Changes To America’s Infrastructure Could Make Our Tap Water Unaffordable

Now they say it got lead and stink in it (New World Water)
Fluorocarbons and monoxide
Push the water table lopside
Used to be free now it cost you a fee

Those are lyrics to a song that is 18 years old, yet prescient as ever. In 1999, Mos Def’s “New World Water” described the dystopian, greed-driven trends in the government’s treatment of the planet and its citizens. Referencing many of the hot-button issues popular today in discussions about climate change, the rapper now known as Yasiin Bey also touched on the privatization of the global water supply, co-opting a human right into a for-profit service. In 2017, the state of America’s infrastructure – including its water systems – remains substandard, and with a presidential administration with apparently no regard for Earth’s rising temperatures or poor Americans’ access to clean drinking water, we have a tragic case of art imitating life on our hands.

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Trump is expected to submit his official plans for the nation’s infrastructure – buildings, roads, utility supplies – this fall. Along with things like crumbling bridges and rotting foundations, the nation’s infrastructure responsible for bringing millions of Americans tap water will likely be addressed in the literature. One need to look no further than cities like Flint, Michigan and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to see how unsafe drinking water and substandard piping systems can poison us. Being that clean water is necessary for survival, it is of the utmost importance that the government puts in place a system that guarantees safe drinking water for all Americans, but such a position may not prove to be the default stance under the current administration.

In an expository piece for Vice Impact, Nick Chedli Carter examines the country’s troubling infrastructure and the implications therein, for all of us. “Your Tap Water Could Be America’s Biggest Infrastructure Scam,” the headline reads, a claim supported by an interview with Mary Grant, Campaign Director for Food & Water Watch, a national advocacy group that takes on special interests and emphasizes accountability for elected officials. Directly overseeing the organization’s Water for All campaign, Grant is critical of any politician who supports the privatization of America’s tap-water systems and warns that “it seems like the Trump administration is putting forward a plan that relies heavily on privatization of our essential infrastructure.” Inherently troubling about such a position is, of course, that privatizing infrastructure means that the bottom line becomes more important than public good – precisely the kind of ethical dilemma that led to the human-rights disaster in Flint.

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“We need direct, public, federal dollars put into our infrastructure. Particularly our water system,” argues Grant. “It’s a myth when you talk about privatizing infrastructure assets like water systems, and think that it’s going to reduce the cost of the service — it doesn’t, you pay more when private companies take over water systems. Private companies extract profit from communities when they go in. Water systems are natural monopolies; you have no competition, [people have] no choice at the tap. So, there’s no incentive for them to be more efficient.” She points to the statistic that “for-profit utilities charge households 59% more than local governments,” which translates into a couple of hundred bucks into the average annual water bill for Americans.

A for-profit system can incentivize local governments (aka municipalities) to adopt privatization, which is where a slippery slope can turn into a national change of plan. “Municipalities are cash strapped. It’s not about making water systems better or more effective, it’s about using it as a way to shore up other financial problems, and resolve some debts. They want to use their water systems as cash cows to pay for other government services,” she warns. Such a plan would directly affect the nine out of ten Americans who currently depend on publicly owned water systems to keep their taps running.

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Perhaps even more pressing than the public-to-private threat is the physical state of our water infrastructure, right now. Says Grant, “our water systems are aging, and we need to have a major federal investment in our water systems,” a problem compounded by what she describes as “a looming affordability crisis.” In a Michigan State University study she cites, it’s been determined that within the next five years, more than one-in-three households could be unable to afford their water bills – if the current trends continue and moves towards privatization become the new world water.