Communities across the United States are struggling to repair and rejuvenate drinking and waste water systems built long ago, in some cases dating to the Civil War era. Time and a growing population have taken their toll on water infrastructure, including leaks and sewage overflows. Paying for the upgrades strains the budgets of cities, large and small.
As communities across the U.S. seek to overcome fiscal constraints in paying for water system upgrades and maintenance, many municipal officials face pressures to privatize their systems, lulled into believing that with privatization, their budget woes will disappear.
Pressure to resolve water problems – quantity, quality and fair access – is acute. Public health agencies issued more than 25,000 warnings against swimming at beaches on U.S. coasts in 2006. A majority of beach closings are due to sewage overflows and malfunctioning sewage plants.
The National Research Council recently warned that Americans could expect more water-borne disease outbreaks if there are not “substantial investments” made to improve the U.S.’ water pipes and systems.
In fact, there is currently a shortfall in the U.S. of more than $22 billion per year between the funds available and what is needed to keep water safe for human and environmental health. The federal government has tended to cut the main source of funding for clean water year after year. When adjusted for inflation, federal funding has fallen 70 percent since 1991.
Under budget strains, many communities have opted for the false promise of privatization. Multinational corporate water barons have pitched their services to many municipal governments with assurances that they will increase efficiency and reduce costs. But after almost a decade, the bitter reality of privately controlled water is seeping in as shown by maintenance problems in Atlanta, sewage spills in Milwaukee, corruption in New Orleans, and political meddling in Lexington.
In reality, publicly-controlled water utilities often outperform their private counterparts and save consumers money, while delivering safe, clean water. The Water Infrastructure Network, a broad coalition of public utilities, public interest groups and others, has formed to call for national legislation to fill the funding gap with a Trust Fund. Funds would be collected from water polluters such as agricultural chemical producers, bottled beverage producers, and via a Corporate Environmental Income Tax. With these revenues, a dedicated trust fund for sustained infrastructure improvements for safe and affordable public water will be created.
Making federal funding available to states, cities and towns will improve water quality in all American communities. Poor wastewater treatment upstream means higher costs for safe drinking water downstream.
A trust fund for water systems will be based on the following principles:
- Environmentally sound use of our water resources;
- Pollution prevention and drinking water source protection for human and environmental health;
- Water conservation by the largest water users, including agriculture and industry;
- Public participation and accountability for public officials;
- Access to affordable water for low-income households;
- Public funds for public utilities,
- Appropriate user fees for industries that degrade water resources.
Water is a public trust. It’s time for a trust fund that protects our water and keeps it clean and safe. For more information, see http://www.win-water.org/index.shtml
- How would such a Trust Fund be administered? Should trustees be elected or appointed? How can this Trust Fund maintain a long-term vision and strategy in the face of short-term political agendas?
- Who are the allies who could join a coalition for the creation of such a trust fund, both from within civil society organizations and among elected officials? What arguments could be used to attract allies into such a coalition?