On December 14, 2006, the New York Public Service Commission charged United Water New York, the company that owns Rockland County’s water system, with coming up with a new long-term water supply. The subsequent proposal to build a desalination plant reflects the kind of decision-making that appears over and over again in communities where private companies that control local water prioritize their financial interests above the public good.
United Water New York has every incentive to promote this project. Its profits increase based on a percentage of the capital it spends on new infrastructure, and this desalination plant is no exception. If the proposed facility is built, it will generate a profit stream of approximately $5 million annually. But while the company profits, the community pays:
- Water rates will increase to pay for the capital investment, additional profits and increased operating costs associated with the plant.
- The plant will require large amounts of energy, which will raise costs and contribute to global warming at a time when the entire state is trying to lower its carbon emissions.
- Because it will draw from the Hudson River, the drinking water the plant produces may contain traces of radioactive chemicals that pose threats to human health.
- Meanwhile, additional environmental impacts such as water pollution, damage to fisheries and increased flooding could burden the entire water system that spans from New York to New Jersey.
Rockland County has plentiful natural water and many low-impact, low-cost water supply options. These include conservation, infrastructure improvements, better land use planning and stormwater management, collection of scientific data, watershed management and other broader tools.
United Water did not seriously consider these options. This is not surprising, because the company had no financial incentive to look at the options preferred by community members. The story unfolding in Rockland County today is happening in many communities around the country. It demonstrates why local control of water matters: because when it comes to our most vital resources, decisions must prioritize community and environmental benefits over the financial interests of a company.