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Privatizing Wisconsin's Drinking Water

With the huge problems associated with Flint, Mich.'s public water supply so prominent, Wisconsin's largest environmental group is opposed to legislation that would allow private companies to take over municipal water systems. (Clean Wisconsin)
With the huge problems associated with Flint, Mich.'s public water supply so prominent, Wisconsin's largest environmental group is opposed to legislation that would allow private companies to take over municipal water systems. (Clean Wisconsin)
February 8, 2016

MADISON, Wis. – If you turn on your faucet and the water comes out brown, would you rather call someone in your town, or someone at a company hundreds of miles away?

Private, out-of-state companies would be allowed to buy municipal water systems in Wisconsin under a bill moving through the Legislature.

Amber Meyer Smith, director of legislative relations with the state's largest environmental group, Clean Wisconsin, says the legislation was apparently written to benefit one company in particular, a Pennsylvania firm called Aqua America.

Meyer Smith says the company has been buying up water systems all over the nation, and its record is questionable at best.

"There's some pretty mixed results with how they run those systems – North Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida,” she maintains. “They've all had issues either with the quality of water or with rates going up that have led them to question the relationship."

Republican sponsors of the bill under consideration say a private company might be able to do system upgrades that communities couldn't afford. But others say it would take away the key consideration of public accountability in managing water supplies.

Clean Wisconsin says municipally owned water systems have locally elected control, and government has a level of accountability to citizens if there are problems, that private companies do not have.

Aqua America says all of its systems meet state and federal water standards and its municipal water systems have lowered costs by an average of 24 percent.

Meyer Smith says local control of water systems is critical, which is one of the main reasons her group is alarmed.

"So when this bill came along and it seeks to now make it easier for out-of-state for-profit corporations to own our waterways and makes it a lot harder for the public to weigh in, we were really concerned," she states.

A new piece of legislation that would prohibit privatization of Wisconsin's water and sewer utilities has just been introduced by Democrats to counter the bill now moving forward.

There are 582 local water utilities in Wisconsin, and none of them requested a law to allow a sale of the system to a private company.

Meyer Smith asks why anyone would want to hand over control to an out-of-state private company.

"Rather than have our municipalities and those leaders in government that are very directly accountable to the people running this really important and critical right that we all have and value in Wisconsin," she stresses.


Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI