Our Water is a Public Good by Jennifer Schwartz Berky, Ward 8

Jennifer Schwartz Berky’s Testimony to Kingston's Common Council Regarding the Niagara Bottling Company's

Proposal, October 7, 2014

As a taxpayer and resident of Kingston, a parent, and a professional urban planner and policy maker, I consider it my civic duty to provide testimony regarding this proposal to sell our water to a private company. The taxpayers of this community have financed this natural resource for over a century. It belongs to us. And despite the "authority" the water department has to manage it, this water is a “public good.” There are many unanswered questions about the Niagara proposal, and it would not be responsible for our leaders to make decisions before carefully examining and understanding its impacts. The availability of water and capacity of our Cooper Lake reservoir are not the only impacts of this proposal. Particularly with our climate and environment facing many uncertainties, we should have all the facts and a thorough evaluation of any proposal.

Across the United States, communities have been fighting and winning against similar proposals. Why? Because bottled water is dangerous for public health, our environment, and may cost us (and the communities around us) more than it can ever provide to offset the benefits promised by this proposal.

Economic development depends on a high quality place and high quality jobs. According to highly credible studies, bottled water plants employ few people and the jobs they create are low-paying and dangerous. Food and Water Watch, a Washington-based think tank, found that bottled water factories employ on average only twenty-four people and the typical salary of a bottled water worker is at least ten thousand dollars less than that of typical manufacturing jobs.

Furthermore, we must thoroughly examine the hidden costs of any proposal. An independent economic analysis of a very similar proposed Nestle bottling plant in California found that truck traffic, congestion, increased road maintenance, additional services, the generation of waste water by the plant, and numerous other factors would end up imposing costs and obligations to the community that would outweigh the benefits. That bottling plant proposal was defeated after a protracted, 6-year battle. The Niagara plant proposal has been quickly moved forward and is seeking Regional Economic Development funds before meeting the obligations set forth in several state laws and regional plans regarding the impacts of this proposal.1 Our community certainly has the concerned and capable citizens needed to demonstrate all the factors required for a responsible decision.

In environmental terms, bottled water goes against everything we have been working to achieve in Kingston and the region to be stewards of our environment. Kingston’s Climate Action Plan calls for us to reduce our carbon emissions forty (40) percent by 2030. Bottling water uses as much as 2,000 times more energy intensive than tap water production. Back in 2007, it was estimated that the industry used up to 54 million barrels of oil consumed in the United States. Consumption keeps rising. Clean, safe tap water is being threatened by this explosion of privatized water. As a smart, creative community, we can find other ways to maintain our public infrastructure that are not so damaging. How can we be a "model" community and violate our commitment to the environment? How about Kingston-based company that uses non-petroleum-based products and puts all the profits into our water infrastructure? If we are given the proper time explore it, there is to produce the bottled water surely higher revenue potential to repair our water infrastructure – without the environmental costs or profit from our public resources by outside firms.

The Public Trust Doctrine holds that certain natural resources belong to all and cannot be privately owned or controlled because of their intrinsic value to each individual and society. Each year, private companies reap millions in private profits from exploiting public resources...Bottled water companies generally pay a nominal fee,”2 as compared with the public, for their use of public water resources.

 Cooper Lake is fed by a small stream, not an underwater aquifer. We have experienced an "abnormally dry" season in Ulster County3 and there is no telling what conditions will be going forward. We should apply the "precautionary principle" (which says that where risks are suspected, we have an obligation to protect the public from harm) especially given the potential for drought, changes in agricultural demand, and the other unknowns associated with our most precious of resources.

Given the uncertainties about the future, economic trends and potential risks, why should we allow a private company to sell one of the area’s most economically valuable assets? Recent growth in Kingston and Ulster County show that our natural amenities are important economic assets: they attract people and firms. Our clean, fresh water is a powerful drawing card for our community. We do not need to sell them to the first or lowest bidders. The concept of “surplus” water promulgated by the proposal is not relevant here. This is our commodity. Private water companies (referred to as “Water Barons” in the media) know that they can come to certain communities to exploit their need for revenue. Perhaps we should charge the company for the real costs of this proposal (including the environmental damages caused by their packaging) and ask for sums based on the enormous profits they earn at the public’s expense. According to environmental laws and their principles, the public’s right for this most critical of resources is paramount. This will challenge the current administration and decision-makers at every level to evaluate whether they are willing to risk them. I urge Kingston’s leaders to consider these decisions very carefully, and only with full knowledge of all the facts and consequences. Water is our most precious resource and its availability to our community is our highest priority. It is a public good that demands our protection.

Thank you for your careful consideration.

Jennifer Schwartz Berky,

Principal and Founder

HONE STRATEGIC, LLC

Urban Planning & Historic Preservation

www.honestrategic.com

Board Member, Re>Think Local

Co-Creating a Better Hudson Valley

www.rethinklocal.org

Executive Board Member, Hudson River Valley Greenway Conservancy

1 The proposal must go through the SEQR process and should be – for Regional Economic Development Funds – vetted against the New York State Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Policy Act and the “”Mid-Hudson Regional Sustainability Plan” (http://www.orangecountygov.com/filestorage/124/1362/MHRSP_Book_opt.pdf”) AKA “The Cleaner Greener Plan.

2 Huang, Ling-Yee, Restoring the Trust: An Index of State Constitutional and Statutory Provisions on Water Resources and the Public Trust Doctrine (September 25, 2009). Center for Progressive Reform White Paper No. 908-B, September 2009. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1478512
3 http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/mapsanddata/maparchive.aspx

5 thoughts on “Our Water is a Public Good by Jennifer Schwartz Berky, Ward 8

  1. Water is an essential, inalienable nature -provided element and it is not a private commodity. It is for the common good. Plastic bottling leaves damage to our local water with waste water product and later to marine life, birds, ocean flow and we need to create next generation opportunities for the jobs and attractors to our local economy.

    • We certainly have. Rumor is that they are making an announcement tomorrow. Otherwise, it’s going to be more calls in the coming week. Thanks for writing.

  2. Thank you, Jennifer, for this excellent expression of the many reasons this bottling plant proposal is such a terrible idea. I really appreciate you stepping up and articulating it so well.

  3. Thank you, Jennifer, for this combination of environmental impact analysis and legal framing. The question is not whether we could get away with selling some water and maybe having enough, the question is what would possess any public steward in their right mind to sell off this water!!

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