There's A Secret War Being Waged Over Your Drinking Water

More and more municipalities are considering turning over their public water systems to private companies. Here's what that means.
Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

If the current catastrophe in Flint, Michigan, teaches us anything, it’s that the source of our drinking water is critically important -- if almost always overlooked, until something goes very, very wrong.

When it comes to the question of how we keep our water safe, the details get a little murkier. A battle is underway between private companies attempting to step in to take over ownership or management of public water systems in the U.S. and advocates who are blocking their efforts to do so.

Critics of privatization argue that private companies mean dramatic rate hikes for customers, while proponents argue that price increases are inevitable as the nation’s water systems are desperately in need of new investment to ensure continued safety.

Given the financial state many municipalities find themselves in, the lure of privatization is clear -- and legislation already passed in New Jersey and a similar bill proposed this month in Wisconsin make it easier for communities to sign on with a private partner.

So, who can we trust with our nation’s water? The Huffington Post recently spoke with leaders on two sides of the issue to get their take on what water privatization could mean for the community you live in -- and why it all matters.

Lauren DeRusha, water campaign senior organizer, and Kara Kaufman, press officer, Corporate Accountability International:

The Huffington Post: How common is what is being proposed in Wisconsin currently? Have other states already done this or are there efforts in the works for them to do so?

LD: The short answer is that what’s happening in Wisconsin lately is an example in a trend of the private water industry attempting to use policy as one of several avenues for eliminating democratic processes when it comes to the management of water. We’ve seen a really big increase in the number of privatized water systems in New Jersey and that is in part due to the lack of public input that’s caused by the passage of the bill. It’s all aimed at making it easier for the private water industry to get these contracts. The industry knows how unpopular privatization is and how difficult it would be to get these kinds of contracts they want if this process was happening in the light of democracy and there are are all sorts of different ways they are interfering with that at different levels of policy.

The top line is that our public water systems, which are such an important backbone of our society and which we’ve counted on for our public health and relative equality for a long time in the U.S., used to be very well-funded by the federal government. In the ‘80s, that funding all but dried up, so what we have now is a country full of water systems that are badly in need of infrastructure repair and are very badly underfunded. What cities have access to now is a very small pool of funding, and the private industry is trying to chip away at what little public funding is left and open it up to have access to it or limit the funding for public institutions unless they partner with the industry. This makes it even harder for them to get the funding they need.

KK: We have seen these corporations and their lobbyists attempting to create legislation and policy at every level, whether it be the national, state or local level, that will favor the private industry over public management. It’s imperative that our water systems are managed publicly in part because they are a unique human right and should be managed as such. None of us can live without water and when these corporations come in what we often see is a profit motive that takes precedent over public access. We often see really disastrous results of these contracts.

HP: Why do you think this issue isn’t on many peoples’ radars? It can be difficult to track down unbiased information on water privatization.

LD: What’s great is that most public utilities in the U.S. are doing a fabulous job and you wouldn’t necessarily hear too much about that in part because public water utilities don’t need to market how well they are doing, whereas we will hear a lot of propaganda and talk where the private industry tries to pose itself as a solution to the crisis of funding our public water systems are facing right now. But what we’ve seen across the board in every country, in every state and city is that the private water industry fails to fulfill these promises and does not invest in public infrastructure.

KK: All too often these deals occur completely outside of public scrutiny, outside the scope of public discourse as the private water industry conducts lobbying activities. It is an underreported issue.

HP: So how, then, do you make people sit up and care about this?

LD: This is something people should get activated around because it effects everyone. In Hoboken, for example, they have a private water contract with Suez that has been so badly failing to invest in needed infrastructure and make repairs that they just had two devastating water main breaks right on top of each other. Those are the moments when people are really forced to realize and understand how much this can affect people in their everyday lives. The thing people have to realize is that we can’t take our water for granted. When corporations come in, we see the kind of abuses that affect people in their everyday lives and can affect their ability to afford their water bill. That’s something everybody should be extremely cognizant of and why people should make sure we’re promoting and protected our publicly managed systems.

KK: We are seeing a trend across the U.S. of cities taking back public control of previously privatized water systems, which we call re-municipalization. There’s a clear uptick in the frequency of this, and Atlanta is a well-known example. So that’s the flip side of the coin. As the private water industry increasingly tries to get its foot in the door, people across the country are mobilizing successfully to ensure their public water system remains in public hands.

