Water watch

Recent language change in city council eliminates private financing/operating of city’s water utility

Trevor Semotok is critical of the City of Winnipeg’s plans when it comes to water. Cindy Titus

Water-watching Winnipeggers have been waiting for answers regarding the forthcoming change in the city’s water utility, originally touted as a public-private partnership (P3), but at this point, nobody except Mayor Sam Katz knows what to call it.

“First it was a ‘private partner,’ then it was a ‘strategic partner’ and now it’s a ‘strategic consultant,’” said Trevor Semotok from the Winnipeg Water Watch Committee.

Semotok said this is important because the first two terms have the same meaning, but the third term limits the partnership to be a mere construction contract.

“Using the term ‘consultant’ eliminates the notion of financing and operating [the project],” he said.

The mayor’s office didn’t comment directly on the language change, but referred The Uniter to Bryan Gray, project manager of utility development at the City of Winnipeg, who confirmed that the now-termed “strategic consultant” will play a role in infrastructure construction but not operating and financing.

“We’ve always been clear right from the beginning that they will have no involvement in the water utility,” said Gray. “That wasn’t even talked about.”

This new change of language is an uplifting sign to local water activist Sallie Caufield.

“It seemed that they planned on having [the partner] design, build, finance and operate [the utility],” Caufield said. “But then it seemed they were backing off from the ‘operate’ part. We heard this and thought ‘fantastic.’”

The speculation about the end of a P3 negotiation was sparked from the city council meeting on Jan. 27 when councillor Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge/East Fort Garry) asked the mayor when the city can expect an update on the water utility partnership, to which Mayor Sam Katz replied, “[J]ust for clarification, there is no partner. I know that councillor Gerbasi knows that.”

Now that the word of the week is no longer “partner,” but rather “consultant,” activists are pleased with the progress of moving away from utility privatization but are still concerned with the three multinational corporations short-listed as the potential candidate for a construction contract with the city.

The three companies still in the running for the contract are Veolia Water, CH2M Hill and Black & Veatch.

“Of the possible contractors the city could work with, these are just about the worst three you could possibly choose,” said Semotok.

All three companies pull up a laundry list of ethical concerns, including CH2M Hill profiting from the Iraq war, Black & Veatch being charged with unfair labour practices in the state of Oregon and Veolia Water having a contract with Angleton, Texas terminated and taken to court due to a multitude of unethical business practices, according to a document from the Council of Canadians.

As of now, the provincial government has to draft legislation around the partnership before the issue can be brought up again at city council.

The city said it was not able to comment on when further debate around the city’s water utility will take place.

Published in Volume 64, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 18, 2010)

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