Opinion | Energy & Environment

Heat waves to heighten energy and water insecurity during COVID-19

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

Heat warnings and advisories have been in effect in many parts of the U.S. this summer and experts are predicting that above-average temperatures will dominate much of the country into September. This means higher energy bills for many Americans who are out of work and struggling economically. 

At the same time, state-imposed moratoriums on utility shutoffs that began at the start of the pandemic are beginning to lapse in some states and some utilities are moving to collect on unpaid bills. Heat waves in the face of COVID-19 serve to heighten existing insecurities and reveal systemic inequities around access to water and energy in the U.S. 

Heat is the top weather-related killer in the U.S. Heat waves can be seen as a threat multiplier - amplifying heat risks for vulnerable populations, particularly elderly people and those with preexisting health conditions, such as heart and respiratory disease. Further, heat waves burden health services and can lead to power shortages or blackouts. Some suggest that the U.S. is facing an unprecedented trifecta: a pandemic, record unemployment and summer temperatures. 

High temperatures exacerbate energy insecurity for those living in poor or minority neighborhoods, as these communities typically bear the brunt of heat. The coronavirus is compounding heat discomfort as most public places, like libraries, public pools and community centers, where some low-income people may seek air conditioning, are closed to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Earlier this spring, some states temporarily barred utility companies from shutting off electricity and water. In other states, utility companies voluntarily agreed not to shut off utilities during the pandemic. This temporary moratorium on shutoffs has helped ensure that citizens are able to have access to electricity, running water and sanitation during the COVID-19 pandemic as most are sheltered at home.

But the pandemic has shed light on underlying, systemic challenges of access to clean water and affordable energy in some parts of the U.S. More than 2 million Americans lack access to running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater services. African Americans and Latino households are almost twice as likely as whites to lack complete plumbing, according to the U.S. Water Alliance. Recent research found that Black households are disconnected from water utilities more frequently than White households who receive notices at similar rates. Native American households are disconnected at the highest rate of any race. 

Water and energy insecurity hit a flashpoint earlier this summer on the Navajo Reservation in my home state of Arizona. The Navajo Nation, the largest tribe in the U.S., has experienced more coronavirus cases per capita than any state. This prompted the international group Doctors Without Borders to dispatch a team of health professionals on U.S. soil - for the first time ever - to tend to people living on Navajo lands. About 30 to 40 percent of people live on the Navajo Reservation without running water, which is a problem considering that frequent handwashing is a critical line of defense against COVID-19. Though devastating, the pandemic is shining a light on inequities surrounding access to water in the U.S., as well as on the importance of making access to safe and affordable water available to all. 

In short, America's water infrastructure is in crisis. Over the past two decades, infrastructure around our drinking water and wastewater has regularly earned poor grades by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Aging drinking water systems in many communities violate U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) health standards for millions of Americans each year. 

There is an absence of national leadership on this issue and little consensus in Congress on the path forward. With federal funding for water infrastructure declining by 80 percent since the 1970s , states and localities have been left to manage on their own. Since the pandemic, many cities have canceled water system infrastructure projects and with reductions in local revenues, some cities across the U.S. are headed toward bankruptcy. Many water utilities have also been hit hard because of COVID-19. 

Reinvesting in America's water infrastructure should be a bipartisan issue to help ensure the resilience needed in times of crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Earlier this spring, Congress provided funding through the CARES Act to help low-wealth households pay their utility bills and to provide emergency aid for the Navajo Nation. But as some key coronavirus relief measures are expiring, and others set to expire soon, Congress is still debating the next coronavirus aid package. 

A coalition of utility-justice, environmental, faith, civil-rights and labor groups is calling for a nationwide moratorium on all utility disconnections, reconnections for lost services and forgiveness of late fees and bill payments for low-wealth people. Scientists agree that the hottest days of summer are the worst time to lift life-saving moratoriums on utility shutoffs. Failing to do so could lead most vulnerable families to accrue more crippling debt.

Perhaps adopting water rate policies based on income, as some cities have done, is one solution. Another solution could include reinvesting in established federal agency programs that provide grants and loans to communities for water investments. 

Ultimately, to move beyond patchwork, reactive responses we need a broader dialogue about how best to prioritize, fund and implement water infrastructure in the U.S. This will likely involve experimenting with public-private partnerships and mergers between utilities, especially in rural communities. The perfect storm of heat, COVID-19 and record unemployment are heightening energy and water insecurities and revealing systemic inequities for some of our nation's most vulnerable citizens, and demanding action from the government on multiple fronts.

Andrea K. Gerlak is a professor in the School of Geography and Development and 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.

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