Monday, July 16, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Water utility throws it away

The public interest, which includes the assurance that people will have clean and affordable water, is not always paramount when it collides with the profit goals of developers — not, anyway, when municipal fathers in Little Rock do the reckoning.

Still, we were astonished this week when the Central Arkansas Water Board of Commissioners voted to allow Rick Ferguson to build palatial homes in the Lake Maumelle watershed and also give him $1 million for his trouble.

Commissioners adopted a “settlement” with Ferguson — “sweetheart deal” is a better description — that in effect gives Ferguson and any other business that he may hand the project off to in the future a waiver from its watershed protection plan.

The water utility just couldn’t stand success. The utility — more aptly, its angry customers — beat down an attempt in the legislature to give the development giant Deltic Timber Corp. legal authority to plunder the watershed of 400,000 water customers in central Arkansas, and it has won victories in the courts, too. It condemned Ferguson’s speculative land along the lake in 2004, and the Pulaski Circuit Court ruled last year that the condemnation was in the public interest.

But then the utility’s governing commission decided suddenly to capitulate and give Ferguson permission to build the mammoth Waterview Estates, which will stretch over 1,100 acres west of Little Rock. Ferguson offered to build a concrete ditch that theoretically would channel the runoff from the landscaped slopes on which the luxurious homes will be built away from the lake and the intake for the region’s water supply. That is the water, remember, that you will make your coffee with every morning.

There is no guarantee that the little canal will work, nor is there any provision for its failure. If you cannot trust a bunch of developers, the commissioners theorize, whom can you trust?

Central Arkansas Water spent 18 months and $1.2 million developing a watershed management plan, and the commission adopted it with fanfare in February. We felt so much better. There could be no residential development in an area described as Critical Area A. The disputed part of Waterview Estates will be in Critical Area A. So how can the commissioners do it?

Commissioner Jane Dickey, a lawyer, explained that the ditch effectively took Waterview Estates out of Critical Area A, even though on the map it lay inside it, so the commission is not really violating its own plan. Now do you feel safer?

Why would the waterworks capitulate and go along — actually, encourage — a development that threatens water purity when it has won the battle in the eyes of the courts and certainly the public? You see, Waterview Estates LLC would make the utility pay a huge price for the condemned land that it had to surrender, and the payments to Ferguson would raise your water bills.

So the utility must surrender to the developers to save you money. But here is the real equation: Like Deltic Timber, Ferguson acquired the land knowing that it was in the watershed of central Arkansas’ main water supply. The reason that the land has a tremendous market value (although the speculators continue to pay county and school taxes on the land, pennies per acre, as if it were virtually worthless) is that Central Arkansas Water and its customers paid millions of dollars years ago to acquire land and build a lake in those valleys, creating one of the finest scenic vistas in Arkansas.

The developers are profiting obscenely from taxpayers’ investment to create a pristine water supply for their posterity. Now the taxpayers must also subsidize putting that water supply at risk. Is something wrong with this picture?