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It’s Not Just about Water Rates, Aqua Is Coming for the Octoraro Watershed

Springton-Reservoir-today-color-copy.pngSubmitted Image

News reports about AQUA’s aggressive attempt to gobble up the Chester Water Authority rarely explain how bad this corporate takeover would be for ratepayers. Typical media stories focus on the usual superficial details or the latest litigation results but not what’s at stake for people who pay the bills. How is it that news organizations can’t produce the kind of excellent inter-active rate comparison that CWA recently published? Certainly those in the media must know that a publicly-traded corporation like AQUA is required by law to put the interests of its shareholders above all over considerations even if that means making water less affordable and of lower quality. AQUA has done this in all of its other acquisitions across the country.

But there’s another issue that’s been mentioned even less in news coverage of this forced sale which is what would happen to the 2,000 acres of pristine watershed owned by the Chester Water Authority. This expansive watershed in southern Chester and Lancaster Counties is one of the largest wildlife habitats in our region, but if AQUA’s record is any guide, they would no doubt sell these “excess” acres to developers to defray the enormous $400 million cost of acquiring CWA. Despite claims it would protect the land, AQUA’s press releases are not legally binding and its history of cashing in other watersheds belies its greenwashing.

AQUA is the publicly-traded successor to the former Philadelphia Suburban Water Company (PSWC) which owned several hundred acres of undeveloped watershed surrounding the Springton Reservoir in Delaware County (formerly the Geist Reservoir). But PSWC/AQUA sold off that entire adjoining watershed to the point that the only remaining “buffer” around the Springton Reservoir is a useless narrow strip which offers virtually none of the cleansing benefits of a natural landscape. God knows how many lawn and household chemicals, automotive fluids, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and bacteria from pet pies flow downhill into that lake? One look at aerial pictures of this reservoir tells you all you need to know about what AQUA would do to the Octoraro Reservoir.

The correlation between an undeveloped watershed and high quality water is well-established fact. It’s the reason why CWA bought up the 2,000 acres around its reservoir and why New York City has spent hundreds of millions protecting more than 130,000 acres surrounding its impoundments in the Catskills and other areas. The Hamburg Water Authority near Reading has left 3,500 acres in its watershed untouched. Nonprofit water authorities figured out long ago that stormwater in an undeveloped watershed picks up none of the pollution present in a developed landscape like the one currently surrounding Springton. In fact, Springton Dam was originally built in 1930 because “the source of supply is…sufficiently remote from congested areas to be free from pollution.”

Tap water is not purified by “reverse osmosis” or any other membrane filtration processes. It’s treated with chemicals and put through sand/gravel/charcoal filters. If the source water is contaminated, a predictable quantity of those contaminants make it to your tap. This not only makes the water more expensive, but less palatable and potentially harmful over the long term as well. By AQUA’s own admission, they say that “Drinking water, including bottled water, may reasonably be expected to contain at least small amounts of some contaminants,” a surprising admission given that they degraded one of their own watersheds. Fortunately, they have to publish what’s in their water. In contrast, Chester Water Authority has kept its watershed open around the Octoraro Reservoir, so its water is easier and cheaper to treat. And it’s better drinking water as a result. No less important are CWA’s 2,000 acres which are critical wildlife habitat in our increasingly congested landscape.

There is a caveat, though. Unlike New York City’s legally protected upstate watershed, the Octoraro watershed could still end up like Springton Reservoir even if our legislature or PA Supreme Court ultimately does the right thing. That’s because there is nothing legally protecting its land (like a conservation easement). As developers run out of land to build on, some future CWA board could sell off hundreds of acres for one reason or another. One precondition of protecting CWA must be, then, that they donate the development rights on their land and have an org like the Lancaster Conservancy hold the easement. This would have the added benefit of making CWA less attractive to AQUA by extinguishing a large part of the authority’s value. 

Speaking of legal matters, the recent bad news out of Commonwealth Court highlighted just how much those judges put the interests of corporations over the people who elected them. Their “finding” that Chester City has the authority to dissolve CWA not only completely ignores the fact that the vast majority of ratepayers don’t live in Chester, or that Delaware and Chester County representatives constitute two thirds of its board.

The lunacy of the Commonwealth Court’s decision might be understood as a move to protect another recent privatization attempt in Delaware County: the challenged sale of DELCORA to AQUA in 2019. In September of that year, former Delaware County Council members Colleen Morrone, John McBlain, and Michael Culp voted to sell the county’s nonprofit wastewater authority (DELCORA) to for-profit AQUA despite how much this would hurt hundreds of thousands of sewer ratepayers down the road. If Commonwealth Court had delivered the opposite decision – that Chester does NOT have the right to dissolve the authority – then it could certainly be argued in court that based on this opinion Delaware County Council’s decision to sell DELCORA to AQUA in 2019 can be overturned.

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