An elderly man, feeling weak, enters the emergency room of a local hospital. After waiting, a doctor examines him and determines he is severely dehydrated. An IV is placed, and sterile saline solution (water and salt) soon help the man recover. He prepares to leave the hospital and is told to make sure he drinks plenty of water each day. “But they have turned off my water,” he says, looking forlorn. “I live too far from town to walk, and have no car. And now I have no water.”
A couple rents a small home in an unincorporated part of Sonoma Valley not served by Valley of the Moon Water District. Their water has always been provided by a well on the property, but the well has gone dry. Their landlord says he does not have the money to drive a new well. “You are free to buy bottled water,” he tells them, “But as long as you live here you must pay rent.”
A senior citizen who uses a walker, living on a low fixed-income in a small home in the City of Sonoma, finds herself in financial difficulty after an illness. She is late on paying her water bill, and the city turns off her water. Her neighbor lets her run a hose from her house and she fills jugs with water each morning. Once a week her neighbor lets her take a shower in the neighbor’s house, but the neighbor’s home has been sold and she will be moving.
These three situations confront us not only with the technical realities of the availability of water, but also moral issues about the responsibility of society to insure that citizens have access to water. If the CEO of Nestle, an international food corporation which also sells bottled water is correct, access to water is not a right, and water can be privatized just like any other resource. Accordingly, Nestle purchases the water rights of entire foreign villages and exports the water to package it and sell it in plastic bottles. This represents the extremes of water morality, a position which creates “the right to die of thirst.”
Here in Sonoma Valley our water is not privatized – owned and delivered by a private corporation – but is publicly-owned by government. Its operational model, however, is corporate and government appears to have decided that it too will create the right to die of thirst; the only lifeline provided to those who cannot pay for water is the public drinking fountain or the hospital.
While the maintenance and operation of water systems requires money, one logically assume that such costs are best provided by taxpayers, but this is not the case. Notably, water systems cannot be divided from sewage treatment systems; together they represent the full cycle of public water use. Yet sewage treatment systems are taxpayer supported via property taxes, while water supplies and delivery are not. Accordingly, unlike water supplies, sewer access is not “cut off” for non-payment; at worst, a tax lien may be placed on a piece of property.
Water provision and its cost should be property tax-based, not retail-customer-based. Like police, fire and sewage treatment, access to potable water should be a basic right within our society and both ethical and operational realities demand a change in way we provide and finance it.