Pittsburghers Had One Message For City Council: Keep The Water Public

Jul 19, 2018

Pittsburgh City Council wants to rewrite a cooperation agreement with the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority to change how it's governed

At a public hearing Wednesday night, speaker after speaker stressed the authority must remain accountable to the people.

Under its current contract, PWSA can buy the water and sewer infrastructure in 2025. Many worry that means the authority could then sell to a private company. Few people directly addressed council’s proposal to remove that option, among other governance changes, but they were very clear: Pittsburgh’s water must be public.

Rivers are Pittsburgh’s greatest asset, and that will only become more true, said Aly Shaw of the Our Water Campaign.

“Whoever has the right to draw water from our rivers and own our water system has a guaranteed revenue source, for as long as people need water to drink,” she said.

Shaw said the city can either allow private companies to profit off water, or ensure it remains a publicly controlled resource.

Historically, private companies put profit over people and elected officials let it happen, said Valerie Allman of advocacy group One Pennsylvania.  

“Public-private partnership is still privatization. Privatization is theft, from us,” she said. “That’s all it is.”

Vincent Kolb, pastor of the Sixth Presbyterian Church in Squirrel Hill, noted the progress PWSA has made in recent months, ticking off full lead line replacements, a customer-assistance program, a fixed billing system and a winter moratorium on water shutoffs. Those things would not have happened without the public, he said.

“To attend public board meetings ... to meet with elected officials and publicly appointed board members, and to exert our power as ratepayers and voters in Pittsburgh to make a change.”

Kolb introduced the coalition’s suggested anti-privatization language: The City of Pittsburgh and governing bodies of the PWSA shall not sell or lease the water and wastewater infrastructure of the City of Pittsburgh, including but not limited to water treatment facilities and distribution networks, nor shall these bodies enter into a contractual agreement for the operation and or management of Pittsburgh’s water system.

Speaking last week, PWSA board chair Paul Leger said he would advocate for a deed restriction in the new cooperation agreement.

“We get it for a dollar and I will put a restriction on the deed that does not allow this ever to be sold, in perpetuity, to a private operator,” he said. “It must always stay a public entity, a publicly owned asset.”

Leger said the current mayor and council are committed to keeping water public, but that there’s no guarantee the next crop of city officials will feel the same. He worries that if ownership of the water and sewer systems remains unclear—is it the city’s? Is it PWSA’s?—the city might try to squeeze money out of the authority.

“The City of Pittsburgh used the water authority once before to bail themselves out, to the tune of $[96] million,” he said. “There's no reason why they wouldn't do that in the future because it's a likely target...you could generate ongoing revenue.”

Councilors Darlene Harris, Deb Gross, Erika Strassburger, Theresa Kail-Smith and Corey O’Connor said they would not vote for privatization. Councilor Anthony Coghill said he hoped the authority would remain public, but that he didn’t share an optimism for PWSA. Council members Daniel Lavelle and Reverend Ricky Burgess were not present.

After more than 30 people spoke, Council President Bruce Kraus closed the hearing, and said he wanted people to leave with peace of mind.

“This council, as I live and breathe, will never permit privatization of your water system,” he said to applause.

Kraus said companies such as Peoples Gas can propose getting into the water business, but council has no obligation to consider those plans.

Officials say lawyers from PWSA and the city are working to negotiate a new cooperation agreement, on which both bodies will have to vote.