Tuesday, July 13, 2004 | 8:20 a.m.
A new documentary film explains how scarce supplies will cause water to rival oil in price as global corporations take over public resources, a scenario similar to the battle Sandy Valley residents have mounted with Vidler Water Co. over water rights.
The film, "Thirst," describes how U.S. communities could face international corporations taking over their local water supplies in the next five to 10 years.
"Once they get ahold of the water, be prepared to pay gas prices," Dean Cofer, a Sacramento engineer, said in the film.
Filmmakers Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow took two years and traveled to three continents in making the documentary that asks if water is a public right or is ripe for commercial profit. The film aired early this morning on "POV," a documentary showcase on KLVX-TV Channel 10.
Kaufman and Snitow said that privatization of public services is an alarming trend occurring as urban developments demand more water. They discussed the issue during Monday's "Face to Face With Jon Ralston" on Cox cable channels 1 and 19.
The water fights are invisible to the average person whose tap is running clean and plentiful, but when global corporations try to take over a community's water supply, the results are emotional and visceral.
People take water for granted until the supply is threatened, Snitow said. "Then it is a life and death issue," he said.
Instead of a natural resource, water becomes a commodity.
"It's about stockholder profit, not stakeholder benefit," Kaufman said.
Vidler Water Co. began seeking water in Sandy Valley four years ago. Vidler hopes to move water from rural and agricultural areas to urban developments throughout the West. In Nevada, Vidler's sister company, PICO, is the state's largest private landowner.
The company has also partnered with Lincoln County, northeast of Clark County, to develop water resources.
Sandy Valley residents have mounted a bitter fight with Vidler to protect their water rights, just as Stockton, Calif., residents opposed OMI-Thames Water, a German-based corporation, from partnering with the city to deliver water. The documentary tells the story of the Stockton fight as well as battles over water rights in India and Bolivia.
A company could buy water rights in Nevada and sell them to Arizona, Kaufman said.
"They are going to go where they can make the most money," Snitow said, "then suck the groundwater out of the entire environment."
In the film, Stockton Mayor Gary Podesto, a businessman, was committed to marketplace solutions for saving millions of dollars and was surprised at public protests.
"Water is up for grabs in the United States for the first time in a century," Snitow said, noting that it was a disaster when private companies delivered water a hundred years ago.
Often, skyrocketing water bills accompany corporate takeovers.
When Bechtel Corp. took over the water of Cochabamba, Bolivia, the rates jumped as much as 300 percent. People poured into the streets, shouting, "Basta," which means "enough."
The citizen confrontation climaxed when a 17-year-old was killed by a government sharpshooter.
"Water is one thing people are willing to get active about," Snitow said.
In Rajasthan, India, a modern-day Ghandi is leading a poor people's movement for water conservation that has revived rural lives, the film shows. Communities once devastated by water shortages are now able to grow crops.
The documentary concludes with suggestions for worldwide conservation efforts and participation by people everywhere in the discussion on how to deliver clean, plentiful water.
"The question is, what is democracy and what is the role of government?" Kaufman said. "We have the right to water, but we also have the responsibility to control and manage the water."