by Julia Conley
An under-the-radar report by U.S. President Joe Biden’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council should not go unnoticed, said the national watchdog Food & Water Watch on August 31, as buried in the document is a call for the privatization of U.S. water systems, which progressive lawmakers and civil society groups have long opposed.
On page 15 of the 38-page report, the advisory council said the federal government should “remove barriers to privatization, concessions, and other nontraditional models of funding community water systems in conjunction with each state’s development of best practice.”
Food & Water Watch (FWW) suggested that the recommendation goes hand in hand with the panel chairmanship of Adebayo Ogunlesi, who is the chairman and CEO of Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP).
GIP is “an infrastructure investment bank with an estimated $100 billion in assets under management that targets energy, transportation, digital, and water infrastructure,” said FWW, making the takeover of public water and wastewater utilities by a private corporation—often under the guise of improving aging systems and lowering costs—financially beneficial for the bank.
Mary Grant, Public Water for All campaign director at FWW, called the recommendation “a terrible idea.”
“President Biden should have never appointed an investment banker to chair an advisory council for the nation’s infrastructure,” said Grant. “Wall Street wants to take control of the nation’s public water systems to wring profits from communities that are already struggling with unaffordable water bills and toxic water.”
FWW has analyzed water privatization schemes for years, finding that they it often leave communities “with higher water bills, worse service, job losses, and little control to fix these problems.”
A 2018 report by the group titled America’s Secret Water Crisis found that out of 11 privatized water utilities across the U.S., all but one refused to provide data about shutoffs for nonpayment. The group’s 2011 brief Water = Life showed that low-income households are disproportionately affected by water price hikes by private owners, as privatization turns a resource recognized by the United Nations as an “essential human right” into a commodity.
“Privatization would deepen the nation’s water crises, leading to higher water bills and less accountable and transparent services,” said Grant. “Privately owned water systems charge 59 percent more than local government systems, and private ownership is the single largest factor associated with higher water bills—more than aging infrastructure or drought.”
Grant noted that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021 was “a step forward” as it invested $55 billion to expand water infrastructure, but pointed out that “it provided only about seven percent of the identified needs of our water systems.”
“Instead of relying on Wall Street advisers, President Biden should support policies that will truly help communities by asking Congress to pass the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity, and Reliability (WATER) Act (H.R. 1729, S. 938),” she added.
Introduced in 2021 by Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) in the U.S. House and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the Senate, the WATER Act would expand funding to small, rural, and Indigenous communities; create a water trust fund; fund projects to eliminate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, contamination; and require the Environmental Protection Agency to analyze water affordability, shutoffs, and civil rights violations by water utilities, among other steps to improve public water access.
“The WATER Act,” said Grant, “would fully restore the federal commitment to safe water by providing a permanent source of federal funding at the level that our water and wastewater systems need to ensure safe, clean, and affordable public water for all.”