Bucks County officials were absolutely right not to sell their system to a private company (like the borough of Lewistown was). Now lawmakers must repeal the measure known as Bill 12.
Bucks County commissioners were right to reverse the proposed $1.1 billion sale of the county’s sewage system to a private company. Other local governments should follow suit and stop selling any public sewer or water system to a for-profit company.
Better yet, Harrisburg lawmakers should repeal Bill 12, the 2016 bill that opened the door for private companies to gobble up public water and sewer services.
The proposed $1.1 billion sale in Bucks County would have generated a one-time windfall for county coffers, but it would also have resulted in a steep rise in sewer bills for consumers.
Other local governments have sold their public water and sewer systems only to regret it, as residents have seen their water bills rise by up to 98%.
The main argument of the proponents of privatization is that it leads to lower prices. But that was not the case. A comprehensive study of the 500 largest water systems in the United States found that for-profit water systems charge an average of 58% more than public systems.
For-profit systems in Pennsylvania charged 84% more than public systems, according to the study titled “The State of Public Water in the United States”, by Food & Water Watch, a consumer rights organization.
Access to clean, safe water is quickly becoming a valuable commodity. By 2050, water demand is expected to increase by 55% worldwide, according to a study. Another study found that nearly half of freshwater basins in the United States will not be able to meet demand by 2071.
In addition to increased demand, droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes and floods wreak havoc on water supply systems.
Witness the 150,000 people without clean water after flooding in Jackson, Mississippi. Earlier this summer, deadly flooding left 25,000 people in Kentucky without clean water, some for weeks. A water emergency in West Baltimore was recently lifted after E. coli bacteria were found in the water supply.
Over 2 million people in the United States today don’t even have running water. Access to clean, safe and affordable water will only deteriorate as growing demand and climate change stress water supply systems. Letting for-profit corporations fix water policy is a recipe for disaster.
Of course, public systems are not perfect. Many cities, counties and towns have failed to properly maintain their aging infrastructure, which has led to water main breaks and pollutants seeping into leaky pipes. Rising deferred maintenance costs are pushing governments to unload their water and sewer systems.
Much of the problem comes from the federal government. Federal funding for water service improvement projects has been cut for decades. From 1977 to 2014, federal support for water services fell by 74%, even after controlling for inflation. Funding for wastewater treatment has faced even greater cuts.
The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that $472.6 billion is needed to maintain and improve the country’s drinking water infrastructure over the next 20 years. It is therefore not surprising that officials are looking for ways to close this gap.
Selling public water and sewer assets is not the solution.
– Philadelphia Daily News/Inquirer