• Socialist Water

    Email Print
    Share


    DIGG THIS

    While sipping
    on my coffee at a local doughnut shop, I overhead some fellows having
    a heated discussion about their water bills. They were saying that
    the City of Cleveland was going to double the water rates over the
    next 5 years. The City of Cleveland's Division of Water enjoys a
    monopoly on water distribution in Cleveland and most of the surrounding
    suburbs.

    I later learned
    that the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) and City Council
    agreed to reduce the increase to 64% over the next 4 years, but
    this is still quite an increase. I guess all Ohioans should be proud
    that PUCO protects us from greedy utility companies.

    As I listened
    on, I was surprised to hear one of the guys employ some basic economics
    to defend his position. He asked how there could be such a large
    rate increase when there is clearly no shortage of water. Cleveland
    lies on the south shore of Lake Erie and we have had record rainfall
    this year. The other man replied that the city workers were to blame
    as they are unionized and probably got a huge pay raise and expansive
    benefits package. He asked: How much should they be paid for
    digging a ditch and installing a water pipe? Of course, as long
    as the workers are unionized, we will never know the answer to that
    question.

    The official
    explanation is that the City of Cleveland needs to upgrade the water
    system to modernize it and to add capacity. Nobody asked the Division
    of Water why they waited so long before improving the system. Certainly
    their engineers must have some idea as to the useful life of the
    pipes and other components that make up the water works. Instead,
    this issue is sprung on the public as a crisis that must be resolved
    immediately and the only solution is to take more money from their
    captive customers.

    After listening
    to the men go on and on about how city government is corrupt and
    inefficient, I jumped into the conversation by asking a simple question:
    Why does city government have a monopoly on delivering water?

    The men stared
    at me and then let out a loud laugh. One of the men said: Who
    would provide us with water? Then they both continued laughing
    as if this was the most ridiculous thing they had ever heard.

    I replied that
    there are many possible solutions to this problem and none of them
    require the government to do anything. The obvious solution would
    be to install a water tank and pump in your home and then contract
    with a company to fill the tank. Perhaps the company would pay for
    the tank and pump provided you signed a long-term contract with
    them. Perhaps someone would invent an even better system for water
    delivery. With a free market we would get many varied solutions
    to the problem, with government, we only get one inefficient and
    costly solution.

    Well the guys
    didn't buy it. It was like I was arguing that the sky was green.
    After all their talk about how government is corrupt and inefficient,
    they simply could not imagine a solution that did not involve government.

    Well it turns
    out that my ideas were not crazy after all. According
    to the City of Cleveland's Division of Water
    , a man by the name
    of Benhu Johnson started a water delivery company in 1810. He would
    deliver 2 barrels of Lake Erie water to your home for 25 cents.
    They go on to say that others started water companies but none were
    able to handle the development of a water works for an entire city.
    Therefore, government had to step in and fix the problem. This is
    the classic "market failure" argument that is used to
    justify government action.

    Now since government
    maintains a monopoly on water distribution, we will never see what
    alternatives the free market can deliver. However, we can compare
    it to another utility that is much less regulated: cellular telephone
    service.

    I work for
    a cellular service provider as a network engineer and I have seen
    the cost of service decrease while the reliability and range of
    services offered has increased. Nowadays, cell phones are capable
    of much more than voice communications, they offer: text messaging,
    email, high-speed internet access, driving directions, enhanced
    911 services, and much more.

    Unlike the
    water department which waits until the system is falling apart before
    making needed upgrades, we constantly maintain and upgrade the network.
    Over the past few months we have been working hard to add capacity
    to our networks so that they are ready to handle the increased traffic
    that occurs over the holiday season.

    When the blackout
    of 2003 hit Cleveland, most of the pumping stations went down and
    much of the city was without water for days on end. In contrast,
    our network facilities are backed up by generators and so we remained
    operational throughout the blackout with only a minor decrease in
    capacity.

    Technology
    and innovation are what enables us to do more for less. Fiber-optic
    lines have replaced copper wires; digital technology has replaced
    analog technology. It used to take several racks full of high-power
    equipment to handle 100 phone calls. Today, a single rack of low-power
    equipment can serve several hundred phone calls.

    What would
    a modern water system look like if we applied the same level of
    energy and innovation to it? Perhaps we would have separate water
    systems in our homes. High quality water could be used for drinking
    and cooking while cheaper, low quality water could be used for toilets
    and washing machines. I am only speculating. I am sure there are
    plenty of smart Civil Engineers who can offer creative solutions.

    So despite
    what others say, there are always alternatives to government action.
    Unfortunately, Clevelanders will not be allowed to consider any
    other alternative when it comes to their water bills. Instead, they
    will be forced to cough up more money to support another inefficient
    bureaucracy.

    August
    3, 2006

    John
    Taddeo [send him mail]
    is a Professional Engineer who works in the Wireless Communications
    Industry. He spends his mornings at the gym taking Spinning Classes
    before heading off to the doughnut shop for coffee and conversation.

    Email Print
    Share