Lessons from Flint and the Price of Water Privatization

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Lessons from Flint and the Price of Water Privatization

U.S. communities are shifting toward keeping their water infrastructure public, and that’s a good thing. But stopping water privatization is only the first step.

Water is one of a community’s most essential assets, and one that ought to be protected. (Photo: via Food & Water Watch)

As new information comes out every day about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the state of our country’s water feels dire. Flint children will suffer the lifelong consequences of lead poisoning after the state took over the city’s water system and switched the city’s water source from the safe Detroit water system to the polluted Flint River all in the name of cutting costs.  

Flint’s situation is appalling, outrageous and frightening. It is a warning about what is at stake when communities lose local control of their water and outside officials come in and run water systems like businesses, putting money before public health and human lives.

Although we still have a long way to go to get justice for Flint, the good news is that more and more communities recognize the need to protect our water and run water systems like public services – not profit centers. Cities are moving in the right direction: toward local, public, democratic control of our water.

Food & Water Watch has worked for ten years to help communities keep their water in local public hands, and today we’re releasing our report, “The State of Public Water in the United States,” which shows that public water is slowly but surely winning over privatized water systems. We reviewed eight years of data from the U.S. EPA and found that more people than ever have public water. That’s a very good sign for the future of safe water.

We conducted a comprehensive survey of the 500 largest U.S. water systems – the largest survey of its kind –  and found that private systems charge 58 percent more than public systems on average. That’s an extra $185 a year for a typical household.

There's something in the air...

Locally controlled public water systems tend to be better all around for residents than privately owned systems. We’ve seen that when communities privatize their water systems, they frequently experience problems. Privatized systems have:

  • Worse service: private companies may cut corners, respond slowly to service requests, and let existing infrastructure deteriorate in order to improve their short-term profits.
  • Increased costs: when companies have state-sanctioned monopolies on water service, there is little incentive to keep costs down.
  • Profit-motivated decision-making: companies can expand and improve service where it benefits their bottom line, not where people need it most.
  • Less accountability: Because private companies aren’t accountable to voters the way public systems are, when problems occur, people have few options.

Local governments often try to auction off their water or sewer systems to raise money during a budget crunch. But water is one of a community’s most essential assets, and one that ought to be protected. Once leaders make the decision to privatize, the damage can be difficult to reverse.

Communities often don’t know what problems privatized water could bring until it happens to them. Fortunately, more and more communities are learning about the importance of public water, and they are fighting to keep their water in public hands, or take back public control of privatized systems. Since our founding, Food & Water Watch has always supported communities’ efforts to fight privatization, and we continue to offer education, expertise, training, and other resources to communities that are fighting for their water.

And together, we’ve won again and again. We beat a major water company in Florida. We protected multiple communities in New Jersey. We won in Milwaukee and Akron. In Food & Water Watch’s ten-year history, we’ve helped stop over three dozen privatization efforts.

The data shows that more and more communities are opting – and fighting when necessary – for public water, and Food & Water Watch will keep fighting with them. It’s a critical step, but local efforts aren’t enough to protect our water for the long term. We need to invest in keeping our water service clean, safe and affordable for everyone.

Cities across the country have aging pipes and need expensive updates to their water systems. Much of our water infrastructure was built around the same time that Henry Ford developed the Model T.

We need to fix and replace our pipes, upgrade our treatment plants and make sure that no more cities suffer the way Flint is. That’s why we’re calling on Congress and President Obama to fund our clean water infrastructure. You can help: take action to protect our public water.

Mary Grant

Mary Grant is the Public Water for All Campaign Director. She oversees campaigns to support universal access to safe water in the United States by promoting responsible and affordable public provision of water and sewer service.

Jo Miles

Jo Miles is the Digital Program Director for Food and Water Watch. 

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