Failing water systems have plagued cities across the country for decades. But a lack of willingness to invest in our nation’s infrastructure has made such crises inevitable.
It’s no accident that over the past month two of the largest majority Black cities in the country, Jackson, Mississippi and Baltimore, Maryland have experienced dual water crises that have left residents without drinkable water. Failing water systems have plagued cities across the country for decades. But a lack of willingness to invest in our nation’s infrastructure has made such crises inevitable. Our nation’s plague of water crises is the result of decades of policy choices from people in power who consistently chose to secure capital for the white, wealthy 1% instead of strengthening the systems we rely on to survive. Systematic racism all but guarantees that those most acutely impacted by this type of infrastructural disinvestment will be people of color. The escalating effects of climate change has only intensified this dynamic.
While Baltimore lifted its water boil advisory earlier this week, authorities are still seeking the source of the E. Coli contamination and investigating how many people may have been sickened by this preventable crisis. Residents of Jackson are still under boil water advisories two weeks into the city’s latest water crisis with no end in sight. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba was sounding the alarm on a simmering water crisis as early as 2021, when, following a hard freeze that left residents without running water, he sent Governor Tate Reeves a letter requesting $47 million for essential repairs and a detailed plan for how the money would be spent. Lumumba never got a response. Governor Reeves did not invite Lumumba to a press conference days into the crisis, only letting him speak when the governor realized Lumumba was there. While the governor essentially abandons the city, communities are being told to shower with their mouths closed as politicians at the state, local and federal levels fail to deliver a basic human necessity.
Waves of white flight fueled by Black migration and fears of racial integration perpetuated this crisis.
While these stories may have made headlines in 2022, the problem spans much farther back than two weeks. Waves of white flight fueled by Black migration and fears of racial integration perpetuated this crisis. In Jackson, white flight in the 1960s drained the city’s tax base, leaving a cash-strapped city that has continually suffered from chronic public disinvestment. This has reduced the needed revenue the water system requires to maintain full operations, let alone revamp the entire system.
Worse yet, instead of using this as an opportunity to address systemic disinvestment, politicians are dangling privatization as the answer to the water crisis. In Jackson, the governor and mayor have both said privatization is on the table to address the crisis, whether for a maintenance agreement or to turn the water system over entirely to a private company. Such a move would be a huge mistake.
Private companies have a terrible track record of solving public problems.
Private companies have a terrible track record of solving public problems. In the case of water, privately owned utility services tend to be more expensive, costing approximately 59% more than publicly owned water. The same is true for sewer service, whose cost rises almost 53% after privatization. Private companies have a fiduciary obligation to make money for shareholders, in other words, an incentive to lower costs and increase profits whenever possible. Many cash-strapped cities and towns turn to privatization of their water and sewer systems with the hope of addressing the mounting costs of repairs. Yet politicians continue to overlook exactly how these companies lower their costs to make water systems more affordable to the cities they service. The societal cost of cutting corners to increase profits – whether through staff cuts or using cheaper anti-corrosion materials – has been disastrous. As we’ve previously documented, Pittsburgh is a prime example. When a private company took over their water system during a similar crisis, water bills went up and contamination levels did not significantly improve.
In other words, privatization isn’t actually more affordable -- neither nominally, as private companies up costs and fees for consumers, nor societally, as the corners cut to maximize profits continue to put people at risk.
We need meaningful public investment in our water systems.
In Jackson, President Biden declared a state of emergency, with FEMA and the National Guard brought in to hand out bottled water. Local organizers and mutual aid groups have also stepped in, delivering water and sharing updates where the government won’t. While this work is essential, this alone is not a long-term solution. We need meaningful public investment in our water systems. Policymakers should listen to those most impacted on the ground who are demanding that Jackson overhaul and modernize their entire water system. Failing to do so will only guarantee another crisis in the years to come.
The Biden Administration’s Infrastructure and Investments in Jobs Act (IIJA) and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) are important steps forward to invest in our present – not just our climate future – and as opportunities to build the co-governance structures, or structures designed to ensure that elected officials are actively working with communities, necessary to make public water systems sustainable. However, even together they fall woefully short of meeting the city of Jackson and the country’s infrastructural needs. Even the $1.2 trillion IIJA – one of the largest infrastructure packages passed in U.S. history – makes up less than half of the estimated investment needs in our infrastructure systems. It’s critical that both pieces of legislation serve as first – and nowhere near final – steps.
The only way we will get to equitable policies is if people closest to the problem are at the table determining the solutions.
In addition to deep and sustained government investment, we also need to pair this investment with systems of co-governance, which enable residents, community groups, and elected officials to work together to preserve and strengthen the systems we all rely on. The only way we will get to equitable policies is if people closest to the problem are at the table determining the solutions. The story of the Our Water campaign in Pittsburgh is an excellent example. Organizers demanded, and got, a seat at the table, winning public control of their water and ensuring residents and community leaders were involved long term in decision-making over the Pittsburgh Sewer and Water Authority. In other words, as Anne Le Strat and Mike Menser have expertly pointed out, public ownership alone isn’t enough; we must also build in mechanisms of accountable democratic governance to build resilient and sustainable public systems.
Privatization of public goods will never solve public problems, and profit seeking companies should not be controlling what should be free, basic, and universal necessities. We need consistent public investment at all levels state, local, federal, and a commitment from policymakers to co-govern with community members.