I’ve said this many times: Businesses are in business to make money.

Yes, they may sell a useful good or service, but that’s a bit beside the point of making money.

The private water industry has steadily crept across the United States, exploiting cash-poor municipalities with one-time cash infusions, promises of cost savings—or both—by buying up or managing their water departments. The companies promise to invest in infrastructure upgrades cities don’t think they can afford, and to manage the system with the oft-touted “efficiency” of private enterprise. But once these cities and towns lose control over the very water they need to sustain life, the private water company gains control over the towns and cities. The corporations have them, kind of literally, over a barrel.

“The key concern with the privatization of water is that loss of local control over the projects,” Mary Grant, of the environmental group Food and Water Watch, told Governing. “Companies may be offering large sums of money to entice local officials to sell assets, but that’s not free money. That’s just a debt that your constituents are going to have to pay through their water bills,”

About a dozen states have passed—with significant pressure from the industry—what is called “fair market value legislation,” which makes the selling off of public utilities, including water and wastewater systems, easier.

That’s why it is especially good news that a coalition of groups that included AFSCME Hope Local 123Corporate Accountability, West Street Recovery, the Coalition for Environment, Equity, and Resilience, and Bayou City Waterkeeper helped pulled the plug on a proposal to privatize the operation of a Houston water purification plant that treats 200 million gallons of water a day and provides potable water for a million Houstonians.

Activists pointed out the tainted records of the two companies being considered to run the plan. Inframark was investigated after releasing inadequately treated sewage from one of its plants into a Lake Houston tributary, and Jacob Engineering had a contract with Miami Beach, Florida that was canceled after water bills increased and cost savings for the city were lower than expected. They took their fight to public meetings, including city council, sometimes being a step ahead of even elected officials.

Earlier this year, it was announced the privatization scheme was no longer being considered.

There’s no doubt water privatization fights will continue, in Texas and nearly every other state. But the Houston example shows that a smart and dedicated coalition can beat back the privatizers. It’s a victory worth celebrating.

Donald Cohen
Executive Director

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