Examples of water systems that are being "re-municipalized" are on the rise, the Corporate Accountability International pointed out in its 2014 "Troubled Waters" report.
Examples of water systems that are being "re-municipalized" are on the rise, the Corporate Accountability International pointed out in its 2014 "Troubled Waters" report.
Credit: Corporate Accountability International

Michael Deane, executive director, National Association of Water Companies:

HP: What does the average person need to know and understand about private water that you think is often misconstrued?

MD: It’s very important that people understand water is not private, unless you buy it in a bottle, I guess. Water is essentially a public good. We are the agents of public policy, and typically states own or have the rights to the water and we’re talking about the system that treats and delivers it. It’s not like any of our companies own the molecule of water in a legal context.

HP: Critics of water privatization say supporters like you are operating largely outside of the public eye to get these contracts -- how do you respond to that sort of claim?

MD: This all depends on the particular city or structure we’re looking at. Every state has a public utility commission with a very transparent and publicly inclusive process for deals like these. Utilities look at these and determine whether they’re prudent or not and determines what customer rate structure is necessary to make the investments the system needs. Nothing is behind closed doors. For any bureaucratic or public policy process, there will be some meetings not open to the public but there is complete access to extensive public hearings. There are complex matters that come up in certain places along the process where hired experts and elected officials will have negotiations with potential partners and maybe that can be deemed as suspicious at times and misused by those who are opposed to the process. But I don’t see this particularly as a big problem. Whatever the procurement process is required in the state or community where it’s happening is the process that is followed.

HP: Critics of this also say rates have increased and many places have re-municipalized because they were unhappy with how the systems were managed. Why do you think that is happening to the degree it is?

MD: There are so many factors that go into rates and you can’t compare two cities that are 10 miles apart. Until you look at what the true cost of service for that particular system needs to be to ensure that all the requirements and customer preferences are being met and the system is being adequately maintained, rates mean nothing.

There are lots of reasons a city might want to not continue a contract. On the more global scale, look at Paris, where the core center city chose a few years ago not to continue its contract. You can look at that as a success. In that case, a company spent more than 100 years making investments, replacing pipes and getting improved treatment systems in place. Now there’s a pretty good system in place, so the city decides they can operate them now. There are all sorts of reasons for it and I can’t judge why a particular community would want to do that, but I think you don’t see a lot of it.

Treated wastewater from the Roberto R. Bustamante plant in El Paso, shown here in this Feb. 13, 2015, photo.
Treated wastewater from the Roberto R. Bustamante plant in El Paso, shown here in this Feb. 13, 2015, photo.
Credit: Betsy Blane/Associated Press

HP: This issue can obviously get pretty wonky, why is this important for people to care and learn about?

MD: What’s at stake is ensuring this country continues to vet robust, efficient and effective water treatment systems and wastewater collection. Fortunately, compared to large parts of the world, we have done that thanks to a lot of work and investment from a lot of people including the EPA, state regulatory agencies and public health utilities. We’ve made great progress but face significant problems going forward, continuing to meet regulatory requirements and mitigate public health risks.

A lot of investments were made in these systems starting in the ‘70s with the Clean Water Act and we’re getting to the end of those investments’ design lives. Those pipes have been in the ground for many years, some of them are great and some of them are leaking all over the place. It’s incumbent on all of us to be as efficient as possible in addressing this and having the full spectrum of solutions available to communities across the country. The challenges we’re facing are not getting easier, they’re getting more complex and getting more expensive. We need to invest in our deteriorating infrastructure and if a public-private partnership or a sale to a management company is the most efficient way of doing that, that option should be fully available to communities deciding what to do.

Across the board, public and private utilities and municipal partners are realizing they have to work much closer together. It’s not public vs. private. Every community has something they need to address and in some cases they can do it on their own and in some cases they’ll sell to a private company and in other situations a private company can do just part of it.

HP: Where do you see the common ground on this, between opponents to private water and groups like yours?

MD: Water is the hidden or silent service. People always turn on the tap and flush the toilet and it usually works just fine. We’ve all done a really good job delivering this, but at the same time, we’ve also done a really good job of hiding how it works from people -- that you don’t need to know all the details of this as long as you’re getting access to safe water and the wastewater is being taken away and not polluting local streams and lakes.

Now, people need to know. Water doesn’t magically show up in your tap or magically disappear down the toilet. We need to do a much better job educating about that. Their forefathers and mothers put these systems in place and the communities before invested in them. Now it’s our turn to invest. It gets down to the true cost of water because the easiest way to keep water cheap is to let your system fall apart. If a community enters into a contract with a private company, part of the solution to the problem is making investments improving the system, and that costs money. The reason rates go up isn’t because of the private company but it’s because of the community that’s chosen to do something about their deteriorating system.

Interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Tips? Email

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