Private interests seek to grab invaluable water shed for pennies on the dollar; Part One of Water Shed Series

Harrisburg:  Broke, and soon thirsty

Part One to / series

Harrisburg PA may soon lose control of its priceless and historic public water system to bottom feeders who hope to pay pennies on the dollar.

One hundred years of sound public works could be lost to a score of years of folly, fast bond trading and high finance, and a public that wasn’t paying attention.

“It’s Chinatown, Jake”

by Bill Keisling

Private companies are jostling in line to pick up broke Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s public water system for pennies on the dollar.

The water system is the undisputed crown jewel of the bankrupt city.

It’s a public water system of inestimable historic and economic worth.

The water system’s most valuable assets are tucked away, out of sight, about an hour’s drive upriver and into the mountains north of Harrisburg.

The system includes a vast reservoir and dam that supply water to the city of Harrisburg and nearby municipalities.

Along the reservoir’s banks, protecting the watershed, stand some 8,200 of acres of city owned, unspoiled forest.

The city reservoir itself is more than five miles long. It holds 6 to 7 billion gallons of mountain water.

The dam — called Dehart Dam — that holds the reservoir is 100 feet high, 2,000 feet long, and 600 feet thick at its base. It took a year and a half to fill the reservoir after the dam was built in 1939.

The protected watershed that feeds the reservoir stretches twenty-five miles into the forest of the mountainous undeveloped Clark Valley.

Some days you can drive or walk for hours along the reservoir on state Rt. 325 without encountering a soul.

The roadway passage through the forest alongside the reservoir is unspoiled.

There are no amenities. There are no housing developments.

All that may change.

The real value of the reservoir, the dam, and the 8,200 acres of land could easily approach $5 billion dollars, I’m told. Over time, decades into the future, its actual value could be more than $50 billion, concerned insiders say.

It simply cannot be replaced, at any price.

Nevertheless, a recent plan put forward by the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett appraises the value of the water system at a mere $50 million — possibly a fraction of a percent of its true worth.

Should Harrisburg lose its water system, more than one hundred years of sound public works could be lost to a score of years of political folly, fast bond trading and high finance, and a public that wasn’t paying attention.

Before the citizens of Harrisburg built their pure mountain reservoir in the late 1930s, they drank treated raw sewage pumped from the muddy Susquehanna. Sometimes the water ran brown from their spigots… If it ran at all.

No private company back then stepped forward to build a clean water supply for the city. The city had to build its own, with the help of the WPA. (Works Project Administration.)

That’s why, for these and other reasons, it would be ironic and tragic should a private company end up controlling Harrisburg’s water system.

Harrisburg’s remarkable water works was a far-sighted gift to today’s residents of the city, from residents of the past.

Past citizens wanted a water system that they and their progeny would control, away from the hands of private interests. It would allow the city to chart its own destiny, to grow, and plan.

Today’s residents didn’t have to build the reservoir, or even pay for it. Its sound bonds have long since been retired.

All the residents of the city today had to do was care for it, and guard it.

Like a fool who has blown his inheritance overnight in a casino, today’s residents of Harrisburg may yet lose it.

The dam and its mountain reservoir are connected by miles of underground water main that snakes down through the mountain valley toward the Susquehanna River and connects to Harrisburg at Seventh and Division Streets, some 21 miles away.

The water to this day runs clear and clean.

But, at the far end of the pipe, miles from the dam, in the city of Harrisburg, things are not running so well politically these days. The political waters run putrid, if they run at all.

At the federal courthouse in Harrisburg, where the drinking fountains splash with the fresh water from the reservoir, a supposedly all-powerful court-appointed receiver recently pounded his fist with exasperation on a witness stand in a courtroom while he spoke about the ill state of the city.

The receiver had been appointed by Gov. Corbett and the courts a few months earlier to straighten out the financial mess that was consuming the city.

The city authority that today owns the water supply also owns an incinerator that somehow gobbled up $300 million in borrowed money. The authority and the city defaulted on payment of the incinerator debt to bondholders.

Bondholders and their allies now are lining up in the courts to clean the city’s cupboards. So the water supply, in some fashion, if not in total fashion, like other city properties, may end up in private hands, at bargain basement prices…

(To be continued)

Updated: April 19, 2012 — 8:40 am © 2015