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While U.S. officials continue to express concern over the surge in foreign-owned farm acreage, an important question looms: Who owns America’s water?
The answer is opaque, but foreign interests are expanding their hold on U.S. water in ways besides just land ownership.
At the moment, the door is wide open for foreign investment in water privatization.
New research suggests that increased privatization in water utilities also leads to higher prices at the tap for residents.
Moreover, private water companies in the United States lack transparency.
Information gaps, inaccuracies, and ownership data are missing from 14 publically traded water companies serving 33 states, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report.
Then there are water futures to consider. In 2020, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange launched its first water futures market, allowing investors to buy shares like any other commodity.
Some analysts claim big investments in U.S. water futures can drive up the cost for residents, saying inflated market prices may result in hoarding among water rights owners.
This trifecta approach is effectively closing a foreign investment noose around America’s water.
Long Term Threat
The United States is grappling with drought in 44 percent of the lower 48 states as of January 2023. Western states have endured prolonged arid conditions for years, impacting multiple farming regions and domestic food supply.
And outside investors are placing their biggest bets on land acquisition.
Foreign ownership of U.S. agricultural land represents nearly 38 million acres. For perspective, that’s roughly the size of Illinois or Iowa. Between 2009 and 2019, foreign land holdings doubled.
With that comes the potential for turning water into money.
Laws concerning water usage vary from state to state, but landowners often have the right to use, sell, or divert those resources. Coupled with expanding foreign ownership, some insiders are worried about America’s water.
A senior official within California’s resource management—who asked to have their name omitted—told The Epoch Times, “The topic is a very serious one. Wealthy non-farming Americans and foreign interests are buying up U.S. farms and water rights.”
The source added that foreign investors are “manipulating domestic politics” in ways that prioritize the commodification of farmland over things like sustainable use, clean food, and water quality.
“Foreign ownership of American real estate is one of the biggest long-term threats to the integrity of our political systems.”
Legislators are also sounding the alarm over foreign companies and nations owning broad swaths of U.S. agricultural land.
In May 2022, representative Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) released a statement regarding the introduction of a new bill prohibiting the purchase of public or private agricultural land by individuals or companies associated with China.
Congressman Chip Roy (R-Texas) introduced similar legislation with restrictions against China-affiliated ownership of U.S. farmland in June 2021.
In a press statement, Roy said, “Direct Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is a major threat to the American way of life.”
When it comes to water privatization, advocates point to America’s aging pipes as proof that corporations can deliver where the government has failed for decades.
Upgrading the country’s nearly 50-year-old lead water pipes alone will cost an estimated $60 billion.
President Joe Biden’s original $45 billion spending package to upgrade public water pipes only saw $15 billion passed in a bipartisan infrastructure bill. Though even if the initial $45 billion passed, it’s not nearly enough.
That means America’s public water utilities won’t see dramatic improvements anytime soon. Cue the entrance of foreign investors with deep pockets.
“It’s not so much about water quantity as it is about water quality,” water engineer Antoine Walter told The Epoch Times.
Unsafe Drinking Water
Walter has worked on water projects in places like New York, Hong Kong, Melbourne (Australia), Vancouver, and the American West. He noted that 63 million U.S. residents are potentially exposed to unsafe drinking water.
“Chronic underfunding in water utilities, combined with a system where 85 percent of these utilities have three or fewer employees … hampers the chances for American citizens to keep accessing good water in the future,” he said.
“Privatization is one of the solutions to combat that trend.”
Foreign companies getting into the U.S. water game isn’t anything new. Big names in the world of water, like the French-owned Suez Environment, and Veolia Environment, along with Germany’s Siemens, have all held stakes in American water utilities.
Walter added, “The part where foreign investment in water resources may play a role is in the agricultural and marginally industrial uses of water.”
And with the existing lack of clarity surrounding ownership data in private utility companies, it begs the question: who will provide America’s drinking water?
National Security Threat
“In general, there’s always a risk associated with selling land to foreign investors. Rental periods are a much better way to preserve U.S. interests,” security analyst Irina Tsukerman, told The Epoch Times.
Functioning as the president of Scarab Rising, Tsukerman said the outcome of foreign-owned land and water rights will largely depend on the country or company’s relationship with the United States.
“Short-term immediate risks with unfriendly or competing powers are a higher risk for many reasons,” she said.
Tsukerman says that in states with drought conditions, land ownership can become an additional risk factor.
She pointed out that Canada and a number of European nations have purchased huge amounts of land in various states. “None of these countries will necessarily deliberately abuse their acquisitions to deprive Americans of water,” she said.
“However, the sheer number and quantity of such purchases for agricultural consumption … raise risks and concerns about loss of control by the United States over agriculture, water, and other natural resources.”
In a historic first, the U.S. government flagged domestic water security as a national security issue in 2022.
A National Intelligence Council analysis highlighted a growing risk of conflict over water and migration, which could wind up “creating additional demands on U.S. diplomatic, economic, humanitarian, and military resources.”
Further, a White House report noted, “Global water security is essential to U.S. national security.”
Tsukerman supported this, saying, “There may have to be an outright ban for adversarial actors from owning or controlling entire supply chains involving water resources … if there’s a realistic chance it could result in abuses and compromising precious resources.”
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