MIAMI – With the recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan, an environmental law professor at Florida International University (FIU) took the opportunity to publish a paper on the ethics, law and regulations of our greatest resource.
Ryan Stoa, a law professor at FIU who teaches water resources law, is also the co-director of the International Water Group of the Institute for Water and the Environment. In late February, he published a piece in Jurist, which provides academic commentary on prevalent legal issues by law professors and academic experts. In his piece, he highlights both sides of an argument spurred by the Flint water crisis.
The mismanagement of the water supply in Flint had many calling for local government resignations and a law requiring water to be declared a human right. Digging a bit deeper, the debacle has re-invigorated the classic public versus private water supply debate.
Those in favor of water as a government-controlled resource believe it will do away with the corruption of private companies that they believe doomed Flint. In contrast, those in favor of privatization often point to the lack of proper funding in government-controlled programs, and believe Flint’s situation could have been prevented with more oversight.
“I think it is inaccurate to suggest that only one approach can work, when there are many examples of successful public water service providers and private water service providers,” Stoa told the Florida Record. “Along these lines, there are misleading assumptions on both sides.”
Stoa believes that the issue is more complicated than the amount of government involvement, stating that the public and private sectors can–and often do–collaborate to provide the resource.
“Investments in the water sector aren't always invested wisely,” Stoa said. “If funds are available to bolster existing expenditures that usually helps, but re-thinking existing policies may provide some opportunities to improve water systems as well.”
An example of this is the state of Florida, which has a complicated water law system. While Florida does not necessarily privatize its water distribution system, it does give a surprising amount of control to districts, whose parameters are drawn out along hydrologic boundaries.
These districts are often exempt from local or state government overreach unless absolutely necessary. While they are often effective when solving issues within their own districts, they struggle when dealing with problems that occur outside their boundaries.
Despite Florida’s model, it’s easy to see how this model could fail and prove just as ineffective as other systems across the United States. As Stoa points out in his article, the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the country's water infrastructure a D+ rating, yet Congress continues to defund water maintenance.
“Much of our water infrastructure was built to tame and control the natural environment; some of that infrastructure has been effective,” Stoa said. “But re-thinking existing policies may provide some opportunities to improve water systems.”