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Nassau's water lesson for the nation

The New York American Water building in Merrick.

The New York American Water building in Merrick. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Long Island American Water, a local subsidiary of a massive multinational corporation, has been gouging Nassau County’s residents for years. With the company’s most recent rate hike, bills went up by almost a third. In response, Long Islanders turned outrage into organizing to demand public control over the water system.

Nassau offers a costly lesson on the dangers of privatization for President Biden and congressional leaders — especially Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — who are crafting federal infrastructure legislation.

After massive community mobilization this spring, New York legislators passed bills to establish two new public water authorities in Nassau. Once the bills are signed, a process will begin to transfer American Water’s systems to the public. It’s a critical step to ensuring access to safe, affordable water — and a big win for public water that should inform Schumer’s leadership.

Our country faces a water infrastructure crisis that only the federal government has the resources and capacity to address. However, since 1977, federal funding for water has been cut 77%, threatening the safety of our water and the resilience of the systems that deliver it. The vast majority of our water pipes require replacement. The average age of water pipes nationwide is 45 years. Contaminants from 1,4-dioxane to PFAS, as well as pipes containing lead, threaten the safety of our drinking water supply.

Now is the moment to institute bold federal investment in our public water systems. Instead, we’re facing a privatization scheme floated by a bipartisan collection of business-friendly senators.

Schumer need look no farther than Long Island to see how selling ownership of our water and wastewater systems to private entities is a nightmare.

The new Senate deal proposes to finance investments in our nation’s critical infrastructure through convoluted and costly privatization schemes: public-private partnerships (contracts wherein a private entity runs a government-owned system), private activity bonds (tax benefits for privatized projects) and asset recycling (selling off one public asset to finance another project). Like American Water did in Nassau, the cost of private financing would be passed on to families and local businesses. Corporate profits, investor dividends and income taxes are all costs borne by ratepayers, driving up bills by as much as 30%.

In June, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand joined 13 House colleagues from New York in co-sponsoring the WATER Act — bold legislation which would overhaul the nation’s water system with a massive boost in federal infrastructure funding. Schumer has both the responsibility and opportunity to ensure the bill’s passage this year by incorporating it into the infrastructure package.

The WATER Act is the only permanent fix to our water crisis, providing ongoing funding of $35 billion a year to improve drinking water and wastewater systems nationwide, the amount of money the EPA says we need to spend to comply with existing federal standards. And because it would be permanent, this funding wouldn’t be subject to annual congressional spending battles. It’s the only federal bill that creates a dedicated source of permanent funding for municipalization of privately owned systems, water infrastructure upgrades, lead pipe replacements, PFAS and 1,4-dioxane cleanup, and more.

Long Island won big on public water this year. Now Schumer must take water privatization off the table and invest in water of, by, and for the people by including the WATER Act in infrastructure legislation.

This guest essay reflects the views of Eric Weltman, senior New York organizer for the national advocacy organization Food & Water Watch.