Keep Public Our Water

The City of Milwaukee should not assume the right or the authority to ever lease or sell the vital, natural resource of water to a private entity.


Privatization of public water services has been occurring globally since the mid-twentieth century, and with vigor in the US since the early 1990s. Today, we are witnessing the increased transfer of power and control of our natural resources, especially water, from publicly owned and operated bodies to private, global corporations.

For much of human history, water and air were considered natural resources, vital to human existence, and as such, inextricably connected to and part of the human person. Air and water, therefore, were viewed as part of the Commons and owned by all the people. Consequently, every person had a right to freshwater and clean air.

As economic and financial values have gained ascendancy in most nations and cultures, water and air have increasingly been viewed as commodities and assets rather than natural resources and “in the Commons.” As such, water, in particular, is being leased and sold by governments to private, corporate entities, often with devastating effects: in some countries, the poorest have lost access to clean water; in other regions, the water quality has decreased; in US cities water-related jobs have been eliminated and benefits reduced for civil employees.


The Sierra Club, along with many other organizations, international bodies, conferences and summits, calls on the citizens and governing bodies of the City of Milwaukee to be guided by the following principles regarding our relationship to water and air:

  1. Water and air are essential elements to human existence. The human body is 50 percent water. Our lungs need a continuous flow of oxygen. All other living species of plants and animals need water and air for survival. Therefore, water and air are life resources. They cannot be commodified or turned into assets to be sold for economic gain.

  2. Water, in particular, can only be owned and controlled by the people. The people extend the responsibility of water stewardship to their local, representative governing agencies to manage, treat and distribute water to all the citizens of the local community.

  3. No local public agency has the authority or power to commodify the public water utility and lease/sell it to a private person or company.

  4. Access to clean fresh water is a human right. A number of world organizations and assemblies have stated this clearly:

    1. “The human right to drinking water is fundamental to life and health. Sufficient and safe drinking water is a precondition for the realization of human rights.” (UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 11/27/02)

    2. “Water is a fundamental human right and a public trust to be guarded by all levels of government, therefore, it should not be commodified, privatized or traded for commercial purposes. These rights must be enshrined at all levels of government.” “Water is best protected by local communities and citizens who must be respected as equal partners with governments in the protection and regulation of water.” (Cochabamba Declaration, Bolivia, 12/8/2000)

    3. “Water is not and should not be a common commodity to be bought and sold in the market place as an economic good. Water is an increasingly scarce natural resource, and as a result crucial to the securities of our societies and sovereignty of our country. For this reason alone, its ownership, control, delivery and management belong in the public domain today and tomorrow….” (The Accra Declaration on the Right to Water, Ghana, May 19, 2001)

    4. “That the intrinsic value of the Earth’s fresh water precedes its utility and commercial value, and therefore must be respected and safeguarded by all political, commercial and social institutions, That the Earth’s fresh water belongs to the earth and all species and therefore, must not be treated as a private commodity to be bought, sold and traded for profit, That the global fresh water supply is a shared legacy, a public trust and a fundamental human right and, therefore, a collective responsibility, (Treaty to Share and Protect the Global Water Commons, Blue Planet Project, July 14, 2001).

  5. Because water is a right and a resource owned by all the people, a local government cannot give up any ownership or control of the resource itself or of the withdrawal, treatment and distribution of that water. The public water utility can, in certain conditions, contract with private vendors for services to the water utility, but cannot impart any degree of ownership or control over the natural resource to the private company.

  6. “If a municipality or other government entity considers partial privatization by using private contractors to operate the publicly-owned water/sewer system or any facility within the system or to build and operate any publicly-owned facility, including a desalination facility,” The Sierra Club declares “that any such decision should (a) be preceded by full public disclosure; (b) provide clear evidence that the contracted services could not be provided as cost-effectively by the municipality or other government entity and will not contribute to sprawl, © provide for continued public oversight and accountability to safeguard public health and to ensure compliance with environmental laws; (d) give sufficient time and opportunity for public debate; and (e) include a public vote to approve or disapprove the governing body proceeding with a contract pertaining to the municipal system as a whole or to any major facility in the system.

“Any contract thus approved should hold the private contractor responsible for strict compliance with environmental laws and regulations; should be in keeping with principles of environmental justice and public trust; should provide for cancellation of the contract without penalty to citizens or communities if contract terms are violated; and should ensure corporate accountability to the people who are served.

