Saudi Arabia on the Hudson? Why Water Speculators Want Desalination in the Moist Northeast

Here's a cautionary tale about husbanding water resources in the 21st century.

Suppose you live near a picturesque, estuarine river, where the environment is sensitive and the water is salty. It's a desirable place, commutable to a major city, so it's under some development pressure, but it still has open space including parklands dotted with big, beautiful freshwater lakes in the north, and a large reservoir to the south. Now imagine a for-profit, multinational corporation has privatized the public water resources, and is siphoning off the drinking water you've been getting from your county's own reservoir to sell it in a neighboring state. They propose to replace your reservoir water with treated brackish water from a hugely expensive, energy-intensive and environmentally damaging desalination plant they'd build on the salty river, just 3.5 miles from a leaking nuclear power plant, and stick you, the ratepayer, with the enormous bill. Imagine that government regulators don't seem to object, even though many thousands of residents are incensed, and the narrow window for public input is rapidly closing.

Where could something like this happen? Desalination plants are usually last resorts for arid places that have little choice. You'd expect situations like this might occur in Saudi Arabia, but in fact, this is precisely what's happening today in suburban Rockland County, New York, on the Hudson River opposite the aging, leaking Indian Point nuclear plant. United Water New York (UWNY) has chosen it as a test case for building its first big desalination plant in the northeastern US. It would create a destructive, far-reaching precedent for desalination in water-rich areas as a tool for water speculators.

The proposed plant would generate huge profits for UWNY and United Water New Jersey (UWNJ), both subsidiaries of the French-based multinational corporation Suez Environnement, which privatizes water resources and builds desalination plants (yes, including in Saudi Arabia) worldwide. It made over $18 billion in 2010. Incidentally, its parent company GDF Suez is a major owner/operator of nuclear plants, which may explain why it isn't deterred by radioactive isotopes leaking from the nearby nuclear plant.

Rockland residents would bear the capital costs of the new plant, while UWNY would also charge them for the desalinated water. UWNY's affiliate United Water New Jersey would make additional money by selling more water from Rockland's DeForest Lake Reservoir to New Jersey. Between 1991 and 2007 United Water discharged roughly double its permitted limits to New Jersey and was fined for this in 2007. Yet when the reservoir was built, the NYS authorization for it stated that it was to be "operated solely for the benefit of the citizens of Rockland County. The only benefit to the Hackensack Water Company (United Water New Jersey) and the people of New Jersey is the incidental benefit of a regulated flow in the river." The desalinization plant would countermand that, pitting the interests and water rights of Rockland against New Jersey, with United Water profiting at both ends.

That's a precedent that should concern you, whether you live in the Northeast, where United Water is seeking to expand and further privatize public water resources, or in dry places like Arizona, or really anywhere that depends on local or remote water resources. The US is not Saudi Arabia and is not suffering much from water scarcity -- yet. Experts predict that population growth, climate change and other factors may make it an issue here by mid-century, generating more conflict over water rights. But all over America, this will happen much, much sooner if we allow multinational corporations to privatize our water resources and manage them for exorbitant profits rather than sustainable use.

NYS Department of Environmental Conservation held just one day of public hearings on this complex and far-reaching issue, and gave the public and local governments just 90 days months to absorb United Water's 4,000-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) before it closed the public comment period. Elected officials called for an extension, including in a resolution that passed the Rockland Legislature unanimously, and a letter from the Rockland County Executive, but they didn't get it. Very few people have even read the DEIS, but among those who have are an independent economist hired by the citizens' group Rockland Water Coalition, who found it riddled with gaps, questionable methodologies and unreliable cost estimates.

Though public comment is closed, citizen groups oppposed to the plant fight on. Some 20,000 residents signed have petitions opposing it; wherever you live you can join them here. Meanwhile this issue, with its big regional and national implications, is still more or less under the radar.