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Private Taps, Public Good: Exploring Compliance, Conservation, and Equity in United States Drinking Water
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The privatization of drinking water utilities is a topic of increasing importance in the United States and abroad. In the United States, increasing populations, aging infrastructure, and the growing threat of climate change means public utilities face many important challenges in the coming years. In the current state of affairs, privatization is an attractive option for local governments. It allows them shift the management of their utility to a private firm while providing an infusion of revenue. While privatization is attractive, it is also controversial. Critics of privatization believe that it will lead to many negative outcomes. In this dissertation, I take the question of privatization seriously. Using a mix of normative and quantitative methods, I consider the implications of privatization for local democracy. I begin my analysis by evaluating common criticisms of privatization. Many critics argue that privatization is contrary to a human right to water. I suggest that the human right to water only requires that states ensure all individuals receive access to a safe and affordable source of water, not that the source necessarily be public. Instead, the human right to water creates a strong duty for states to regulate private provision of drinking water. Similarly, I argue that critics’ concerns about affordability, quality, and conservation are perhaps overstated when a strong regulatory state exists. I find that the arguments against privatization that hold the most weight are those that emphasize local democratic processes, since privatization in the regulatory state amounts to a centralization of political authority. I then turn to a series of statistical analyses focused on utility responsiveness to local context. First, I examine the difference in private and public utility responsiveness in the context of drinking water compliance, finding that while private utilities outperform public in general, this is conditional on levels of citizen participation. Second, I investigate the adoption of water rates, finding that while private utilities are less likely to adopt conservation oriented policy in general, they are no less responsive to local context. My analysis suggests the importance of regulation, political context, and local government in drinking water policy.
Switzer, David L (2017). Private Taps, Public Good: Exploring Compliance, Conservation, and Equity in United States Drinking Water. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from