Texas blackouts spotlight why Washington must go big on infrastructure

All the recent energy and water problems across Texas—including where I live in Austin—are just the latest sign that America’s infrastructure is at its breaking point.

That’s why this week’s reintroduction of federal legislation to invest in clean, safe, and affordable drinking water is such great news. The WATER Act would dedicate $35 billion a year to water infrastructure improvements nationwide. From Austin to Los Angeles, to Pittsburgh and Flint, Michigan.

It’s great news because it’s not more privatization and deregulation. Which is how Texas got itself in so much trouble.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott erroneously blamed solar and wind for the electrical blackouts that allowed water pipes to freeze. Former governor Rick Perry spun the crisis into a plug for the natural gas industry.

But it was deregulation and a reliance on the “free market” that left us so vulnerable. As economist James K. Galbraith documents:

“In 2002, under Governor Rick Perry, Texas deregulated its electricity system. After a few years, the electrical free market, managed by a non-profit called ERCOT, was fully established … Texas’s leaders knew as of 2011, at least, when the state went through a short, severe freeze, that the system was radically unstable in extreme weather. But they did nothing. To do something, they would have had to regulate the system.”

When it comes to electricity or water or internet access or anything we need to survive in modern society, we—the public—should be in control. Not corporations and private investors.

As we outlined in our recent policy brief “Restoring and Reimagining Investment in Public Water,” when it comes to water systems, private control often leads to lower water or service quality, or both. Water bills are also generally higher when private water corporations are in charge.

The WATER Act would be a significant step toward treating water as a public good. Not a market commodity for corporations and investors to buy and sell.