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Water shouldn’t make Americans sick — it will cost $105 billion to ensure it doesn’t


Franklin Square, located in the heart of downtown Washington, is the District’s oldest protected park. It was set aside by the federal government in 1832 to protect a spring that supplied drinking water to the White House.  Despite this protection, contaminated water continued to pose health risks for Washingtonians, including President Abraham Lincoln’s beloved son Willie, who died in the White House in 1862 from typhoid contracted from contaminated drinking water. 

Today Washington’s drinking water is generally safe, but the recent drinking water advisory highlighted the vulnerabilities in our water systems locally and nationwide. This latest incident, resulting from a loss of pressure at a pumping station, along with reports of toxic algae outbreaks in drinking water sources from Oregon to Florida is a wake up call: We need to invest more in the nation’s water infrastructure, including our rivers, and we must uphold federal clean water safeguards.

{mosads}The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation’s drinking water infrastructure a D grade. There are 240,000 water main breaks across the country each year, and 6 billion gallons of treated water are lost each year to leaking pipes. An estimated $105 billion is needed to upgrade our country’s drinking water and wastewater systems. We also need to protect and restore our rivers. Nationally, rivers provide more than two-thirds of our drinking water supplies. Healthy rivers, wetlands and floodplains are natural infrastructure, vital to our safety and economy.


While the quality of our nation’s drinking water remains high for the most part, there are still glaring outliers such as the lead contamination in the water supply for Flint, Michigan. Water warnings are popping up across the country this summer.

Salem, the capital of Oregon, was under an advisory for weeks in June because of a toxic algae outbreak in its water supply. Children under six years old, pregnant women, nursing mothers and adults with compromised immune systems were told not to drink the water. While there are multiple reasons for the algae outbreak, one likely cause is industrial logging practices and the resulting pollution from clearcutting, chemicals and fertilizers.

In Florida, algae from Lake Okeechobee is spurring concerns for human health, fisheries and the economy. Fueled by phosphorous and nitrogen in fertilizer running off farmlands, the algae can be toxic if consumed, causes skin and respiratory irritation, and can be fatal to dogs that swim in or drink the water. 

The lesson from Oregon and Florida is clear: What we do to the land impacts our rivers and water supplies.

In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich (R) recently signed an executive order to toughen control of fertilizer pollution — an important step — stemming from the algae outbreak in Lake Erie in 2014 that left 500,000 people without drinking water for three days.

While state action is important, it is critical that we increase federal investment and preserve national clean water safeguards. In addition to supporting water infrastructure funding, Congress must uphold the Clean Water Rule, which protects small streams and wetlands — the drinking water sources for one in three Americans — from pollution.

As was recognized 186 years ago when Franklin Square was protected, water is life. It is essential to our health, our economy and our future. The warning signs this summer are a call to action for better clean water protections nationwide.

Wm. Robert Irvin is president and CEO of environmental advocacy organization American Rivers.

Tags Drinking water water quality
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