In December 2012, the speakingforbuncombe blog read — “Last month on Election Day, 86% of Asheville voters said ‘No’ to the idea of selling or leasing the Asheville water system.… Op-ed writer John Miall commented after the election, ‘I can’t remember a time when 86% of Asheville voters agreed on anything. Talk about a mandate.’” The water issues on the ballot were complicated, but at the heart of this vote were suspicions that the members of the N.C. General Assembly were trying to privatize Asheville’s water supply. Mr. Miall may have been surprised with the overwhelming expression of support for a publicly owned water supply, but this vote was not without precedent. It is, in some historical contexts, completely unsurprising.
For several years, I studied the evolution of some of the most controversial urban water systems in U.S. history–those of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Over the course of the last century, citizens living across the semi-arid landscape of the American Southwest voted on similar issues just as their newly organized cities exploded in the early 20th century. Water was scarce and therefore extremely valuable in the West, but the powerful electoral mandate for public water heard in less water-restricted 2012 Asheville was equally loud in 1907 Los Angeles and 1908 San Francisco. The strength of this sentiment over time does not necessarily reflect profound voter knowledge about the practical merits of a given water system, such as their economic and engineering intricacies. It does, however, suggest a clear sentiment that should be considered during any domestic urban waterworks discussions. The American public profoundly supports public water.
Los Angeles’s water system, inspiration for the Academy Award winning film Chinatown, has been controversial from the start. In the late 19th century, L.A.’s local water supplies could support 50,000 people and the expanding city outstripped those resources well before amassing a metropolitan population that is now over 12 million. To compensate for this deficiency, Angelenos went more than 200 miles north to acquire water rights to the Owens Lake in a valley of the same name. When Los Angeles drained the lake into its city limits, severely damaging the Owens community, there was a great deal of public outcry and debate (and, eventually a benefit concert by Tom Mix and multiple aqueduct bombings). Nonetheless, in 1905 and 1907, L.A. voters passed $1.5 and $23 million bond issues to secure the rights to their new water source in the Owens Valley and to build the city’s aqueduct. The first vote passed by more than a 93 percent majority; the second, by more than 90. In 1907, 143 precincts reported. Every one of them secured the two-thirds majority needed to pass the initiative.
The California Gold Rush made San Francisco the urban power of the American West in the 19th century and its water history equals Los Angeles’s with respect to dramatic controversy and voter support for public water. The Golden Gate City initially turned to a private urban water system in the mid to late 19th century. The rate of urban growth and a profoundly conservative political culture helped turn San Francisco in this direction, even as most major American cities had completed or were turning to publicly owned systems. Building a public system was costly and complicated under any circumstances, but dealing with the needs of a city that expanded from a few hundred to over 50,000 in less than a decade was abnormally challenging. As the merchant elite ascended to power in the Bay City, they made the task all but impossible. Their city charters of 1855 and 1856 contained severe spending and anti-debt restrictions and went so far as to outline specific penalties for “wasteful officials.” They were so generally crippling to municipal funding that, due to a lack of funds, the government was forced to close schools and stop purchasing hoses for local fire companies. In the end, the charters gave the Bay City legal authority to construct a waterworks, but their economic restrictions all but eliminated San Francisco’s financial ability to pursue such a construction project. Thus, San Francisco became home to the nation’s largest private utility, the Spring Valley Water Company. That corporation would dominate the city until 1934.
San Franciscans were not allowed to vote directly for or against a public water system until 1908 and, by that time, the city’s best hope for a useable water supply was the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. Authorizing the Hetch Hetchy works became a national controversy, with preservationists from all over the nation joining in the struggle to “save the valley.” When San Franciscans were allowed to vote for the publicly owned Hetch Hetchy system, however, they offered overwhelming support which continued for more than a century. The four referendums offered before the system became operational (from 1908 to 1928), passed by an average of 91.5 percent. From 1908 to 1947, in five ballots concerning the system, the city recorded 3,184 individual precinct reports. In this vast pool, there was not a single precinct in which Hetch Hetchy propositions failed to receive a majority of votes. In 1924, 27 precincts did not record a single vote against financing the system’s inter-mountain tunnels. In this group, the balloting was 1,980 votes to zero. These unanimous endorsements represented a city-wide sentiment, for the precincts which did not receive a single vote against the Hetch Hetchy system were scattered in 11 of San Francisco’s 13 voting districts. Later votes to finance the expansion of the system were also passed in 1961 (a $115 million bond issue) and another to pay for improvements ($1.6 billion) passed easily in 2002.
While these profound expressions of support for public water do not reflect a comprehensive analysis of all American cities for every era, they suggest a consistent sentiment and one that is increasingly relevant in a climate where the private v. public waterworks discussions are more common. In the past years, hundreds of urban areas including Milwaukee, Stockton, Indianapolis, Gary, and Atlanta have discussed using private water companies to supply their needs. Atlanta experimented with private providers and abandoned the effort when citizen complaints about poor quality and service forced city leaders to back out of a contract that had been scheduled to last until 2019.
In the end, the Asheville mandate noted by John Miall was certainly clear, and within the context of a good deal of American urban history it was not unusual. The fact that an 86 percent majority can be considered “average” support for public water systems speaks to a sentiment that runs deep in urban America. In 1907, 143 precincts in Los Angeles recorded votes of at least a two-thirds majority for public water. No precincts were against. In five separate votes, from 1908 to 1947, 3,184 San Francisco precincts reported returns concerning the funding and expansion of the public Hetch Hetchy system, and the results were 3,184 to zero. People with the power to make such hydraulic decisions should take notice. The scoreboard is telling them something.