A Trump presidency portends a major change in the way natural resources are managed in America. But beyond the presidential vote, several local ballots engaged citizens in direct deliberation over the future of their water supply and sewerage systems.

In Bellflower (CA), for example, citizens voted to sell their water system to American Water for $17 million. In Westville (NJ) Aqua America’s proposal to purchase their water systems for $8.4 million was defeated.

The question of whether or not to privatise water supply and wastewater management systems has been debated and decided in towns, cities and countries around the world for decades. It’s a question that often prompts visceral reactions. What is always apparent is that the form of ownership guarantees little for water users in the absence of strong and consistent regulation, of both utility balance sheets and water quality at the tap.

In the US, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2014, opens the door for more private investment in water supply, in a country where there are about 240,000 water mains failures every year.

But, at the local level, as Mildred Warner, Professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University explains, just as many private utilities are returning to public hands as public systems are being privatised. The total number of towns experimenting with privatisation (and sometimes retreating from that experiment) is on the rise.

Using data from the International City County Management Survey of 2012, she reports that about 75% of the country’s municipal water systems are entirely in public hands and 6% are run by for-profit companies. The rest have some mix of public and contract management.
Curiously, even though the overall share of municipal water systems under public control has remained steady, that number obscures the much larger number of towns that are experimenting with privatization. Warner reports that about 10% of municipalities newly contract out water services each year while another 10% bring their water system back under public control.
“What that suggests is that local government managers are looking to save money, and if it doesn’t work they bring it back,” she says.
Renuka Rayasam

This insight was written in response to the article ‘America can’t trust public water, so it’s turning to private companies’ by Renuka Rayasam which first appeared on qz.com on 25 October 2016.