The history of the West is peppered with water cowboys. Just recall
William Mulholland, whose role in Los Angeles’ secret grab of water from
Owens Valley, Calif., was made famous in the movie Chinatown, or
Colorado’s contemporary water baron, Aaron Million, who’s pushing a $3
billion, privately funded scheme to funnel water to Colorado’s Front
Range. Experience has shown that with water comes power.

unique properties of water — the fact that it is a limited resource
required for survival and that it has no substitute — have made it a
bitterly fought-over asset in the arid West. Westerners who want to
protect their limited water supply realize how important it is to keep
this public resource out of the hands of the water cowboys.

But a
threat different from diversion has come to town. As communities
struggle to balance their ever-shrinking budgets, investment firms and
large, predominantly foreign companies are seizing the moment. Across
the country, communities are being aggressively courted to sell or lease
their drinking water and wastewater utilities to private companies.
Since 1991, water utilities interested in profit have seduced at least
144 cities and towns into privatizing their domestic water systems. Most
were in the nation’s Rust Belt. But this year, a record number of
communities are considering it, including some in the West: Tulsa,
Okla., Fresno County and Rialto, Calif., and Comal County, Texas, are
all considering privatization.

But before they answer the siren
call of private water companies, Western cities should heed the
experiences of other communities. Because after the jolt of cash that
comes when a city leases or sells its water utility, benefits drop off —
sometimes precipitously. In the 10 largest cities around the country
that have sold or leased their water systems, companies have raised
consumers’ water rates by an average of 15 percent a year. Residents of
Fairbanks, Alaska, saw their water and sewer bills jump from $543 a year
before the utilities were sold in 1997, to $1,197 today, an increase of
9 percent annually. Residents of East Palo Alto, Calif., have seen
their bills rise by 10 percent a year since their water system was
leased to the for-profit company, American Water.