National Academies Press: OpenBook
« Previous: 6 Broader Implications of Water Services Privatization
Suggested Citation:"7 Conclusions." National Research Council. 2002. Privatization of Water Services in the United States: An Assessment of Issues and Experience. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10135.
Page 110
Suggested Citation:"7 Conclusions." National Research Council. 2002. Privatization of Water Services in the United States: An Assessment of Issues and Experience. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10135.
Page 111
Suggested Citation:"7 Conclusions." National Research Council. 2002. Privatization of Water Services in the United States: An Assessment of Issues and Experience. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10135.
Page 112
Suggested Citation:"7 Conclusions." National Research Council. 2002. Privatization of Water Services in the United States: An Assessment of Issues and Experience. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10135.
Page 113

Below is the uncorrected machine-read text of this chapter, intended to provide our own search engines and external engines with highly rich, chapter-representative searchable text of each book. Because it is UNCORRECTED material, please consider the following text as a useful but insufficient proxy for the authoritative book pages.

7 Conclusions W ater services privatization takes many forms, and no one type fits all situations, complicating the choices that communities face if they consider reorganizing their water and wastewater utilities. The range of choice extends from (1) “outsourcing” of various services such as provision of supplies and meter reading; (2) private con- tract operation and maintenance of existing plants; (3) contracts for the integrated design, construction, and subsequent operation of new facili- ties (DBO contracts); and (4) sale of public utility assets to investor-owned companies that take responsibility for all operations, maintenance, and expansion of services. Outright sale of public assets has been infrequent in the United States except for “regionalization” of small utilities. None- theless, investor-owned companies have historically played and continue to play an important role in providing water services in the United States. Private contractors are often large companies with extensive experi- ence and expertise that they can bring to bear on local operations. Con- tractual arrangements usually give them greater freedom in dealing with the workforce, which is often the greatest single source of cost savings. Large operating savings have, indeed, been achieved under existing con- tracts. Under some circumstances, private companies can provide needed capital. Also, private operators, being under contract or owning the util- ity, are often farther removed from local politics. This has the advantage of less political intervention in matters of technical management, but can lead to less transparency and accountability. 110

CONCLUSIONS 111 The largest gains from the new water utility privatization environ- ment in the United States are likely to come from improved operations of the majority of water utilities that will remain publicly owned. The pres- ence of private alternatives has clearly motivated improved performance on the part of public utilities. “Contestability” for public utilities has been ratcheted up by the existence of attractive private alternatives. Some larger public systems are actively working with smaller suburban utilities to provide better water sources and better management. This form of regionalization promises to yield large benefits. Small- to medium-sized utilities face the greatest challenges and prob- lems and are prime candidates for availing themselves of private services. Small and medium-sized utilities often lack needed expertise to meet today’s high standards for drinking water and wastewater treatment. Consolidation and regionalization of small-to-medium sized utilities holds great promise for improved performance. New management, com- munication, and monitoring technologies create opportunities for econo- mies of scale and scope. The small water utilities that comprise 85 percent of all water utilities could benefit from physical consolidation or provi- sion of services through regionalization. Both are being provided by lead- ing public utilities as well as by private companies specializing in assis- tance to small utilities. Procurement processes through which private services are solicited are increasingly standardized, reducing uncertainty on both the public and private sides. The challenge is to find ways of standardizing proce- dures to reduce costs while not infringing on the freedom of municipali- ties or contractors to propose innovative approaches. Communities often express concerns when considering privatization options, which include possible impacts on public goods such as environ- mental protection, water quality protection, transparency of decision pro- cesses, and openness to public input. The capacity to take over operations in case of contractor failure to perform is an issue, as is the need for the municipality to develop the capability to monitor the work of the contrac- tor—a set of skills that differs from those needed for ordinary municipal operation. Concern for the continued employment and welfare of the utility workforce is often expressed. Possible loss of services provided by the water utility for other municipal departments (e.g., snow removal, flood-control measures, drainage systems) is a concern at times. In a longer time perspective, there are concerns about maintenance of water- shed lands, protection of raw water sources, and provision of recreational opportunities, as well as public health, under privatization. Reservoir and watershed lands are often highly valuable, and there may be pressure to develop these lands if privately owned. However, privatization of opera-

