March 7, 2024

Victory! Houston abandons privatization scheme at major water treatment plant

A group of six people stand together in the halls outside of a Houston City Council meeting, and smile at the camera.

This post was co-authored by Senior Water Organizer Leilani Ganser and Senior Researcher Nisma Gabobe.

Everyone, no matter where they live or how much money they have, should be able to turn on the tap and access clean, safe water. And they should know that the institutions managing the water systems are focused solely on ensuring safe and affordable water for the community they serve — not profit.

That’s why, when we learned that the City of Houston had plans to hand over control of a major section of its water system to a corporation for up to two decades, we sounded the alarm. And in January, after mobilizing fierce opposition against the contract in partnership with local, grassroots groups, the city announced its plans to cancel the privatization scheme.

This proposed contract would have been one of the most significant handovers of control of water to a corporation since the onset of the pandemic. It would have granted a corporation the authority of managing and operating the Southeast Water Purification Plant which serves around one million people. The plant, which the city currently manages, is reportedly one of the best in the state in performance and efficiency.

Communities across the country have seen that water privatization is all too often followed by unaffordable water bills, labor abuses, and dangerous cost cutting that puts people’s health and well-being at risk – all for the sake of raking in greater profits. Houston experienced the dangers of this type of deal in the Kingwood neighborhood, where a private corporation that managed a wastewater treatment plant came under criminal investigation for allegedly falsifying government documents and water compliance samples.

The cancellation of the proposed contract at the Southeast Water Purification Plant is a major victory and comes after a year of campaigning alongside Houston’s environmental, community, and labor organizations. Together, we exposed the risks of water privatization in the media, held educational events to inform the community about the risks of water privatization, and supported city residents in speaking directly to elected officials about their concerns. This coalition included West Street Recovery, the Coalition for Environment, Equity, and Resilience (CEER), Bayou City Waterkeeper, and AFSCME Local HOPE123.

Day in and day out, the passion of our allies, rooted in a commitment and love for the community in Houston, kept the campaign momentum strong. “Water belongs to the people: it is a life-giving resource that should not be exploited for profit,” said Alice Liu, co-director of organizing at West Street Recovery, reflecting on the importance of this moment, and the impact of the actions we took together. “The [proposed contract] should never have gotten that far. Residents and advocacy organizations had to break the news…and raise a ruckus.” This victory was won through the persistence of community activists and residents, who built enough pressure to stop the privatization from becoming a reality.

As Stephany Valdez, Water Justice Organizer at CEER, shared, “this victory is a testament to the power of grassroots activism.”

When we mobilize together and take action, we can take on giants, win against corporate profit-driven agendas, and keep clean, safe, reliable drinking water as a public service.

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