Holding Back the Tide of Water Privatization

Holding Back the Tide of Water Privatization

Holding Back the Tide of Water Privatization

Three public water activists say privatization is not the answer to our infrastructure woes.


At the end of August, severe storms hit Mississippi, and the Pearl River flooded, rendering the city of Jackson’s water treatment facilities inoperable. Now approximately 150,000 residents do not have access to safe drinking water. The crisis in Jackson has exposed a long-standing history of racism, white flight, and state sabotage of a majority Black city. Tate Reeves, the Republican governor of Mississippi and himself the product of the suburbs to which white residents fled, has suggested that privatizing Jackson’s water supply could fix the problem. Water activists say this cure would likely be worse than the disease.

After decades of disinvestment in water systems, cities across the country are vulnerable to same infrastructure failures that occurred in Jackson. Water corporations then use the breakdowns as opportunities to purchase locally run water systems, claiming that they have the money needed to upgrade and maintain infrastructure. In Pittsburgh, lack of funding for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) led to the deterioration of the physical infrastructure and elevated levels of lead in the water. These problems were exacerbated when the government entered into a public-private partnership with Veolia.

Community members in Pittsburgh organized a coalition called Our Water Campaign, and pushed back on further privatization efforts, forcing the city to provide safe, affordable water and creating a democratic means of keeping the PWSA accountable to the residents it serves.

I spoke with two participants in the Our Water campaign, Anna Coleman and Caitlin Schroering, and Marcela González Rivas, an associate professor of public and international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. González Rivas’s research focuses on water governance and equity, and she authored, along with Schroering, the paper, “Pittsburgh’s Translocal Social Movement: A Case of the New Public Water.”

—Hadas Thier

Hadas Thier: Jackson, Mississippi, is currently facing a water crisis, decades in the making. Given your experience organizing around Pittsburgh’s public water system, what is your reaction to the situation in Jackson?

Anna Coleman: Jackson is the worst-case scenario for what can happen when our water systems are neglected. We see disinvestment and racist policies combine with how long it’s been since these systems have been updated. Our water systems are incredibly vulnerable all throughout the country. It’s not surprising, but still the severity of it is outrageous. It’s terrible and incredibly disheartening to see it impact people’s lives so heavily. It’s a reminder of why it’s so critical to continue to organize around our water systems.

Caitlin Schroering: The mainstream narrative is one of government corruption, but the part of the narrative that gets left out is the damaging role of corporations. We saw that in Flint, Michigan, and we saw it here in Pittsburgh. In Jackson, Siemens was brought in in 2013 to upgrade the billing system and ended up wreaking havoc. Now the solution that’s touted is to privatize the system. But a public-private partnership is, in part, what caused this problem. It’s taking advantage of a horrific situation and exploiting it, because people don’t have water, and they’re desperate. The role of corporations, of systemic racism, and frankly our ongoing wars, is central, because we’re funding wars, but we can’t find money to fix our water.

Marcela González Rivas: There are going to be more Jacksons if things keep going as they have. This country’s infrastructure has not been invested in for a long time. Water and sewer systems, in particular, are not very sexy. They’re not like building bridges. You have little fixes here and there, but these systems require a lot of maintenance. The Biden administration has been good at bringing attention to the investment needed. But even within that, one has to keep an eye on what sorts of investment. Who is receiving the investment? Are we allocating the resources to where they are most needed—to the most historically disenfranchised communities?

Increasing rates to fund investment is not politically appealing, so local leaders tend to postpone doing so. The federal government could help subsidize investment and affordability programs, but that raises a lot of political issues. Because when we talk about federal involvement in things like water or schools or food stamps, there’s hesitation. But when it’s a war, there’s no question.

There’s been a long, long history in this country of not providing the federal resources and investment needed in the water sector to maintain and upgrade it. Now there are more challenges, like emerging contaminants and climate change putting a toll on the infrastructure. So there’s pressure for systems to operate and provide clean, safe, affordable water. But it’s costly to treat it, to transport it, to maintain and upgrade the infrastructure, to pay the specialized workforce, and to pay good wages.

Then local leaders in city councils in townships start getting the idea that maybe the private sector is not so bad—even though we have tons of evidence that it is not providing solutions and is taking away resources from the public. In southeastern counties in Pennsylvania, organizers are doing amazing work fending off privatization efforts, but it’s because they’re under fire. A lot of towns are financially distressed, and they have a lot of needs, including upgrading their water systems. Companies can now offer inflated prices for water systems, and local leaders are happy to get the cash. But then ratepayers are stuck paying higher rates forever.

HT: Does what you’re seeing in Jackson resonate with your experience in Pittsburgh?

AC: Some basic facts are very similar—a history of a failed public-private partnership and then calls for further privatization. There’s also the question of where the investment is going and who’s paying for it. In Pittsburgh, for instance, the city was subsidizing Penn American, a private water company, for a long time.

CS: The big picture is that it’s not just Pittsburgh. It’s not just Jackson. It’s decades and decades of disinvestment and austerity. The water systems in the US were built a long time ago. And then starting in the 1970s and into the ’80s and ’90s, we have this wave of neoliberal reforms around the world, which included the privatization of water systems. The vulnerability to privatization comes after a process of austerity, disinvestment, and aging systems. And then compounded with structural racism. So here we are.

