Corporate Accountability International is doing everything from advancing the human right to water at the U.N. level to challenging the private water industry’s efforts to profit off the crisis in Flint, Michigan.

“A lot of people have heard stories about limited water access in the Global South” Kim said. “But people are starting to realize the very real threats to our drinking water here at home from the crises in Toledo and Flint. Here in Wisconsin there is a public health crisis in Kewaunee County, where a significant number of private wells have been unsafe for human consumption for more than a decade due to the high concentration of industrial-scale dairy operations. People across the nation and around the world are joining in solidarity to create and protect a clean water future.”

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