“Privatization of Municipal Water/Sewer Systems - Municipal water/sewer systems are essential public services and should not be privatized by transferring ownership from the public sector to a commercial entity or by allowing extensions of public systems to be owned by a commercial entity.” (Sierra Club policy on water commodification and corporate privatization of municipal water/sewer services. November 15, 2003).
Tell the Mayor, Common Council and Comptroller…

  • Thank you for deferring the exploratory water privatization study and for investigating other ways the City might receive dividends from water operations.

  • Please go beyond deferring the privatizing study and remove completely the notion of leasing/selling any part of the water works as a means for increasing income for the City.

  • Do not think of water or the water works as a commodity that can be turned into an income source for the City.

  • Think, instead, of water as our area’s vital resource. It is not for sale or for leasing to a private company.

  • Think of water as the people’s most important resource, to be held securely by our public representatives and agencies as part of the Commons.

  • Pass legislation that would permanently ban the leasing or selling of the water utility to private concerns.

The Great Waters Group, Sierra Club
June 1, 2009
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privatization issue is “SHELVED”

This is just out – the privatization issue is “SHELVED” — Way to go KPOW Coalition! Look for a story in tomorrow Milw. Journal.

p.s. note ald. Hines remarks in the press release about this issue coming back if we don’t figure out an alternative financing solution. We need to keep the KPOW coalition together to address this or we’ll be right back here in a few months.

But for now WE CELEBRATE!!


Melissa K. Scanlan

Midwest Environmental Advocates

Founder & Senior Counsel

1845 N. Farwell Ave, Suite 100
Milwaukee, WI 53202

(414) 688–4171

Water Privatization Deferred

Letter to City Attorney re Water Works

Letter to Comptoller re Options to Privatizing Water Works

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Useful Files

Water issue summary (.doc) 39kb

Top 10: Why Privatization Fails (.pdf) 138kb

Top 10: Ways That Water Privatization Costs the Public (.pdf) 203kb

Money Down the Drain: How Private Control of Water Wastes Public Resources (.pdf) 2.13mb

Top 10: Localize Water! (.pdf) 139kb
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Milwaukee Riverkeeper’s Cheryl Nenn and Karen Royster of the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future, have sparked a movement to

Keep Public Our Water


Next meeting: Tuesday, June 2 at 4:00pm at 1845 North Farwell

Mary Lou Lamonda has created a web site for this sacred cause:

Cheryl offers these concepts to KPOW!

  1. Privatization is bad for Milwaukee: Privatization or a long term lease of Milwaukee Water Works is bad for the Region, and backhanded taxation at the tap. Privatization will likely lead to increased water costs and less accountability to the public. Increased water rates could hurt the poorer members of our community. Across the world ranging from Pennsylvania to Bolivia, poor people who can not pay their higher water bills instituted by private companies are cut off. While rates paid to public utilities tend to be pumped back into the system, private water companies (most of which are French multinationals) can spend our money any way they want, and often send profits outside of the region and outside of the country to reward distant shareholders.

  2. Privatization harms the environment: Private companies have little incentive to encourage or implement conservation and efficiency programs that conserve our water resources, and minimize negative effects on ecosystems. Likewise, private companies are less likely than public utilities to employ monitoring systems that go above and beyond current regulations to ensure our water safety, as is the case with Milwaukee Water Works (who tests for over 30 additional contaminants than those required by law).

  3. Water is a part of the Public Trust: Like the air we breathe, everyone has an essential right to safe, clean, affordable water---and this right should never be subject to control by private corporations. Private companies do not carry a moral responsibility to provide water to everyone, they generally charge up to four times that of public utilities, and are not accountable to the public for poor operations and maintenance or spending our money unwisely. While we can vote a public official out of office, we can not vote out an incompetent CEO.

  4. We need a Public Hearing. The City of Milwaukee should hold a public hearing before expending any money to procure a biased Fiinancial Advisor, who will only grease the wheels of privatization, and who is handsomely rewarded with a “success fee” should the city decide to privatize. Citizens should be able to express their concerns and viewpoints regarding privatization prior to the City deciding whether or not to hire a Financial Advisor. We need a transparent public process, and the public needs to be educated about what’s at stake if we lose control of a precious natural resource and strategic asset.

  5. People Before Profit: Publicly operated water systems need not turn a profit so they can focus exclusively on ensuring a clean, safe water supply—instead of the bottom line.

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Howard Lewis on Water, Native Americans, Great Lakes Compact

Water is #2 on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Those who control it have the power of life and death over the rest of us.

First Premise: Like the air, water belongs to all of us collectively.

Second Premise: Water crosses international boundaries as it wishes. Sovereignty over water is an international issue that should be governed by an international governing body as a public trust.

