Mary Grant

The Jackson water crisis is being used as an excuse to privatize the water system. That's a bad idea

When Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves announced in mid-September that the state was lifting its weeks-long boil order for Jackson, it sounded like a declaration of victory: "We have restored clean water to the city of Jackson." The ensuing headlines sent the same message of relief after weeks of the intense crisis that left tens of thousands of residents of the state capital with no access to water.

But Governor Reeves' words gave false assurances about the situation on the ground – and could signal a worrying desire to push a private takeover out of the national spotlight.

In contrast to the governor, residents of Jackson – who have been heroically leading recovery and justice in their communities – were telling a different story: The dangers of lead contamination were still a health hazard, and in many homes the water was clearly not safe to drink. The infrastructure remained fragile.

Year after year, intensifying storms have caused main breaks and water outages. This year it was the near-historic flooding that knocked out the city's main treatment facility; last year, it was a devastating winter storm that left residents without water for weeks. What Jackson needs – like many cities and towns across the country – is money to fix the problems. Writ large, the government has spent decades divesting from infrastructure funding; since 1977, federal funding for municipal water systems plummeted an astonishing 77 percent.

This is especially tragic in areas like Jackson, where decades of racist policies and population and wealth loss – much of it due to white flight following school integration in the 1970s – have hollowed out what little aid could be available. In 2020, Governor Reeves vetoed a bill designed to help the city improve its bond rating to finance new projects after a private meter replacement debacle. That legislation finally became law without his signature last year, yet legislators killed another proposal to help the city raise its own funding for water repairs.

The city's water system needs as much as $1 billion in improvements; last year, the state provided just $3 million – a mere 6 percent of what the mayor requested and less than 1 percent of the projects funded by the state.

What Governor Reese has prioritized, meanwhile, is turning over the city's water system to a for-profit corporation. "Privatization is on the table," he announced early this month, making a more pointed threat days later: "To the residents of Jackson, I would simply say, I don't think it's very likely that the city is going to operate the water system in the City of Jackson anytime soon, if ever."

But privatization is not so much a solution as it is an invitation to new problems. It would exacerbate the city's water affordability crisis, driving up the cost of those necessary improvements to cover corporate taxes and profits. On average, private companies charge 59 percent more than local governments charge for water service. Private ownership is the biggest factor driving higher rates – playing a bigger role than drought or aging infrastructure.

And in an unbelievably callous maneuver, corporate water operators have been weighing in to point fingers. While at least one CEO has admitted that water privatization simply cannot work in Jackson because there is no room for profit, the corporate water lobby continues to exploit the crisis to advocate water privatization and rationalize their higher prices.

Of course, it is not surprising that they would present themselves as the solution. But this kind of shameless public relations might be seen as self-preservation: Local communities have been rising up to fight water privatization deals, and they are winning. Just weeks ago, a corporate attempt to seize a sewer system in Pennsylvania was derailed by robust grassroots opposition led by Neighbors Opposing Privatization Efforts (NOPE). What would have been the largest sewer sale in the history of the country turned out to be a colossal embarrassment for the industry.

All levels of government must continue the emergency mobilization to guarantee clean water in Jackson. Congress provided $20 million last month for Jackson, but this is a drop in the bucket of what's needed. It must step up and appropriate additional direct grants to the city to fund a full recovery. And it's clear that the federal government must stop waiting for catastrophic system failures before making the investments to ensure that every community has safe water. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021 was a downpayment on this vision, but it met just about 7 percent of what communities need to provide safe water and sanitation. The Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act, which would create a $35 billion annual trust fund, is the bold legislation that would help deliver water justice to communities nationally.

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