JACKSON, MS – SEPTEMBER 01: A truck carrying non-potable water, water that can be used for flushing toilets and cleaning but not drinking, arrives at Thomas Cardozo Middle School where personnel from the Mississippi National Guard were also handing out bottled water in response to the water crisis on September 01, 2022 in Jackson, Mississippi. Jackson has been experiencing days without reliable water service after river flooding caused the main treatment facility to fail. (Photo: Brad Vest via Getty Images)
After heavy rains flooded its main water plant roughly two weeks ago, Jackson, Mississippi, has been in a public health emergency. For one week, the city’s 150,000 residents had no water coming out of their taps. Residents lined up in hours-long lines for drive-through bottled water sites, nonprofits delivered to people who didn’t have the means to travel and schools went virtual.
In 2021, after a historic winter storm forced the city’s main water plant to shut down, Jacksonians went without water for a month. Since then, the city has been dealing with a cycle of boil water notices. Those directives were issued due to the risk of contamination because of low water pressure.
When the water was turned back on, residents still needed to boil their water before drinking or bathing. Videos of coffee-colored water coming out of Jackson’s taps went viral.
But the city’s water crisis didn’t start with the latest storm — the public utility has been plagued with problems for the last three decades. And officials know it will happen again.
“Without critical and very important capital improvements to be made of our water treatment facility, it’s not a matter of if it will fail again, but a matter of when it will fail again,” Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said on NPR last week.
It’s going to take massive investments from the state and federal government to finally end the cycles of boil water notices and water system failures. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) has floated the idea of turning over the city’s utility to a private company, but privatization of public goods has long been derided by experts.
“Privatization is on the table,” Reeves said earlier this month. “I’m open to ideas.”
Jackson, which is 80% Black, has already attempted to partner with a private company to fix some of its water infrastructure issues.
In 2010, the city signed a $90 million contract with Siemens, a private company that was supposed to install new water meters. But the meters were faulty. This led to some customers not receiving bills and others being unable to pay due to being overcharged. Those unpaid bills meant that the ailing system had even fewer resources. The city successfully sued Siemens in 2020, but in the interim, the water system got worse.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D), who serves Mississippi’s 2nd District, is wary of letting the city control its water. “We want a system that meets federal and state regulations,” he said. “Now if we see that Jackson can’t do it, then obviously we have to look at an alternative.”
But the problems facing Jacksonians, an underinvested and aging system, won’t be helped by privatizing it, water system experts argue. Handing over a public water system to a corporation more concerned with profit has already shown time and time, again, that it won’t fix the problem.
A March 2022 Cornell University study of the 500 largest water systems in the United States found that privatization often resulted in problems.
“What was disturbing about the 500 water systems is that private ones had higher rates and more affordability problems,” said Mildred Warner, a Cornell professor and an author of the study. “And this was true after we controlled for the age of the system and the source of the water.”
JACKSON MS – SEPTEMBER 3 : Rodney Moore (C), maintenance supervisor at Addison Place apartments receives cases of bottle water from City of Jackson worker Dianna Davis (R) and Andrea Williams for elderly and disabled residents on September 3, 2022 in Jackson, Mississippi. The entire city of Jackson has been suffering from unsafe drinking water for years causing forcing residents to use bottle water to drink, cook and brush their teeth. Flooding in the area in the last week has caused the treatment facility to malfunction leaving residents without water to bathe or even flush toilets. (Photo: The Washington Post via Getty Images)
There was an outlier, however. California strictly regulates private water companies, ensuring affordability for low-income people. But a Republican governor is unlikely to follow suit. “Mississippi probably doesn’t have the policy environment that’s going to closely regulate the private operator to make sure public objectives are met,” Warner said.
“The history is extensive in terms of what happens when a private company pillages public resources or public utilities,” Lumumba said on NPR. “Private companies are not coming to be benevolent. They’re coming to make a profit.”
Jackson is facing a clear-cut example of environmental racism. After its schools were forced to integrate in the 1970s, white people began leaving the city in droves — taking with them their tax revenue. Today, one in four people in Jackson lives in poverty. The city’s water system is also old and in need of expensive repairs, but the city simply doesn’t have the tax base to support it. Currently, the mayor estimates that the city would need at least $1 billion to permanently fix its water problems.
And while privatization may be on the mind of Reeves and other state officials, there’s plenty of evidence to show that turning Jackson’s water system over to a private company could make the problem worse – which is what happened in Pittsburgh.
The Pennsylvania city’s water and sewer authorities were dealing with aging infrastructure, financial distress, and administrative problems. In 2012, the Pittsburgh water system signed a contract with Veolia to fix its water problems. Under the contract, Veolia would get to keep 50 cents for every dollar that was saved.
The private company, to save costs, switched to a new billing system that often overcharged customers, laid off staff, and perhaps most consequential, used a cheaper corrosion control chemical that led to increased lead levels in the city’s drinking water. Notably, the switch happened without the approval of the utility board or the city.
The utility switched back to the original corrosion control chemical, but residents who were affected still filed a class action lawsuit. The private company and public officials blamed each other for the lead problem, with Veolia saying it was acting as a consulting company only.
While privatization of water companies has led to increased rates and undrinkable water, public water systems aren’t immune to these problems as well. In Flint, Michigan, after the local government switched to cheaper corrosion control, the water was poisoned with lead.
But, just like privatization efforts, the problem began when the city tried to save money.
That’s the central problem with water privatization. It takes a public good — one that’s needed to survive – and turns it into another profit-maker at the expense of residents.
“Privatization is taking people from one state of misery to the next,” Lumumba said. “We have to depart from this notion that privatization is the only way that the system can be supported.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.