What is happening in Flint is truly terrible. Our thoughts are with the families and children impacted by this disaster. The water contamination crisis will impact the community for decades and underscores how ensuring safe drinking water is serious, high-stakes work.
As the crisis has unfolded, we’ve seen plenty of finger pointing over who is to blame and what went wrong. Critics of private water solutions have clumsily jumped on Flint as an opportunity to advance their agenda with no regard to actual facts. While the facts show a devastating crisis brought on by a failing government water system, Food & Water Watch and other critics see a chance to raise money and twist reality into another smear of the private water industry.
For instance, Food & Water Watch staffer Mary Grant has repeatedly tied Flint to private industry, telling media that the government-run utility’s disaster is “an indictment of running water systems like a business.”[i] The group’s Executive Director, Wenonah Hauter, leveraged the Flint crisis in two separate fundraising emails just eight days apart in February, urging recipients to send Food & Water Watch money so that the group can “stand up to corporations that put profits before people.”[ii]
Media have been even more egregious in their attempts. In January, Daily Kos published an article, “No More Flints! Water Privatization in Wisconsin” that railed against a bill that would enable greater private investment in water systems in the state. And the Guardian published an opinion piece that used an offensive and ridiculous red herring to directly imply Flint was the result of private operation.
So, yes, let’s follow the logic here. One: Flint’s water system – a government operation for decades – lacked investment and operational expertise, leading to poorly treated water corroding dangerously old, lead pipes. Two: therefore, we should take all private water solutions away from municipalities in need of investment and expertise and force them to go it alone. Three: because this government-owned, government-run system failed, privatization is evil.
Are you surprised by this faulty logic? We’re certainly not. Food & Water Watch and other critics lost touch with reality long ago, and our many efforts to reintroduce a semblance of facts have fallen on deaf ears.
The private water industry is in the solutions business, helping utilities who need it and ask for it. While Food & Water Watch smears the industry and peddles misleading reports with no serious solutions, we’re busy providing expertise to more than 1,000 municipalities across the country and ensuring more than 73 million Americans have access to clean, safe drinking water.
While the Flint crisis has exposed just how shameless our critics can be, we actually agree with them on one important point – many communities across the country face a water infrastructure crisis and need urgent investment. However, while critics want to live in a fantasyland where infrastructure investment magically takes place with federal funds that don’t exist or with money that appears without any water rates going up, this is not reality.
The reality is many communities do not have the funds or access to capital to address their most pressing water infrastructure needs. The private water industry provides access to capital and operational expertise to those who need it.
The choice is clear – we must invest in our systems or suffer the consequences of neglect and mismanagement. One key takeaway from the Flint disaster is that water treatment and delivery is extremely complex, requiring a high level of operational expertise – and the consequences of mismanagement are severe. In light of Flint, it is absurd that our critics would continue to advocate for limiting the scope of options available to municipalities to get the expertise and investments needed to provide safe and clean drinking water to residents.