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Water infrastructure — the unmet needs of low-income communities

Water infrastructure — the unmet needs of low-income communities
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To meet the promise of its day one executive order on Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities, the Biden administration needs to provide low-income communities, communities of color and Indigenous people the same access to clean and safe water that the rest of our nation takes for granted. 

Biden’s COVID-19 relief plan makes a down payment on that promise by funding improved access to clean water for the overburdened communities of Indian Country. The new administration’s climate executive order acknowledged a history of underinvestment in water and wastewater infrastructure in disadvantaged communities. 

The needs are immense. A recent survey estimated that over the next 20 years, it will take nearly $473 billion to ensure the safety of our drinking water supply. The need is greatest in poor communities and communities of color, which have long been shortchanged. In a pattern that is all too familiar, $120 billion in federal spending for wastewater and drinking water infrastructure over the last half a century has left communities of color, low-income communities and Indigenous people with large unmet needs for reliable and affordable water infrastructure.

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The most obvious example is evidence that 2 million Americans lack access to adequate plumbing or sanitation — the running water and flushing toilets that most of us consider essential. An astonishing 6 percent of Native American households lack full plumbing, making those households 19 times as likely as white households to suffer such a lack. Latinx and African American households are “only” twice as likely. Lack of plumbing and sanitation means that children play in yards flooded with raw sewage and families drive for hours to get household water from public taps, or draw water from contaminated streams or springs. 

But the problems go beyond the households that lack indoor plumbing. Over 9 million homes, many of them in our poorest cities, get water through lead pipes and more than 44 million people are served by water systems with water quality problems. There are also widespread problems with well water, with nearly a quarter of private well tests by one agency finding unhealthy bacteria and other contaminants like arsenic, uranium and nitrates. 

But even those fortunate enough to be served by systems with safe water may not be able to afford it.  A 2020 report found water bills skyrocketing by as much as 80 percent, with as many as two-fifths of residents in some cities living in neighborhoods where bills exceed 4 percent of household income and are therefore considered unaffordable.

The evidence of unaffordability is growing. Currently, California residents owe more than $1 billion on their water bills and one in every eight households is currently behind on payments. In Virginia, more than half a million households are behind, the vast majority of them by two months or more. In 2019, at least half a million California residents had their water cut off for non-payment and gaps in the data mean the actual number was almost certainly much higher. 

When residents can’t pay their water bills they may lose their homes. In Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located, more than 11,000 water liens — sometimes for unpaid bills as low as $300 — were issued between 2014 and 2018. Such liens and other punishment for non-payment can boost the risk of eviction and foreclosure. Not surprisingly, they are more common in communities of color.

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Federal funding for water system infrastructure projects is available to communities through a federal and state loan fund, but the level of funding has declined substantially since 1977. This has forced local utilities to hike their rates to raise money to upgrade aging infrastructure, comply with safety standards for contaminants like PFAS, lead and nitrates and adapt to extreme weather conditions linked to the climate crisis.

Stimulus funding will undoubtedly include hefty increases for the existing revolving loan program, but money for that program may not help poor communities. These, after all, are the very communities that the program has underserved in the past and they may lack the resources to qualify for loans or to repay them on terms that are not crippling for the communities.    

A pair of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) programs may suggest a way forward. Last year, Congress provided EPA $54 million to provide grants — not loans — for basic drinking water and sanitation in Alaskan Native Villages and desperately poor U.S. communities along the Mexican border.  Since 1996, the Alaska program has raised the share of rural Alaska homes with sustainable and affordable in-home water and sanitation services from 50 percent to nearly 95 percent, reducing human exposure to raw sewage and drinking water contaminants, improving public health and reducing health care costs.

If our nation is serious about environmental justice, it must find ways to help overburdened and underserved communities build new infrastructure and replace lead pipes and other aging infrastructure on terms that will truly meet their needs. 

David F. Coursen is a former EPA attorney and a member of the Environmental Protection Network, a nonprofit organization of EPA alumni working to protect the agency's progress toward clean air, water, land and climate protection.