Third Premise: To define water as a commodity that can be owned and controlled by individuals, corporations, nations is to invite injustice and exploitation.

The Native Americans had/have it right. We don’t own the earth or portions of it. Instead we each are parts of a unified whole, a mutually dependent life support system.

The Great Lakes Compact is supposed to retain the Great Lakes water within the watershed, but we are selling the water across the globe one beer can or non-biodegradable bottle at a time. It’s no wonder individuals and companies are scrambling to get control of this huge potential profit center. Plus the truly insidious part of it is the argument that if we don’t do it in Milwaukee other Great Lakes communities are likely to, therefore they will gain all the profit.

The time has come for an international governing body with sovereignty in areas that affect our survival.

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Startling images of the disappearance of a Great Lake
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International Support for Milwaukee’s Defense of Our Sacred Waters

I read your post in community garden. I’m interested in this issue and want to help you if I can. I am from Canada but am living in Japan now. I have a background in human rights and water privatization. I recently did some work protesting the privatization policies promoted at the 5th World Water Forum in March 2009. I have also did some research on Suez and Veolia.

You may know the global water justice movement and a website operated by some members of the movement (the People’s Water Forum). There is a listserve you can sign on with at
It will put you in touch with 70 or so groups all over the world that protest water privatization in one way or another. They may be able to help you. Many would be very interested in the work you are doing. Please let me know if I can circulate anything (petition, info, etc.) on your behalf.

Keep Public Our Water(KPOW) Yahoo Discussion Action Group

Dear All,

There are alderman who want to spend
$150,000 to $200,000 to hire consultants
To set in motion the privatization of our water!

Keep public our water! (KPOW!)

No privatizing our social security!
No privatizing our water!

Does not privatization ultimately mean
We trust Wall Street with our water?


If you would like to join with other citizens
To block the privatization of our sacred waters,
Send an e-mail to…

You may organize your relationship with this group so
You receive each e-mail, daily digests, or no e-mails
But the right to go to the site to review at your own pace.

you will need to REPLY to an email you receive from Yahoo

Share You Ideas!

Then you can communicate with every member of the group, by emailing to

We Will Sign You Up If You Are Sign Up Challenged

Send an e-mail to and we will do our best
To sign you up if you are unable to do it yourself!

Keep Public Our Water!



Protect Our Water Meeting on Tuesday, May 19 at 5pm 1845 North Farwell

Milwaukee’s Water System – NOT for Sale

Milwaukee water is vital for families, businesses and local safety. It is also a major resource for jobs and economic development in the coming years.

But, some city leaders want to privatize the Milwaukee waterworks by leasing it to a multi-national corporation for 99 years.

This is not good for the Milwaukee area — costs will go up and water quality will go down, which happened in Indianapolis.

This privatization is being done behind closed doors with no public discussion or hearings planned. The city is already spending money on consultants to move the deal through. Decisions about this vital resource should be made in full public view.

Privatization of Milwaukee’s Water?

Protecting Milwaukee’s Water:

A Crisis in the Making


Milwaukee is a national leader in providing high quality drinking water and monitoring water quality. Since 1998, the Milwaukee Water Works has invested over $210 million in its treatment and distribution systems to ensure this quality is maintained. The Milwaukee Water Works treats Lake Michigan water with a multiple-step process to protect public health and has been recognized as one of only 28 utilities nationwide that conducts extensive testing for emerging contaminants such as pharmaceuticals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has endorsed Milwaukee’s drinking water as among the highest quality in the nation and notified the Water Works that its water treatment and monitoring systems are in full compliance—five years ahead of time—with new federal regulations to control disinfection byproducts. The Milwaukee Water Works is owned by the City of Milwaukee and provides drinking water to residents and businesses in Milwaukee and 15 neighboring communities.


There is an effort underway to privatize the Milwaukee Water Works system, an effort which is moving quickly and quietly. The idea was first broached publicly by the City Comptroller in late 2008, after his discussions with several business executives. There was one small article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper in October 2008, but no coverage since.

Water privatization is being undertaken in response to serious budget shortfalls in Milwaukee. The idea is to arrange a very-long-term lease of all the water operations, with the city retaining ownership; the Comptroller suggested a 99-year lease. A one-time payment for the lease would be set aside in an endowment to generate about $30 million annually to help fund city operations.

It is assumed that water rates will go up after privatization; the rate is currently less than half the market rate. The reason the city itself won’t just increase rates is that all water revenue is segregated for water purposes only, but the city is desperate for funds for a full range of regular operations. Thirty million dollars annually in lease revenue would substitute for additional property taxes, fees, or state or federal revenue.

