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The Women's International Perspective

Murky Waters: Why Privatization Is Not the Solution to Fixing America’s Aging Water Infrastructure Systems

Think of the last time you turned on a tap while washing dishes, brushing your teeth or grabbing a glass of water. If you're like most people, it probably doesn't stand out as a momentous experience. That's because most of us don't give much thought to this resource that we tend to take for granted. But our water service is becoming less reliable as the infrastructure that delivers it to us falls apart and private companies threaten to take it over for their own financial gain.

The network of pipes that delivers water to U.S. consumers spans 1.5 million miles, roughly the distance of three trips from Earth to the moon and back. They deliver this essential resource to more than 300 million citizens as they work, play and raise families.

Many of the water and sewer pipes in the United States are over 100 years old. They were being laid as William Howard Taft defeated William Jennings Bryan for the United States presidency, Oklahoma was admitted as the 46th state and Upton Sinclair published The Jungle. While such historical milestones may feel to many of us like they took place eons ago, we continue to rely upon an infrastructure system from the same era for one of our most precious resources.

The country's clean water infrastructure can be thought of as a circulatory system. Rather than the blood that keeps our bodies alive, our local utilities pump the water that keeps our society functioning. Pipes act as arteries, carrying fresh water to be used by people and businesses, then as veins, carrying dirty water away. Wastewater treatment facilities serve as the kidneys and the liver, cleansing impurities and waste. Like the circulatory system, water infrastructure is largely out of sight and out of mind until it breaks down.

While easy enough to understand, that attitude is rapidly proving to be untenable when it comes to protecting our pipes. When we neglect our bodies' health, we get sick. When we neglect our national infrastructure, it breaks down. Both scenarios can result in serious and dangerous consequences.

Yet signs of the fragility of our nation's water infrastructure are now emerging and an overall collapse is coming on fast as the pipes that keep America's water circulating and the treatment facilities that keep it clean are nearing, and sometimes passing, the end of their useful lives.

Although a pipe's lifespan can range anywhere from 15 years to well over a century, even older, more durable materials are hitting their age limits. The cast iron pipes installed in the 19th century can last about 100 years, and many are already past that mark. Meanwhile, some eastern cities depend on pipes nearly as old as the U.S. Constitution.

While our water is among the safest in the world, many public utilities struggle to meet federal clean water standards and to maintain and modernize water systems. In 2008, the federal government estimated spending (funds that would be released to the public) $45.5 billion on a highway trust fund and more than $12 billion on an air transport trust fund, yet we have no trust fund to safeguard our nation's water.

Defined under the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, the federal government has an obligation to help communities pay for public water. In spite of this, the government has cut the main source of funding for clean water year after year. We are more than $22 billion per year short of what is necessary to keep water safe for human and environmental health.

In order to address the need for infrastructure improvements in challenging budgetary times, many municipalities have resorted to selling their water and wastewater systems to private water companies. While corporations offer themselves as the solution to the financial, technical and organizational challenges of water management, their collective track record for service delivery has been spotty at best. Many communities have even gone so far as to buy back their water systems from private interests after the reality of their service contracts have not lived up to the original promises.

Take for example, the experience of consumers in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where water was once controlled by Aqua Indiana, a subsidiary of the national private water company Aqua America. Residents had experienced a litany of service problems ranging from rusty water to high bills. Water infrastructure in Fort Wayne was in obvious need of improvement, yet Aqua Indiana invested very little of what it budgeted for infrastructure, despite seeking rate hikes as high as 75 percent.

Frustrated by poor service and high bills, residents successfully petitioned the City of Fort Wayne to employ eminent domain to take over water and sewer service from Aqua Indiana on the north side of town. Since then, the city has embarked on a plan to improve service and rejuvenate the water and sewer systems-all at a lower price.

Residents in the southwest areas of Fort Wayne, where Aqua Indiana still operates continue to suffer poor water quality, often requiring in-home softeners or other equipment. Meanwhile, these same communities could see a total rate fee increase of 75% for their water and wastewater services by June 2009.

The experience of water customers in Fort Wayne and other areas controlled by private water companies is indicative of the overall failures of water privatization. Corporations have an eye towards profit, not service delivery or improving water infrastructure systems.

The solution to this crisis lies in keeping this essential resource under public control. Public management of water and waste water systems allows for better service and increased accountability. It is also makes for sound economic policies. Analysis by Food & Water Watch reveals that the total employment opportunities created by addressing all the state's waste water infrastructure alone would generate almost 2.17 million jobs. That's almost as many jobs as the 2.2 million increase in unemployed people over the past twelve months.

While public utilities have made great strides to address the infrastructure crisis, they still need help. We need to plan ahead for future generations and create a dedicated source of public funding so that communities across America can keep their water clean, safe and affordable. A Clean Water Trust Fund would realize this need while relieving already over-taxed state and municipal coffers from the burden of water infrastructure repairs. We currently have trust funds for botanic gardens and wildlife habitat restoration, why not water?

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Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of the consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch. She has worked extensively on energy, food, water and environmental issues at the national, state and local level. Experienced in developing policy positions and legislative strategies, she is also a skilled and accomplished organizer, having lobbied and developed grassroots field strategy and action plans.

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