Four years ago today Flint, Mich., changed its municipal water source to the Flint River, moving a city of 100,000 residents towards a crisis that would poison children and impact families with long-term, irreversible health conditions. As Flint and our country continue to grapple with the realities of widespread lead-poisoning and environmental injustice, another water crisis is simmering in America’s backyard. This time, the health of millions of families may be at stake.
In rural America, deteriorating infrastructure and a lack of investment has left an untold number of families without access to wastewater treatment, creating a system in which untreated sewage sits in pools in backyards and leaks into local waterways. I have seen this crisis firsthand in rural Alabama.
In our state’s rural Black Belt, I have toured rural communities where a home’s only sewage system is a straight pipe that carries untreated waste 30 feet into the woods. I have toured towns where failing water treatment systems spray partially treated sewage into municipal pastures, contaminating family farms, private properties, and waterways accessible to thousands of Alabamians.
One study conducted by the University of Alabama and the University of South Alabama in 2006 found that a full 35 percent of inspected homes in Bibb County, Ala., had failing septic systems. Another 15 percent of homes had a straight pipe directly discharging untreated sewage into the surrounding environment. According to the report, half of all rural homes in Bibb County had raw sewage on the ground surface near their homes.
But rural Alabama is not the only area where wastewater infrastructure has created a health crisis. One 2004 study showed that an estimated 60,000 residents in Minnesota used a straight pipe to empty untreated sewage into the environment around their house. A report from the EPA estimates that a full 32 percent of families in central Kentucky will not be connected to a sewer by 2020.
There is no national study estimating the number of families in the United States without a connection to proper wastewater treatment, but based on the experiences of Alabama, Minnesota, and Kentucky, the issue could easily impact millions of Americans.
Unlike urban and suburban residents, most rural Americans are not connected to municipal sewer lines, saddling them with the full cost of installation, renovation, and service of household wastewater systems. In good soil, the installation of a septic tank can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000. In parts of Alabama’s Black Belt, where the soil requires more complex systems, the installation can run upwards of $12,000. In rural America, where 6.9 million residents live in poverty, spending thousands of dollars on a wastewater system is simply not in the budget.
The health and environmental impacts of failing wastewater treatment are destructive and costly. In parts of rural Alabama where straight pipes are common, residents have tested positive for gastrointestinal parasites that were thought to have been eradicated from the U.S. decades ago. In Kentucky, warnings are posted around formerly swimmable rivers and ponds where high fecal coliform bacteria levels could make swimmers sick.
In the same way that our federal government brought electricity to rural homes in the 1930’s with the installation of more than 100,000 miles of power lines, American families are again in need of federal action. Safe and affordable wastewater treatment systems are a basic service and rural communities do not have the resources to rebuild this infrastructure on their own.
Last month, during passage of this year’s government spending package, I was proud to work with appropriators in Congress to include an additional $1.8 billion in funding for water and wastewater infrastructure through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This month, I will be introducing a new bill in Congress allowing a federal water well program to support the build out of household wastewater systems in areas where a lack of resources and infrastructure has persisted for decades.
There is also a role that local and state leaders must play in developing our wastewater infrastructure in rural America. I have met with stakeholders, from public health officials to homeowners to engineers, and I believe their voices and their action are critical to addressing the wastewater crisis in rural America. More than anything, I believe that fixing our failing wastewater infrastructure will take all of us working together.
As we recognize the anniversary of Flint, where state and federal support came years after the contamination of local drinking water, we have to take this opportunity to reflect on the need for immediate action to repair our water and wastewater infrastructure. As Dr. Martin Luther King once famously said, “There is such a thing as being too late.” In rural Alabama, and across rural America, “too late” is quickly approaching.
Sewell represents Alabama’s 7th District and is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.