In March 2009, the city Common Council authorized an RFP to find an “Advisor Team” to oversee and guide the bidding and contracting process. Seventeen firms submitted proposals by the April 9 deadline. Identities of the bidders are secret; the Comptroller announced in late April that open-records requests to learn the identities will not be honored. Selection of the Advisor Team is expected to take place as early as June. The Advisor would then move as quickly as possible to prepare an RFP for the actual privatization.


This proposal does not bode well for the Milwaukee area. There are a number of serious issues at stake—costs, water quality, economic development and accountability.

There are three major companies in the world with the capacity to bid for the Milwaukee contract: Suez Environment, Veolia Environnement and RWE. The first two are French multinational corporations with global operations related to water and waste management. The third is a German firm which in April 2009 announced its intent to sell its water operations, including American Water which operates in the U.S.

Suez Environment owns United Water, which obtained a contract to manage the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) in 1998. MMSD became the largest publicly owned wastewater system under private operating contract in the US. In 2008, at the expiration of the contract, United Water was replaced by Veolia on a 10-year contract. Among other things, United Water was issued 20 notices of contract non-compliance during its tenure running MMSD. Both United Water and Veolia have had serious problems in other cities across the United States. Veolia has managed water systems in New Orleans and Indianapolis as well as smaller communities in Massachusetts and Texas. The drinking water in Indianapolis is rated second worst in the nation and received a failing grade from Men’s Health magazine. Residents took Veolia to court claiming the company overcharged 250,000 customers.

This privatization proposal emerged in the midst of enthusiastic discussions about the new Great Lakes Water Compact and the extraordinary importance of maintaining lake water as a resource for generations to come. Water technology is believed to be one of the growth industries for Wisconsin. The recently formed Milwaukee 7 Water Council is leading the effort to make Milwaukee the “Silicon Valley of water in the 21st century.” The Water Council reports that there are already more than 120 firms in southeastern Wisconsin engaged in water technology. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is poised to launch a new School of Freshwater Sciences, the first such institution in the Western Hemisphere. In April 2009, Milwaukee was named a Global Compact City by the United Nations, only the 13th such designation worldwide and 2nd in the US. Milwaukee’s application focused exclusively on water quality and water-engineering industries. Handing control over the water system to a multinational corporation whose only obligation is to stockholder profits would remove this valuable resource from public control.

Accountability and transparency are especially important priorities for governmental operations at all levels. Water is a fundamental necessity for families and businesses. Unlike petroleum or electricity, there are absolutely no alternatives to water as an essential element for life and commerce. Decisions about the operations and management of this basic resource should be made deliberately and with substantial public oversight. The Milwaukee area—the entire state of Wisconsin—has a huge stake in water as a pivot point for economic recovery and growth. We cannot let this slip through our fingers into the hands of companies with no stake in local growth.

There are three main goals:

  1. Bring this issue into the public view—this should not be a secret process decided quickly behind closed doors. It is crucial to develop a coalition that can spread the word.
  2. Slow down the process. There are some local leaders who want the Advisor hired in early summer, then brought in to move as fast as possible toward final privatization.
  3. Develop and distribute information to community members and leaders about the water privatization issue, the corporations involved and alternate ways to address the budget shorfall at the city level.

Blog post about the idea of “community wealth”
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Great Lakes Upper Midwest Community Wealth

Helpful Websites from Community Wealth Dot Org Newsletter
Created by the Aspen Institute’s Center for Business Education, is a resource that provides teaching material on business and sustainability – from corporate governance to sustainable development. With the recent addition of the Curriculum Library on Employee Ownership, the site is home to the largest collection of teaching resources on employee ownership.

Innovation@CFED is a new resource site launched by CFED, a leading asset-building organization, which hopes to facilitate the next generation of effective strategies to build economic opportunity. The Innovators-in-Residence program will help identify individuals with promising ideas who would benefit form additional monetary and technical support.
Providing community-based solutions to the foreclosure crisis, is a new resource site for community development practitioners. Sponsored by NeighborWorks, the site features sections on how to address the increase in vacant property, gather support from various programs and partnerships, and successfully advocate for policy changes on the state, local, and national level.

Northland Poster Collective
Northland Poster Collective, based in Minneapolis, was established in 1979 after eleven artists, meeting in a workshop, discussed how best to use their artwork as a way to support social change. The group promotes the art of social justice, the tools of grassroots union organizing and labor activism, and the craft of union workers.

Last edited by Tyler Schuster. Based on work by TeganDowling and Godsil.  Page last modified on June 02, 2009

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