Here’s How to Fix Flint’s Water System: Privatize It

Social media sites are awash in pictures of Flint’s awful water. Local children exposed to lead will likely face long term health consequences—and it appears that kids suffer from high lead levels in many Michigan cities.

There are more than 50,000 water utilities in the United States, and more than 50,000 of them are providing safe drinking water. Flint’s water decisions were driven by dreams of economic stimulus. Officials knowingly chose a more expensive approach widely predicted to experience delays.  These delays left the city with nothing but nasty water.  Improper testing protocols and practices, on top of bad political decisions, made it hard for consumers to discern the emerging problem and allowed the utility to provide toxic water to people’s homes for months.

Nearly 75 million people in the U.S. get their water from a private utility, and about 1,000 cities in the country have hired a private company to operate their publicly-owned water utility. This is a long running practice. Back in the 1990s, President Bill Clinton’s Environmental Protection Agency said that privatizing water utilities “can be used by communities to provide needed environmental services more efficiently” and “can be used as a way to provide substantial benefits to both the public and private sectors, creating the classic ‘win-win’ situation.” Indeed a number of communities privatized their water utilities in order to get them into compliance with EPA safe-drinking-water standards. Under government operation, they would have never gotten there.

In 1993, Milwaukee’s water supply suffered an outbreak of cryptosporidium and had to invest big bucks in new filtration. Since the most likely culprit was their own sewage going into Lake Michigan, they privatized their wastewater utility and required the private company to clean the water even more thoroughly than the EPA requires.  Over 20 years later, privatization is still going strong for Milwaukee.

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