The people of Stockton, CA won an enormous victory when a California judge ruled that the city of Stockton illegally privatized its water and sewer operations. In dealings that have been typical of water privatization contracts, back room negotiations gave OMI-Thames, owned by Cal-Am, a 20-year, $600 million contract without the proper public scrutiny or environmental reviews.
The contract with OMI-Thames had been widely opposed from the start. Although Stockton voters passed a popular measure allowing the public to vote on privatization contracts, the water contract was rushed through a month before the measure went to ballot. Pressing for accountability, the Concerned Citizens Coalition of Stockton waged a four-year grassroots campaign to reclaim their municipal water utility. During these years, residents suffered from excessive rate increases, frequent sewer overflows and poor maintenance in which equipment was run to failure rather than repaired.
With the company legally ordered to return control to the city, the nightmare ended. Now, the Stockton City Council has an unprecedented opportunity to start fresh and develop a plan for local control of water, incorporating public input in a transparent process.
We’ve learned from experiences like Stockton that once water has been privatized, regaining public control is incredibly difficult. Water is a public responsibility and must be managed in the public trust.