Baltimore is on the verge of becoming the first major U.S. city to ban the sale and lease of the area’s water and sewer system following a vote this week on a resolution advancing the ban on privatization. Advocates for low-income and vulnerable communities are hailing the move as historic and crucial for human rights.
In a near-unanimous vote on Monday, members of the Baltimore City Council approved a resolution banning water privatization in Charm City. The resolution, which would amend the city’s charter to bar any sale of Baltimore water and sewer systems, comes after years of controversy over private corporations looking into purchasing parts of the utilities. If successful, the resolution will become a ballot initiative in the November midterm election.
Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton recused herself from the vote and Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke was absent; all other City Council members voted in support of the measure, which declares the Baltimore’s sewer and water system “inalienable.”
The City Council’s president, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, praised the resolution.
“I have always been a proponent of retaining our city’s assets, which is why I am completely opposed to the privatization of Baltimore’s water system,” said Young. “Access to clean and affordable water should be looked at as a basic human right.”
Privatization efforts have been wildly unpopular with water accessibility advocates around the country. Such moves typically cost consumers significantly more in water bills, limiting the access of low-income communities who already struggle with affordability challenges. Opponents also argue that privatization limits public accountability and input, in addition to contributing to urban sprawl and hindering overall access to water.
That’s especially true in Baltimore. City residents have long lamented water costs, which have risen considerably in recent years. Officials have argued such measures are important and critical for upgrades to the city’s aging infrastructure. But low-income Baltimoreons — many of them people of color — have protested over the increases, arguing they make living in the city unaffordable for its most vulnerable residents.
Advocates say banning water privatization won’t necessarily solve all of the city’s water problems, but it serves as a crucial step. Rianna Eckel, a Maryland organizer with the group Food & Water Watch, said in a statement Monday that privatizing water is “simply unethical, immoral, and dangerous” and argued that Baltimore could become a “public water hero” if the resolution is made official.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) echoed those comments, arguing that Baltimore could “set the precedent for cities across the country” by banning water privatization.
“Not only will water privatization increase water rates across the city, but it will also deprive low-income communities and communities of color access to clean and safe water,” said Glen Middleton, the executive director of AFSCME Maryland Council 67.
In order to be considered by voters in November, Catherine Pugh, the city’s mayor, must sign the resolution by August 13 — which she said she plans to do.
“The City’s water and sewer system is a priceless asset for the citizens of Baltimore and I am determined to do everything possible to protect this vital resource and ensure that it remains reliable, clean, and plentiful,” said Pugh. “As such, I’m delighted that the City Council is supportive of my earlier efforts to safeguard Baltimore City’s water system and require that it is always operated in the best interests of those who rely on it, and for generations to come.”
Water privatization controversy isn’t unique to Baltimore. Atlanta’s water privatization deal with United Water 20 years ago is now considered a textbook case against such efforts. The deal ended after only four years amid evidence of rising costs and poor water quality. More recently, New Orleans residents have actively lobbied against similar attempts to privatize their water, while activists have protested related efforts in Puerto Rico as the island struggles to recover from Hurricane Maria last fall.