The river gives and the river takes away. That’s what they’ve said along the Mississippi River for more than a century.
But you don’t have to live in a river delta to appreciate the force and importance of water. Clean water—for drinking and for growing food—is quite simply the most basic human need. And it’s in trouble. As a result of climate change, some places have too much water, some not enough, and sometimes it’s the same place just weeks apart.
Late last year, the Biden administration’s National Security Council asked the National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC), composed of “senior executives from industry and state and local government who own and operate the critical infrastructure essential to modern life,” to make wide-ranging recommendations to address the future of water. Last week, the council released its report, Preparing United States Critical Infrastructure for Today’s Evolving Water Crises.
While it’s a positive sign that the Biden administration is taking seriously the challenge of providing Americans with safe, clean, affordable water, managing the impact of floods and droughts, and maintaining the infrastructure to get it from the source to the people who need it, the report also contains some worrisome recommendations to lift barriers to privatization of water systems. Private control of public water systems could directly threaten our ability to solve many of the critical issues raised in the report.
This report—along with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that narrowed the definition of what constitutes “Waters of U.S.” –makes for an opportune moment to remind readers of a number of In the Public Interest resources available that explore the importance of public water and the risks of privatization. In the Public Interest has long taken a deep interest in water resources—who owns them, who controls them, and who benefits from them—always advocating that a common good such as water belongs in public hands.
- Restoring and Reimagining Investment in Public Water: Affordability, privatization, and the disproportionate impacts on communities of color, a policy brief, examines the connections between the current state of water infrastructure, the unaffordability of water, and the harms caused by privatization, with a focus on how these issues impact vulnerable communities, especially those of color.
- The Risks Posed by Water Privatization, a white paper, outlines a few of the serious risks posed by water privatization deals and provides examples of communities that have dealt with the harmful consequences of water privatization.
- A Guide to Understanding and Evaluating Infrastructure Public-Private Partnerships in the Water Sectoraims to help advocates, policymakers, and other stakeholders better understand and analyze water infrastructure project proposals, contracts, and related legislation. In this guide, we describe critical issues and include a list of key questions stakeholders can raise to ensure that a given project advances the public good. While this is not an exhaustive list of questions, it provides a useful framework to examine public-private partnerships (P3s) in the water sector.
- A guest column about a privatization disaster in England, reprinted from New Economy Brief, a project of the UK nonprofit Economic Change Unit, is a thorough description of the crisis at the utility Thames Water, which was privatized in 1989. The UK started on its privatization binge under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and is now starting to feel the impact. We can learn a great deal from their experience.
- How to run a big city water system during a pandemic: A conversation with Randy Hayman, is our interview with the commissioner and CEO of the Philadelphia Water Department.
Image courtesy Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.