Water privatization brings a flood of problems in U.S. cities

As of 2003, some 1,100 U.S. municipalities had privatized their drinking-water systems, hoping that mismanaged public systems could be made higher-quality at relatively low cost. So much for that idea. Private firms in cities across the country have been investigated for illegally discharging sewage into rivers, shirking on maintenance, and failing to disclose high levels of toxics in drinking water. Shady business abounds: as a convicted Cleveland, Ohio, water broker said in a wiretapped conversation, “Ninety percent of getting public contracts required greasing the palms of public officials.” Low cost isn’t guaranteed either: after the water of Chualar, Calif., was privatized, some residents’ water bills leapt from $21 a month to over $500. Residents of some cities have launched takeover campaigns in response to proposed private-company rate increases, declaring that water should not be a commodity. Says one citizen lawyer: “We are on the front line of a global issue.”