Baltimore City Council members concerned about lobbying efforts to privatize the city’s water supply unanimously approved legislation Monday that, if approved by voters, would make Baltimore the first major city to ban the sale or lease of the water system.
City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young waived council rules to allow for fast-tracked approval of a charter amendment that will go to voters on the November ballot.
“Access to clean and affordable water should be looked at as a basic human right,” Young said.
The move could make Baltimore the first city in the country to amend its charter to preserve public ownership and control over its water and sewer systems, and the largest U.S. city to prohibit sale or lease of its water system. Northampton, Mass., passed legislation in 2016 prohibiting the sale or lease of its water system.
Private operators have attempted to make inroads into Baltimore’s water system for years, but have been consistently rebuffed.
In 2014, hundreds rallied outside City Hall advocating that the city maintain water system ownership. Officials said at the time that they had no plans to privatize the water system.
Baltimore leaders said the same thing again last year, when lobbyists pitched a plan for French company Suez Environment to take operating control of the system.
Suez — a descendant of the company that built Egypt’s Suez Canal — has pitched city officials on a lease agreement in which the company would pay the city upfront to take control of operating Baltimore’s water system and then collect the money charged from water bills. The company has said it would hire current Department of Public Works employees, honor union contracts, and pledge to raise water rates only minimally.
“Cities like Baltimore all across the United States outsource to professionals best equipped and resourced to improve services more efficiently than local government,” Richard Henning, a spokesman for Suez, said in a statement. “In Baltimore, the elected officials should not be discounting potential options until they can be appropriately studied. Not only in the water and wastewater field, but in transportation, energy, green infrastructure, social, and other areas, the role of private sector has been proven successful when managed properly.”
The organization Food & Water Watch has pushed for a ban on privatization.
“Water privatization is simply unethical, immoral, and dangerous,” Rianna Eckel, Maryland Organizer with Food & Water Watch, said in a statement. “Such a loss of local control can result in skyrocketing water bills, escalating water shutoff rates, downsizing public sector jobs, and deteriorating service quality.”