Mandates and precedents: Around 100 gather for update on water system fight

About 100 people gathered tonight for a forum updating locals on the dispute over the fate of the city’s water system from local government and activists. Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said the public has given city leaders a clear mandate to continue its lawsuit and fight to preserve local control of the water system against state legislation seeking to seize it and turn it over to a regional authority.

The meeting in Pack Library was co-sponsored by Mountain Voices Alliance, Save Our Water WNC, Clean Water for NC, Asheville PARC and WNC Alliance.

Manheimer told the public about the history of the water system, emphasizing that Asheville is one of the only municipalities in the state that owns its own watershed. It also is bound by the Sullivan Acts, state laws that place a number of unique restrictions on the system. The system’s history, she acknowledged, is marked by “a lot of conflict.”

Nonetheless, she added, “We’re in a unique position: we have plenty of water for now” Manheimer said.

She told the public that the city’s lawsuit to stop legislation seizing the system and transferring it to the Metropolitan Sewerage District will come before a judge in April, and a ruling would follow within 30 days.

Critics of the legislation have suggested that the system is in danger of being privatized. Katie Hicks, a local native who’s now assistant director with Clean Water for NC, cautioned that privatized systems could delay notification of problems or lead to a disconnect between the people governing a system and those served by it. She used the recent contamination of the water supply in the Elk River spill in West Virginia as one example, observing that one company provided water for nearly a sixth of the state’s population. Privatization, she added, can take several forms, from a company running a system for a temporary contracted period of time to one outright owning and operating a water system. She asserted that in general privately-run water systems are less efficient than their locally-run public counterparts.

Hicks added that water companies are starting to increase their lobbying efforts statewide.

Barry Summers, a local activist and one of the founders of Save Our Water WNC, said that there is increasing recognition that the seizure of Asheville’s water is “the beginning of something.” He warned that it might herald a California-style problem where private companies controlled multiple smaller systems and charged high rates to their customers. Summers also asserted that the merger with MSD will actually lose the ratepayers money, and speculated that it probably had larger motives. He commented that using water for fracking was quite profitable. Legislators have been exploring options for fracking in North Carolina; several natural-gas deposits have been identified, and fracking (hydraulic fracturing) makes mining them possible.

While answering audience questions, Manheimer said that if the city loses the first round, an appeal would be up to Council, but she couldn’t see them declining to fight the matter as far as they could.

“We’ve received a clear mandate as to our marching orders on this one,” she told the crowd.

Manheimer also said that the state’s legislation has prompted more unity among municipalities in response to what they see as a more hostile attitude coming out of Raleigh, a sense “that this could happen to us.” The panel noted that than 50 municipal governments across the state had endorsed a resolution opposing the seizure of local water systems.

Toward the end, one audience member asked the panel what they could do. Someone shouted, “Secede!” Manheimer instead asked them to vote in the upcoming legislative elections.

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