Energy & Environment

Rural America left out of Trump’s water infrastructure plan

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President Trump recently unveiled his infrastructure plan but it did little to address the water crisis in rural America.

While the poor condition of pipes for drinking water in Flint, Michigan attracted national to the issue, many rural communities in America continue to face considerable risks.

{mosads}There are challenges in financing the costs of replacing or upgrading aging and outdated infrastructure for drinking water and wastewater. Some small utilities cannot afford to upload wastewater treatment plants, or help poor residents upgrade septic systems.


Some utilities lack the ability to do appropriate water testing. Others don’t have the technical expertise to design the projects or even complete the necessary technical documents to apply for federal funding.

It is estimated by the Government Accountability Office that the costs of replacing infrastructure in rural communities can be almost $190 billion in the coming decades.

Strategic investments are needed in many rural communities to protect the health and safety of rural dwellers. Such investments can also be part of stimulating rural economic growth by improving quality of life and attracting jobs to rural communities.

Earlier this year, the Natural Resources Defense Council released a report indicating that almost a quarter of Americans are served by water systems reporting violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the main federal law regulating contaminants in drinking water.  

Violations ranged from contamination of arsenic and nitrates to failures in testing and reporting contamination levels. Small systems in rural areas account for nearly 70 percent of all violations.

Drinking water violations have been found in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and territories of the U.S. When ranked by population served by systems with Safe Drinking Water Act violations, the top five states were: Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Georgia.

Low-income, minority communities are often most impacted. Many homes on rural Native American reservations and in Alaskan Native villages lack access to clean water or sanitation. According to the Indian Health Service, about 7.5 percent of Native American and Alaska Native homes do not have safe drinking water or basic sanitation. In other cases, tribal communities or small communities in agricultural areas rely on contaminated water sources.

Rural utilities generally favor expanding the U.S. EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, where states can receive grants to provide loans to public water systems for drinking water projects, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development’s Water & Environmental Programs which provide grants and low-interest loans to rural communities to develop drinking water and waste disposal systems for communities with 10,000 or fewer residents. They are the cheapest — and sometimes only — source of financing for communities too small to issue low-interest municipal bonds.

For many small, rural communities, their publicly owned water utility can be their most expensive investment.

But increasingly, experts are recognizing gaps between needs and available funding, and the ability of smaller or disadvantaged communities to afford financing under these programs. 

Recent letters of interest submitted to the EPA in response to its Notice of Funding Availability under the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act from cities, states and water utilities across the U.S. demonstrate the need for investment in water infrastructure. 

Some rural communities in the U.S trying to connect to public water systems are discovering hook up costs are often too prohibitive for some poorer communities. In other cases, there are pockets of rural and unincorporated areas in the U.S where water utilities want to expand, because there are not enough users it simply isn’t economically sustainable. 

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently concluded that many worthy projects, like providing clean water to rural areas, wouldn’t be attractive to private investment because they have little prospect of turning a profit.

Although more streamlined permitting processes may be beneficial for transportation projects, water infrastructure needs in rural America suggest the need for other strategies. First, more work — like that of the Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project around education and inequity in access to water infrastructure — is needed is to help identify at-risk communities.

Second, local areas need to be more transparent with the water data they do have, and to work to produce detailed metrics of water infrastructure and criteria to better prioritize infrastructure projects and understand acceptable risks of infrastructure failure.

More robust monitoring systems at the state and community level can help to more quickly identify problems in drinking water systems.

A reinvestment in America’s aging and deteriorating rural infrastructure demands financial and technical resources to address these issues in equitable and fair ways. 

Andrea K. Gerlak is an associate professor in the School of Geography and Development and associate research professor at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona. She is a Tucson Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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