But one of the differences in talking about Jackson, which is over 80 percent Black, is that the work that activists have been doing there is not getting the same attention. That has a lot to do with racism, and is one difference from what we saw in Pittsburgh.

AC: That’s really true. We tried to work on issues with the Wilkinsburg-Penn Joint Water Authority as a part of Our Water campaign. They have a majority Black service area, and have a really horrendous record. But there’s very little attention paid to them, and no one really knows what they’re doing. Mostly the population there doesn’t have the resources to spend or a lot of hours to fight a giant corporation.

HT: In Pittsburgh, how was the Our Water campaign able to fend off privatization efforts while also holding the public system accountable?

CS: I became involved right before the Our Water campaign formed, as it coalesced out of another existing struggle, called the Clean Rivers Campaign. It formed in reaction to the news that there was a problem with lead in the water. That quickly also became a campaign about the role of the private sector, because part of the reason that there’s lead in the water is Pittsburgh’s partnership with Veolia. Under Veolia’s management, there was a change made to the chemical agent that made the water more corrosive and leached more lead into the pipes.

There were multiple factors that made that the Our Water mobilization successful. There was talk of PWSA entering into another public-private partnership with People’s Gas, which is owned by Aqua America [part of Essential Utilities]. But we had evidence that we had gone down the public-private partnership road before, and it didn’t work out well. Why would we want to do that again?

PWSA has had plenty of problems connected to austerity and disinvestment in public systems that we see at the national level. But PWSA was also more responsive to the community and to that mobilization and started to do the right thing. The Our Water campaign demanded that PWSA prioritize environmental justice, full lead line replacements, and getting the funding to do these things.

Our campaign brought people together who are concerned about water from a public health perspective, and who are concerned about it from an environmental justice and racial justice perspective. All of these different pieces were able to form a coalition that had a large number of representative organizations and community groups and individuals to build the people power you need to be able to say: No, we don’t want it privatized. But you have to do these things to clean up the public system.

We’ve had anywhere between a dozen and 16 organizations actively participating, which represents thousands of people. That would translate into town hall and other events where 100 or 150, in some cases 300 people packed board meetings. At city council and public meetings, dozens of people showed up for public comment. We also did door-to-door canvassing and had contact with hundreds of people. Our petition against the potential public-private partnership with People’s Gas got hundreds of signatures.

AC: The perspective that the campaign took was always very holistic. There was never any segmenting of different parts of the water system, or different issues. The lead issue and the privatization crisis coincided, which ensured that the campaign was always focused on everything from stormwater and green infrastructure projects to local job opportunities, affordability, and water quality. We included a broad range of expertise and organizations. There’s no part of what the water authority does that we don’t have something to say about, which is maybe annoying to them, but it’s made our campaign very strong.

HT: One thing that I learned from speaking with organizers in Southeast Pennsylvania, is that the issue of water privatization cuts across political lines. Is that what you’ve found?

AC: I grew up in Southeast Pennsylvania, in a very small town with 900 people, and it’s a fairly conservative place. We have our own water system. But there’s a uniting sentiment, outside of the binary of political parties, in these small municipalities that are governed by volunteers. The mayor doesn’t make money. My mom has been on Borough Council for decades. Anti-corporate and pro-local ideas appeal across the political divide. You can talk to a Republican about big corporations trying to come in and take our water authority. The division of municipalities in Pennsylvania has created an appreciation for local public authorities and knowing the people that run it. It’s very small-town Pennsylvania.

CS: In Pittsburgh too, I recall conversations with people who are fine with the idea that parking could be privatized, but they don’t like the idea of their water being privatized. There’s something about water because it’s so fundamental to life, that people react to privatization with, “I don’t want a corporation controlling my water.”

But we can’t think about the human right to water without thinking about the human right to housing or the broader kind of systemic realities of how this system isn’t working. A lot of times people who might identify as Republican, when they start breaking it down, say this isn’t really working out for me. These local fights are where a lot of these connections can happen.

HT: What did the Our Water Campaign coalition succeed in winning?

AC: We won winter moratoriums on shutoffs—from December 1 through April 1. We also work really closely with the Public Utility Law Project and the NRDC on rate cases to make sure people are paying fair and affordable rates. And we won a customer assistance program for people facing economic hardship to provide forgiveness for unpaid payments.

CS: We also did targeted canvassing looking for people who had had partial lead line replacements. When you do partial line replacements, it actually can throw more lead into the whole system. But at the time, the Department of Environmental Protection mandated these partial lead line replacements. By canvassing those households, we found that those who had partial lead line replacements done had tested at higher levels. We helped people figure out how to get filters and test their water, but we also pushed PWSA to halt that practice. There was a period of time when PWSA actually violated DEP mandates in order to do the right thing. Eventually the DEP changed their mandate. I think that’s a powerful example of what community organizing, education, and pressure can do.

HT: To catch us up to the present, residents and workers recently stopped a large wastewater privatization attempt on the other side of the state in Bucks County. What do you think about that victory?

CS: It’s an example of what organized people power can do. That people power can change the trajectory of something, and that corporations don’t have all the power. We have to organize to fight, and we can win. I think it’s important to have victories also for the hope they lend to other struggles. It is a really important victory and sends a clear message to companies: You can’t just come in unopposed; there is going to be resistance.

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