“Reaching across the aisle” to privatize US water systems?

Forever the subject of ribald art by students at the adjacent Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti’s historic 1893 water tower, still in use, would become an entirely different sort of symbol in case of a bipartisan Washington deal to privatize it or the Ypsilanti Community Utilities Authority. Wikimedia photo by Cmadler.

200+ groups to Congress: ‘No water privatization’ in any infrastructure deal

by Jessica Corbett — Common Dreams

In a letter to congressional leaders on Thursday, 218 organizations urged against water privatization “in all its forms” and called on federal lawmakers to enact a “bold, uncompromising infrastructure package.”

The letter (pdf), sent to top Democrats and Republicans, was organized by Food & Water Watch, which has repeatedly criticized privatization provisions that the White House and members of Congress are considering for a bipartisan infrastructure deal that Democrats plan to pass alongside a broader reconciliation package.

“The U.S. is long overdue for bold federal investment in our public water systems—but the proposal on the table will not get us there,” said Neil Gupta, associate research director at letter signatory Corporate Accountability.

The bipartisan infrastructure framework announced last week by President Joe Biden and centrist lawmakers, Gupta explained, “promotes privatization schemes dressed up as ‘public-private partnerships’ and ‘asset recycling,’ which create dangerous, avoidable problems and ignore people’s needs.”

“Water privatization has failed communities across the country and must be rejected in all its forms,” Gupta continued. “We need an infrastructure plan that directly invests federal dollars in communities, keeps water systems in public hands, and equitably addresses our nation’s infrastructure crisis for the long haul—not more corporate handouts.”

As Food & Water Watch Public Water for All director Mary Grant put it: “This White House-approved infrastructure deal would lead to communities handing over public infrastructure to Wall Street profiteers.”

The letter outlines key arguments against water privatization, including that it:

    • Is an incredibly expensive financing option;
    • Will lead to rate hikes on households already struggling to afford their water bills;
    • Is not a viable or just solution for rural, small, or disadvantaged communities;
    • Can trap communities in expensive deals; and
    • Is not a solution for our nation’s water needs.

“Water privatization can increase costs, worsen service quality and allow infrastructure assets to deteriorate,” the letter says. “There is ample evidence that maintenance backlogs, wasted water, sewage spills, and worse service often follow privatization.”

“In fact, poor performance is the primary reason that local governments reverse the decision to privatize and resume public operation of previously contracted services,” the letter adds.

The groups also argue that “communities need real federal dollars spent on drinking water and wastewater infrastructure,” making a case for the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity, and Reliability (WATER) Act of 2021.

The WATER Act—reintroduced in February by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Democratic Reps. Brenda L. Lawrence (Mich.) and Ro Khanna (Calif.)—would provide nearly $35 billion a year to drinking water and wastewater improvements, among other provisions.

Grant echoed that message from the letter, saying that “communities need real support, like the WATER Act, not sneaky privatization scams.”

Flint Rising executive director Nayyirah Shariff knows just how badly investments in the nation’s water infrastructure are needed; her city in Michigan is infamous around the world for its drinking water issues and resulting impacts on public health.

“Our water systems are struggling because the federal government has chosen to divest from water infrastructure,” said Shariff, whose group also endorsed the letter.

“We have a funding issue,” she added. “Privatization is not the answer because it will contribute to unaffordable drinking and wastewater bills. We need bold investment that includes grants for our water utilities, like the WATER Act.”

Other signatories include the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, In the Public Interest, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Public Citizen and dozens of additional national groups as well as state organizations from Maine to Alabama to Hawaii to Alaska, and beyond.

Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, pointed out that “every public dollar that ends up in the pockets of water corporations and investors is one less dollar we can use to fix America’s crumbling water infrastructure.”

The “no water privatization” letter concludes with a clear message to lawmakers: “We urge you to reject this proposed water privatization scam and fight for a bold package that provides the support our communities need. Do not compromise on water.”

The letter came in the midst of several days of action on Capitol Hill pushing for bold climate provisions and other progressive priorities for infrastructure legislation.

It was also sent to lawmakers as House Democrats, joined by just two Republicans, passed a water and transportation infrastructure bill called the INVEST in America Act, which calls for putting $117 billion toward drinking water infrastructure and assistance.

As Common Dreams reported earlier Thursday, Grant of Food & Water said the House measure “offers a bolder response than the Senate’s water bill,” but “the funding levels for water improvements are still not enough.”

Grant urged Congress to “seize the opportunity provided by ongoing infrastructure negotiations and ensure the critical, transformative water funding the country really needs.”



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