Private water, public nightmare: Customers face another rate hike for dirty water

It may be a different neighborhood, but it's the same story:

Hours before a public hearing for Carolina Water Service customers over a proposed price increase, customers in one Pender County community serviced by the utility company were once again experiencing water clarity issues.

Joyce Diggett, who lives in Hampstead’s Belvedere community, said she woke up Wednesday and jumped into the shower. Soon, though, she said her face began to burn. “I looked down and I was like, ‘I’m bathing in dirt,’” she said. She said the water was murky, full of sediment, and left a film on her skin almost like oil.

Carolina Water Service is a subsidiary of Utilities, Inc., an Illinois-based company that has been taking over public water and sewer operations for decades. Much like Aqua America, they prey on small towns and exurban communities who either don't have connections to larger municipal water supplies, or who make the wrong decision to get rid of their public works staff and let a private company take over. That first scenario is a conundrum, but the second is pure stupidity, most often driven by the desire to "trim the fat" and reduce taxes and government-collected fees for services. But inevitably, citizens end up paying more and getting less:

Even with these austerity measures, Williams' monthly water and sewer bill runs as high as $423, more than most car payments. And for that money, Williams says, the bathtub is stained brown from water that comes from community wells operated by Aqua North Carolina.

"Our neighborhood has been fighting Aqua for years," says Williams, who lives with her husband and three children in Mallard Crossing, a 200-home subdivision in eastern Wake County.

Aqua North Carolina, which owns 800 water and/or sewer systems statewide, is a subsidiary of one of the nation's largest private water utilities, Aqua America. While the company touts its "well-deserved reputation for rehabilitating water and wastewater facilities" to meet its "high performance standards," many of its North Carolina customers dispute that claim.

They have complained to the company and to state environmental and utilities officials about poor water quality, dry wells, high rates and subpar customer service. They have vented on message boards and signed petitions protesting Aqua's business practices.

A few years ago, when I first joined our Town's Planning Board, we were reviewing the Town's long-term plan (originally created in 2008, I think) to see if anything needed to be revised, or of we had strayed from the plan in any way. There is a section that talked about developing our own water supply, and that got the hair on the back of my neck tingling. So I gave a statement for the record that we should avoid even pursuing bids from private water and/or sewer providers, and I warned them about these insane rate hikes. Probably nothing to worry about, because we have a really good deal with the City of Burlington now, which has two major reservoirs to draw from. But it's only a matter of time before Aqua or Carolina Water Service or some other company comes sniffing around, and we need to be ready to send them packing.

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