Privatization of Public Water Resources Jeopardizes the Affordability and Quality of Water Supplies

Posted Oct. 28, 2015

MP3 Interview with Mary Grant, director of the Food and Water Watch Public Water for All campaign, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

water

With the deterioration and lack of investment in the nation's public water supply delivery systems, more water disasters are in the headlines – from a chemical spill in a West Virginia river in January 2014 that affected 300,000 people to the reports this month of serious contamination of the water in Flint, Michigan.

More efforts are underway to privatize water that has historically been a public resource, both in the U.S. and around the world. At the same time the growth in the sale of bottled water that consumers purchase on their own has accompanied and exacerbated the privatization trend.

Corporate water privatization deals appeal to many cash-strapped cities and towns in need of costly infrastructure retrofits. But once in control of a vital public resource, corporations often use their monopoly to raise the cost of drinking water, without public accountability. Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Mary Grant, director of the Food and Water Watch Public Water for All campaign. Here, she describes her group's work promoting the protection and affordability of the nation's water supply by fighting privatization bids and advocating for increased federal investment.

MARY GRANT: In our Public Water for All campaign, we coordinate with local communities that are working to prevent privatization of their water system, to support community efforts that are seeking public control of their water systems from private entities, and also we support water affordability programs.

Yeah, so I don't know if it's getting worse, but we're seeing more concern about water quality problems ​and our understanding of water quality contamination is getting better so we know the health effects of contamination. So in communities like Flint we were proud to work with What Are You Fighting For, a local organization that was working to reconnect the city's water back to Detroit Water. When they switched from Detroit Water to the Flint River water, the community experienced serious problems with water quality, in particular with lead poisoning in their water. There are reports that more children are experiencing high levels of lead in their blood. So that's a serious issue, and it's because of the corrosion in the pipes from the switch to Flint River water; it's more corrosive and they didn't have the right remediation chemical included in the water. But we do see this is an important issue; it remains an important issue.

Since the beginning of our organization, we've worked with communities fighting water privatization. They've reached out to us and they need support to keep their water systems in local public hands.

But what we're seeing as a growing problem is water affordability. Federal funding for our water and sewer systems has been decreasing. Water quality standards are getting more stringent, as we understand more about the contaminants in our water, and our climate is changing, so these factors are increasing the cost of infrastructure improvements that we need in order to provide safe water. So the issue becomes how do you pay for it with federal funding dwindling, water rates going up in communities across the country? Water rates are regressive, so they impose a disproportionate burden on low-income households. So a solution that we see is having water affordability programs to address the issue of increasing water rates and regressive water bills to ensure that everyone has access to safe and affordable water service.

Climate change is an issue for many communities, especially coastal communities that are seeing rising water levels, more flood events, drought, changing climate, extremes in weather that are affecting our water utilities and people have to plan for and make improvement projects to plan for to protect their water supplies.

We think that water is priceless; it's invaluable, and so the water itself is a common resource. There is a cost to treating and distributing the water and we want to make sure the burden of those costs are allocated equitably so that we're not over-burdening low-income households. That's the intention of the affordability work we're doing. But we also want to ensure that all the revenue collected from water and sewer rates are going back into the system. We don't want to have profiting off our water and sewer services. They're such a central service – necessary for public health and well-being – that we can't have money going out of the system.

Most people have their water service from their local government. I think nine out of ten people have water service from their local government. There are water companies, particularly in the northeast – these are investor-owned companies in the northeast that provide regional areas. So there are regional companies and then there are national water companies like American Water and Aqua America that serve mostly more rural communities and statewide in different states. Then we also have international – multinational – water corporations like Suez and Veolia that are involved in water provision.

That was American Water; it's the largest water company in the U.S. Oh, it's actually interesting; there's a local community group in West Virginia that's seeking local public control of their water system from American Water, in part because of the response they've seen to the water contamination that they think is inadequate, that the company responded poorly to the water contamination, and didn't prepare for and plan for.

That is a major concern, that there is this public perception that our tap water is unsafe, so people don't want to invest in it. And then who can afford bottled water? Maude Barlow talks about a two-tier water system; you have people who can afford this bottled water and you have people who are stuck with tap water. And if you're not having people who can afford bottled water invest in our tap water system, where does that leave our tap water system?

For more information visit, Food & Water Watch at foodandwaterwatch.org and F&WW Public Water For All Campaign at foodandwaterwatch.org/campaign/public-water-all.

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