112 PRIVATIZATION OF WATER SERVICES IN THE UNITED STATES tions and maintenance need not imply turning over ownership of land and water rights. Another concern is that water rates charged to customers following privatization have in some instances gone up. But rates can move in either direction, depending on the financial condition of the utility, the cost savings realized, and near-term improvements and investments called for under the contract. Historically, public utility water rates have been only loosely tied to costs, while public officials have sometimes been unwilling to charge appropriate prices because of a tradition of underpricing. How- ever, customers appear to highly value reliability and quality, and sur- veys have shown customers have a significant willingness to pay for high- quality services. The term “privatization” tends to evoke the presence of a competitive environment with the attendant advantages of competitive markets, es- pecially in the U.S. setting of markets that are frequently quite competi- tive. However, the “natural monopoly” attributes of water services (capi- tal intensity, high costs of duplicating infrastructure) make competition of the usual type unlikely or impossible. Strong competition is likely to exist at the point in time when private proposals are submitted, and competi- tion may continue along the boundaries of the service area. But during the contract period, continued monitoring of performance is needed to pro- tect against failures to perform according to the contract. Conditions of the contract must substitute for active year-to-year competition. Investor- owned utilities (assets privately owned) are subject to regulation by state commissions but these commissions frequently lack the resources to over- see all utilities, especially under newer forms of ownership. In the case of publicly owned utilities, the supposition is that city government will monitor performance and prevent abuses. There are elements of an “uneven playing field” in the competition between public utilities and private operators, especially relating to the availability of capital funds. Municipalities can issue tax-free bonds that carry lower interest rates than private bonds or loans. They often have access to “state revolving funds” not available to private firms. Until recently, there have been legal constraints on the private operation of physical plants that have been financed through public funds. As noted in Chapter 1, Congress initiated these financial arrangements shortly after World War I and has maintained them to the present. It is thus a major public policy debate whether the subsidies to public utilities thus pro- vided are justified by public good advantages of public ownership and operation or whether they constitute an economically inefficient and un- fair financial framework. Several financial reforms are now being debated that would tend to level the financial playing field.

CONCLUSIONS 113 The use of water markets to effect transfers of water from lower- valued to higher-valued uses is a different form of privatization that has long existed in the western United States but that is becoming increas- ingly important in all parts of the country. Utility managers, public or private, will have to learn to deal with these institutional innovations. These transfers can be temporary or permanent and are usually from agriculture to urban uses. The use of systems of water ownership and marketing that were developed in western states is expanding to other parts of the United States to allow the voluntary transfer of established water rights or contracts to new permanent or emergency uses. Water markets are subject to some degree of state supervision to protect other water users and various social and environmental values that can be im- pacted by changes in water use. Acquisition of water supplies through water markets will require collaboration of utility managers with state regulatory agencies. The backgrounds and training of water system managers have been changing to prepare managers for the new privatization environment. Water utility managers today often have educational backgrounds not only in traditional civil engineering curricula, but also in fields such as public administration, law, and economics. Utility managers are also ac- quiring the skills needed for broader interaction with the public and with politicians, and they are more aware of the social and environmental dimensions of water utility operations.

Next: References »
Privatization of Water Services in the United States: An Assessment of Issues and Experience Get This Book
Buy Hardback | $45.00 Buy Ebook | $35.99
MyNAP members save 10% online.
Login or Register to save!
Download Free PDF

In the quest to reduce costs and improve the efficiency of water and wastewater services, many communities in the United States are exploring the potential advantages of privatization of those services. Unlike other utility services, local governments have generally assumed responsibility for providing water services. Privatization of such services can include the outright sale of system assets, or various forms of public-private partnerships—from the simple provision of supplies and services, to private design construction and operation of treatment plants and distribution systems. Many factors are contributing to the growing interest in the privatization of water services. Higher operating costs, more stringent federal water quality and waste effluent standards, greater customer demands for quality and reliability, and an aging water delivery and wastewater collection and treatment infrastructure are all challenging municipalities that may be short of funds or technical capabilities. For municipalities with limited capacities to meet these challenges, privatization can be a viable alternative.

Privatization of Water Services evaluates the fiscal and policy implications of privatization, scenarios in which privatization works best, and the efficiencies that may be gained by contracting with private water utilities.

  1. ×

    Welcome to OpenBook!

    You're looking at OpenBook,'s online reading room since 1999. Based on feedback from you, our users, we've made some improvements that make it easier than ever to read thousands of publications on our website.

    Do you want to take a quick tour of the OpenBook's features?

    No Thanks Take a Tour »
  2. ×

    Show this book's table of contents, where you can jump to any chapter by name.

    « Back Next »
  3. ×

    ...or use these buttons to go back to the previous chapter or skip to the next one.

    « Back Next »
  4. ×

    Jump up to the previous page or down to the next one. Also, you can type in a page number and press Enter to go directly to that page in the book.

    « Back Next »
  5. ×

    To search the entire text of this book, type in your search term here and press Enter.

    « Back Next »
  6. ×

    Share a link to this book page on your preferred social network or via email.

    « Back Next »
  7. ×

    View our suggested citation for this chapter.

    « Back Next »
  8. ×

    Ready to take your reading offline? Click here to buy this book in print or download it as a free PDF, if available.

    « Back Next »
Stay Connected!