April 12, 2018

What Trump’s #InfrastructureScam would mean for the future of our water systems

Water dam over a bridge

Photo: Anthony Da Cruz on Unsplash

On the cover page of his infrastructure proposal, Trump urges Congress to “act soon” on a bill that promises to spark an infrastructure boom and create jobs to rebuild our roads, bridges, and public water systems. But lift that shimmering veil and you’ll find a fat package of false promises: a proposal that would serve to further entrench the power of corporations, opening the door for them to profit from our water systems and other infrastructure — threatening to impact people of color and low-income communities the most.

Released in mid-February, Trump’s infrastructure plan is the proposal that corporations, including private water companies, have been waiting for. It would deliver the long-time lobbying priorities of industry trade groups. It would further shift the burden of mending our crumbling infrastructure from the federal government to state and local governments. And it would prioritize projects based on revenue rather than focusing on fixing infrastructure in the communities that need it the most. These conditions would set the stage for more of our water systems to be turned over to private hands, threatening access and availability for millions of people across the country.

Further shifting the burden to communities and ratepayers

The plan proposes spending $200 billion in federal funds in the next 10 years to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure while “leveraging” over $1 trillion in state, local, and — of course — private investment. But rather than funding infrastructure based on the greatest need, Trump’s proposal would mean prioritizing projects based first and foremost on revenue.

Here’s the thing: Water systems are not inherently profitable entities — nor should they be. Public water systems have always been viewed as an essential public good to which every person deserves access. And state and city leaders have historically depended on direct federal investment to maintain our water systems. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, our water systems need an average investment of $23.6 billion annually to provide universal access. However, over the past forty years the political will to adequately fund public water systems in the U.S. has diminished: In 1977, the federal government provided 30 percent of the financial support for public water systems, but by 2014that number dropped to four percent. Under Trump’s plan, the federal government would continue this harmful trend of disinvestment in public water, leaving states and cities to fill the gap. And that could mean hiking rates or turning the systems over to private hands — both of which devastate communities and all too often disproportionately impact low-income people and people of color.

When corporations privatize water systems, the number one priority becomes profit — not water quality, access or affordable rates. Time and again, when water privatizers come to town, we see rate hikes, labor abuses, and cost-cutting that endangers health and safety. We’ve seen people suffer over and over again and again at the hands of the private water industry, most recently in Pittsburgh, where under the management of transnational water corporation Veolia, the chemical in the water treatment process was changed without approval. Following the switch, lead levels in residents’ water have surpassed the federal limit for the first time in the water authority’s history. People in Pittsburgh now face potential permanent health impacts from high lead in their water, including kidney damage and high blood pressure. Children, in the key stages of brain and nervous system development, are especially at risk as they absorb 0 times more from ingested lead than adults.

Exacerbating inequities

In addition to this disastrous track record, people tend to pay more for water services from corporations. A recent study by our allies at Food & Water Watch inventoried the water rates of 500 of the largest community water systems in the country and found that the typical household pays 59 percent more for water service from a privately-owned utility than a publicly-owned system. Sudden, skyrocketing rates from water privatization can further increase and exacerbate racial and economic inequities, forcing families to choose between paying their water bills and meeting other basic needs. A report by our allies at In the Public Interest dug into the experience of residents in Dillon Beach, California, where the water system is privatized by Cal Water. They found in 2013 that residents paid four to six times more on water bills than surrounding towns with public water systems, forcing some residents to limit household and hygiene activities, while the CEO’s pay increased to nearly $3 million over a two year period. And this rampant exploitation of low-income people will only continue to grow under Trump’s proposed model.

The culmination of corporate dreams

The National Association of Water Companies, the industry’s lead U.S. lobby group has a list of members that include private water giants Suez and Veolia. For years the group has been pushing for a slew of policy changes to facilitate water privatization. These include removing limits on corporations’ access to tax-exempt bond money as well as opening up direct federal wastewater funding to corporations. In short, these measures could open the floodgates for corporations to privatize our water systems all across the country.

Gutting environmental protections

Unsurprisingly, Trump is using the infrastructure plan as yet another vehicle to gut critical environmental protections. He proposes to dramatically slash environmental review processes, endangering our environment and people’s health and safety. It would give corporations even greater license to ram through projects that benefit their shareholders while ignoring community concerns. Consider these projects: a pipeline through the land of an indigenous community. An interstate running through a biodiverse ecosystem. A power plant that threatens endangered species.
Allowing critical decisions on environmental protection to be driven by corporate, profit-seeking entities rather than people’s needs is a violation of democracy and our most basic human rights. This plan would embolden the wealthy and root the development of our infrastructure on the interests of the few.

Tell Congress to reject the #InfrastructureScam

Trump’s infrastructure plan is a product of out-of-control corporate power, rooted in and exacerbating a legacy of racial and economic inequities. It disregards the real work that needs to be done to fix our water systems and other infrastructure. And it paves the way for corporations’ exploitative profit-seeking tactics at the expense of basic human needs.

The good news is that this infrastructure plan is just a proposal — and we can stop it in its tracks. Congress will now write and try to pass an infrastructure bill. Let’s make sure Congress hears our voices: We need an infrastructure bill that fully funds our water systems and other infrastructure and protects democratic, community-based decision-making.

Call on your member of Congress to reject Trump’s proposal and any other plan that would open the door to privatization of our most essential resources.

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