Water and Sewer

Water and Sewer

• Water treatment and delivery
• Wastewater treatment and sewer systems

The battle for public vs. private control of water is raging internationally and at every level down to the smallest town. Scarcity of fresh water is a growing issue -- some call water “the oil of the 21st century” -- and multinational corporations are striving to control the treatment and distribution of water in small towns, big cities and even developing countries.

At the local level in the US, many communities are struggling financially to maintain and modernize public water systems, so they can be lured into selling the systems to private companies. The result, however, often is worse service at a higher cost. In city after city, residents have seen their water rates skyrocket while facing flooding or water contamination caused by neglected maintenance, diminished customer service, and other problems. The nonprofit consumer organization Food & Water Watch has found that, across the US, private utilities charge the typical household 33% more for water and 63% more for sewer services than public utilities.

A few examples of the results of water privatization, compiled by Food & Water Watch:
• Stockton, CA: Prices soared.
• Los Angeles County, CA: Corruption convictions, lost public accountability.
• Pekin, IL: Rates tripled.
• Indianapolis, IN: 60 sewage overflows a year, water shortages, accusations of corruption.
• Atlanta, GA: Costs soared, fire hydrants failed, faucets spewed dirty water, drinking water standards violated.
• Tom's River, NJ: Radium in drinking water.
• Cranston, RI: Pollutants in drinking water.

For information about the major water corporations, visit the Center for Public Integrity's "Water Barons" database.

Recent reports of interest:

Money Down the Drain: How Private Control of Water Wastes Public Resources
Food and Water Watch, 2009

Water Privatization Trends in the United States: Human Rights, National Security, and Public Stewardship
Craig Anthony Arnold, University of Louisville Law School, 2009

Mortgaging Milwaukee's Future: Why Leasing the Water System Is a Bad Deal for Consumers
Food and Water Watch, 2009

For additional reports, please see the research section on the side bar or visit our research library.

Related Cases

In Milwaukee, a coalition of environmental, community, labor and faith organizations succeeded in convincing the city council to indefinitely shelve plans to privatize the water system and go back to the drawing boards for solutions to the city's budget crisis.  The coalition, Keep Public Our Water (KPOW), protested that evidence from other privatized water systems indicated substantial risks of poor water quality, rate increases and lost jobs.


Facing repeated rate increases of up to 78%, residents of the small town of Felton, California, organized to buy back their water system from a subsidiary of a huge German corporation. By applying the pressure of an eminent domain lawsuit, the community won local ownership and control of its water.