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Flint resident Otis Powell, 56, sheds a tear as he stands in below-zero-degree temperatures with heavy wind during a protest of the city's water quality on Saturday, Feb. 14, 2015 while marching up and down Saginaw Street in downtown Flint. "This water situation, I can't stand," Powell said. "It's saddening that we don't have clean water." (Photo: Jake May |

A Poisonous Approach to Governing

Band-Aid solutions such as the ones seen in Flint or the push to privatize advocated by ALEC and its corporate cronies stem from a larger crisis—inadequate federal funding

Wenonah Hauter

The Flint water crisis is a disaster on all levels, and many factors are to blame—austerity measures imposed by emergency management, the Snyder administration’s gross mismanagement, EPA’s failure to step in. It is also a consequence of a poisonous trend—running states like corporations. Flint reminds us yet again that corporations and their political front groups have hijacked our democracy—with real and lasting impacts on our water and public health.

In Michigan, the governor has the power to appoint emergency managers who assume complete control over municipalities, stripping elected officials of their ability to govern. Emergency managers may as well be called “emergency dictators.” They can make decisions about every aspect of a city’s governance, including firing elected officials or determining the fate of a water system. Much like a corporate CEO, their eye is usually on the bottom line.

But states are not corporations. While conservatives often claim that experience as a corporate executive qualifies them for high office, the analogy fails when put into action. Government works best when decisions are made in the public interest; cutting costs almost always means cutting corners, which is exactly what happened in Flint. Health experts recommend that every child in Flint under the age of six— over 8,000 children—be considered exposed to lead poisoning. We don’t yet know the full extent of this public health crisis, but many lives have been forever marred because a government bureaucrat opted to cut corners.

"We don’t yet know the full extent of this public health crisis, but many lives have been forever marred because a government bureaucrat opted to cut corners."

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that a water system has been sacrificed in the name of cost-cutting measures, nor is it likely to be the last. That’s due in part to a heightened new trend of conservative influence over many of our nation’s policies, particularly on the state level.

Rightwing free market think tanks like the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, funded by billionaire Charles Koch, have been major forces in undermining democratic control on the state level, particularly in their support of emergency management. The Mackinac Center aggressively pushed for expanded emergency management powers in Michigan, and its former director of municipal finance, Louis Schimmel, served as emergency manager in Pontiac, Michigan.

The Mackinac Center is also a member of the rightwing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a policy organization that seeks to rewrite state laws to give more power to corporations. ALEC has been a major force behind this trend to undermine democratic control of water, thereby threatening its integrity as a public good.

The group has written model legislation intended to starve states of funding for water while paving the way for corporate takeovers of municipal water systems. The National Association of Water Companies, a trade association for water corporations, is a member of ALEC, and has worked with the group on privatization-related issues. 

But it is not the job of corporations to provide essential public services, and studies show that investor owned utilities typically charge 33 percent more for water and 63 percent more for sewer service than local government utilities. After privatization, water rates increase at about three times the rate of inflation, with an average increase of 18 percent every other year.

The Case for Federal Funding for Water Infrastructure

Band-Aid solutions such as the ones seen in Flint or the push to privatize advocated by ALEC and its corporate cronies stem from a larger crisis—inadequate federal funding. Water is often among the first items on the chopping block during congressional budget battles, despite the fact that much of our water infrastructure was built around the same time that Henry Ford developed the Model T.

Federal contributions to water utility improvement projects peaked in 1977 at 63 percent of what was needed, dropped to record lows of 7 percent during the Bush years in 2006, and after a slight boost to 12 percent in 2010, fell back to 9 percent in 2014. From 1977 to 2014, federal funding for water utilities fell 74 percent after accounting for inflation.

"We cannot continue to starve states and cities of the funds needed to provide a most basic service."

Unseen but essential, the network of pipes that deliver water to our homes, offices and businesses is vastly unappreciated—until something goes wrong. But when it does, calamity strikes. The lead and iron pipes in Flint’s municipal system are in desperate need of replacing, and so too are the ones that connect individual homes with the city’s water infrastructure. Many homeowners in this economically disadvantaged town lack the means to make these upgrades.

Correcting the damage caused from corrosion to Flint’s water system will cost between $20 million and $200 million. Replacing the pipes could run as high as $1.5 billion. While upgrading the city’s pipes would not have entirely prevented the problem—municipal efforts to replace lead service pipes are useless if homeowners lack the money to tackle the problem on their end—the fact remains that Flint’s overall water infrastructure is starved for funds. Michigan will receive $80 million in federal funds this year for all of its water and sewer systems, an effort we applaud, but far short of what the state and Flint need.

We cannot continue to starve states and cities of the funds needed to provide a most basic service. We must provide states with the money they need to modernize and maintain their water systems. Congress must establish a dedicated, steady source of funding for state and local water systems in the form of a trust fund. With these critical, sustained dollars, communities can avoid catastrophic water problems, maintain democratic control of water and nullify the need to corporatize this most essential resource.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of the consumer advocacy group Food & Water Action. 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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