COVID-19 pandemic exposing America's water infrastructure crisis

COVID-19 pandemic exposing America's water infrastructure crisis
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The COVID-19 pandemic is revealing another humanitarian crisis that is afflicting millions of people across the United States — the lack of safe, affordable water

The reasons vary. A leading cause is persistent environmental degradation. Toxic chemical pollution. Farm runoff from fertilizer and animal waste. Mining contaminants. The list goes on. 

Yet, even in cities and towns with safe water, many families do not have access. Why? They cannot afford to pay their water bills and have had their water shut off

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Alarmingly, one nationwide assessment revealed that around 15 million Americans experienced a water shutoff – one out of every 20 households across the country. Curtailing water to people is cruel: Water is a basic human need and essential to prevent the spread of disease.

The discourse around water shutoffs has understandably focused on the toll it takes on people and their families. The stories are heartbreaking. Our most vulnerable communities deciding whether to wash their hands or cook their dinner or bath their child.

Less attention has been focused on the reason that people can’t pay their water bills. 

How is it that in the world’s largest economy, millions of people are having their water shut-off? How is it that in the Great Lakes region — home to upwards of 20 percent of the world's surface freshwater — there are tens of thousands of people without access to affordable water?

Look no further than the federal government, which has failed to adequately invest in water infrastructure for decades. 

In 1977, 63 percent of total capital spending for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure came from the U.S. federal government. Today that number is less than nine percent

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As federal investment has dwindled, cash-strapped states and local communities have failed to make up the difference, leading to an enormous backlog of work. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly $743 billion is needed over the next 20 years to maintain, upgrade, and build adequate drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. And that estimate may be low: The American Water Works Association estimates that needed investments for drinking water infrastructure alone top $1 trillion over the next 25 years.

The dilapidated state of U.S. infrastructure – and increasing backlog of work – led the American Society of Civil Engineers, in their quadrennial assessment of the country’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, to hand out grades of “D” and “D+” respectively.

And the problem is not getting better. The U.S. Congress invests, on average, between $2 billion and $3 billion per year on drinking water and wastewater infrastructure — less than .5 percent of the need.

Absent federal leadership and investment, local communities have had to pick up the tab. It’s a bill that they are struggling to pay — and for good reason. Water infrastructure projects are expensive, often millions if not billions of dollars. For rural communities with limited populations from which to pool resources and tax revenue, and for urban communities with high rates of poverty, it is daunting to maintain current infrastructure let alone commission new projects.

The result is skyrocketing utility bills for customers — often for people who can least afford to pay. Between 2007 and 2017, water and sewage rates across the country jumped 41 percent. In communities like Detroit, water and sewage rates more than doubled to $1,317 per year for a family of four. Detroit is not alone: Cities and towns across the nation are experiencing similar price hikes.

If water rates increase at projected amounts, a recent report warns that more than 35 percent of U.S. households will soon find their water bills unaffordable by 2022.

It’s time to address the water infrastructure crisis at its root cause — inadequate federal investment. 

The federal government can do two things immediately.

First, following the lead of many states and local governments, the U.S. Congress can work with communities and require all utilities, nationwide, to stop water shutoffs through the duration of the COVID-19 crisis and safely restore water service to households that have lost service.

Second, the U.S. Congress must boost investments in drinking water and wastewater infrastructure as much as it can and as quickly as they can — by billions of dollars per year — and target those funds at those communities that need it most. Delay will only make the problem more difficult and expensive to solve.

The good news is that we know strong action by the federal government can turn the tide. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, amid pervasive environmental damage, the U.S. Congress passed sweeping legislation to protect and restore our air and water resources. This landmark legislation was coupled with a multi-billion-dollar investment in water infrastructure. It worked. Lakes and rivers once declared dead, were reborn. Beaches re-opened. Water quality improved. 

Now, more than ever, we need a similar vision and aggressive action to provide safe and affordable water to every person who calls this country home.

Laura Rubin is the director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.