I think those of us who live in the eastern part of the U.S. don’t think about competition for water resources as often as our friends in the western states probably do. Many of us easterners are aware that source water in northern California and in Lake Meade in southern Nevada is diverted to southern California to hydrate the sprawling populations and corporate farms found there. I have to admit that I have usually allowed myself the luxury of focusing on conservation issues that manifest themselves closer to home here in Pennsylvania … until last week. Suddenly, we have international competition for our local source water.
Here is the back-story. It all started about 10 or more years ago when a former mayor of Allentown, PA, negotiated a bonehead contract with the city’s police officers. The mayor agreed to allow pensions for retiring officers to be calculated based on the number of hours worked in the year leading up to retirement. Well, as the local urban legend goes, many officers decided to volunteer for extra shifts in their last year before retirement. Some of them are rumored to have even worked so many extra shifts that, with time and a half overtime pay, many were able to effectively double the pensions they would be due from the city upon retirement had their pensions been based on pay for 40-hour work weeks. That’s pretty much what I recall about the start of the Allentown pension crisis from the local newspaper and local TV news. But I can’t vouch for the total accuracy of this account, because I wasn’t paying really close attention … I mean, I live next to but not in Allentown, so why would their pension crisis affect me? Right?
The abuse of the pension system by some retiring police officers coupled with allegedly generous pensions for city workers in general now have Allentown on the brink of financial disaster, with bankruptcy a real possibility in the next couple of years. Therefore, in the hopes of raising between $150 million to $200 million in upfront cash, the City of Allentown last month announced that it was considering leasing its water and sewer system to an outside operator. I was surprised to hear that but didn’t think much of it, because few details were reported at the time. But then last week, the City announced that it has nine entities from as far away as Australia that have provided their resumes to the city hoping to be deemed qualified to submit bids to lease and operate Allentown’s water and sewer systems for the next 50 years. This is not small potatoes. Allentown owns a 30-million-gallon-per-day, modern water treatment plant that services an average daily demand of about 20 million gallons to residential and commercial customers.
|Treatment Plant, Allentown Bureau of Water|
So now I’m getting uncomfortable at the thought of entities with no local ties coming in to run Allentown’s water and sewer systems. This lease deal affects me because the quasi-public water and sewer authority serving my municipality, and most of the developed portions of our county outside of the City of Allentown, recently entered into an agreement to purchase 2 million to 7 million gallons of water per day from the city for the next 25 years. It’s almost a given that water and sewer rates for Allentown customers will increase under a for-profit operator, because the that operator will need to turn enough of a profit to recover the up-front money that the city is expecting as part of the deal. And since my water and sewer authority is probably one of Allentown’s biggest water and sewer customers, as an end consumer, I’m concerned about rate increases.
|Little Lehigh Creek (PADEP photo)|
As a conservationist, I’m also concerned about what a for-profit operator of Allentown’s water system could do to my local stream, the Little Lehigh Creek. Allentown's source water comes from two large, local springs and two surface water sources. The Little Lehigh Creek is the primary surface water source, and the Lehigh River is the secondary source. The Little Lehigh is designated by the state as a High-Quality Cold Water Fishery, and it’s already under significant stress from sedimentation associated with construction and storm water runoff from over-development in our area. We are also fearful that, under drought conditions, the limestone springs that feed the Little Lehigh could be seriously impacted as our local water authority pumps its nearby wells to ensure that their corporate customers have all the water they need. In fact, even though we were not under official drought conditions in 2009, all residential customers of our local water authority were proactively not permitted to water lawns or wash cars so that there would be no interruptions for the major commercial customers of the authority: Samuel Adams PA Brewery, Nestle Waters, Niagra Bottling, and Coca-Cola. And coming next year, a brand new Ocean Spray bottling plant will be tapping into our local water authority and, thus, into the additional capacity from Allentown. Water is big business around here. The thought of another for-profit player entering the local water game means more competition for a finite and seasonally fickle resource.
This is a developing story. There will certainly be more information to process before this deal is settled and a lease is awarded to one of the bidders. One thing is clear already, however. Just as is the case with all environmental issues anywhere, the water supply for the third largest metropolitan area in Pennsylvania is not contained by municipal boundaries.
By the way, that's my tap water.