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Celebrations as Baltimore Set to Become First Major American City to Outlaw Water Privatization

"Baltimore will be a public water hero when this legislation passes—and should act as an example for other cities."

Mayor Catherine Pugh

Expressing her support for efforts to bar the privatization of Baltimore's water system, Mayor Catherine Pugh says she is "determined to do everything possible to protect this vital resource and ensure that it remains reliable, clean, and plentiful." (Photo: @MayorPugh50/Twitter)

Human rights advocates and union workers are celebrating as Baltimore is poised to become the first major American city to amend its charter to bar privatization of the public water system.

Baltimore's City Council on Monday approved a charter amendment that deems the water supply and sewer systems "inalienable," and prohibits the sale or lease of the systems. The vote was nearly unanimous—one council member reportedly recused herself and another was absent.

"Access to clean and affordable water should be looked at as a basic human right," asserted City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who waived council rules to fast-track the vote. "I have always been a proponent of retaining our city's assets, which is why I am completely opposed to the privatization of Baltimore's water system."

The amendment must be signed by Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh—who has expressed her support for it—by Aug. 13 before residents get the final say through a ballot measure vote in November.

The council's move on Monday came as a loud retort to years of lobbying by corporations interested in Baltimore's water system—including the French company Suez Environment, which spent several weeks of last year pitching a takeover to city officials. Human rights advocates have fiercely opposed the privatization proposals.

"Such a loss of local control can result in skyrocketing water bills, escalating water shutoff rates, downsizing public sector jobs, and deteriorating service quality," noted Rianna Eckel, a Maryland organizer with Food & Water Watch.

"Water privatization is simply unethical, immoral, and dangerous," Eckel concluded. "Baltimore will be a public water hero when this legislation passes—and should act as an example for other cities."

"It is time for Baltimore to set the precedent for cities across the country," declared Glen Middleton, a local AFSCME leader. Members of the union operate the city's water system and have vocally opposed privatization, which Middleton warns would not only "increase water rates across the city," but also "deprive low-income communities and communities of color access to clean and safe water."

Baltimore is not alone in its battle against water privatization, as ThinkProgress outlined:

Atlanta's water privatization deal with United Water 20 years ago is now considered a textbook case against such efforts. The deal ended after only four years amid evidence of rising costs and poor water quality. More recently, New Orleans residents have actively lobbied against similar attempts to privatize their water, while activists have protested related efforts in Puerto Rico as the island struggles to recover from Hurricane Maria last fall.

While the Baltimore measure is being hailed as revolutionary, both as an amendment to the charter and because of the city's size—the latest Census estimate puts the population over 611,000—the Baltimore Sun pointed out that in 2016, the City Council of Northampton, Massachusetts approved a similar ordinance that bars the sale or lease of its water system to prevent privatization.

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