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Closing America's water access gap

Closing America's water access gap
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America is facing two water crises.

One is well-known: since the poisoning of Flint, Mich., erupted in headlines in 2015, we have learned how crumbling infrastructure, disinvestment, neglect and official callousness has left unsafe tainted water spilling from taps in Newark, N.J., East Chicago, Ind., and Compton, Calif., to name only a few cities affected.

Yet there is another, hidden water crisis that has mostly escaped notice — the plight of some 2 million Americans who lack any access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

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Well into the 21st century, they continue to live without dependable hot and cold running water or flush toilets. Altogether, the number of vulnerable people who have fallen into this “water-access gap” is equal to the combined populations of Atlanta, Boston and Washington, DC. Perhaps most shockingly, that number seems to be growing.

As a first step toward eliminating water poverty in America, DigDeep, together with the US Water Alliance, an industry group, recently completed the first comprehensive national study of the water-access gap. Over two years, our team, joined by researchers from Michigan State University, analyzed all available federal data and fanned out across the U.S. to examine conditions in six communities representative of the challenges faced nationwide: California’s Central Valley; colonias along the Texas border; the “Black Belt” of rural Mississippi and Alabama; Appalachian West Virginia; Native American reservations in the Four Corners region of the Southwest; and Puerto Rico.

Among our key findings:

  • At least 2 million Americans live without reliable access to hot and cold running water and working flush toilets. Among these are the 4 million Americans in homes without “complete plumbing,” defined by Census as hot and cold running water, a tap, shower or bath, and, until recently, a toilet. In 2014, at the time of the last complete data set, Alaska had the highest population concentration without access (5.75 percent), followed by New Mexico (1.6 percent), and Maine and Arizona (1.0 percent).
  • Race is the strongest predictor of water and sanitation access. African American and Latinx households are nearly twice as likely to lack complete plumbing than white households; Native American households are 19 times more likely. Our qualitative research found that contemporary water-access problems are often the by-products of structural racism including redlining — the deliberate exclusion of some neighborhoods from access to basic services — and deliberate disinvestment.
  • Federal data doesn’t accurately measure the problem. The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey remains one of the only proxies by which to measure this problem, but the Census tends to undercount vulnerable communities, the questionnaire leaves out wastewater issues, and collection methods have been inconsistent. The Census in the middle of a four-year collection period, fragmenting the existing data and making it impossible to track forward progress against historical trends.
  • At the same time, overall progress on water access is slowing as the federal government has for water infrastructure. In 1977, 63 percent of total capital spending for water and wastewater systems came from federal agencies; today that number is less than 9 percent. Most of those funds are now locked up in loans, meaning that communities that missed out on federal infrastructure grants must take on debt in order to catch up with the rest of the country.
  • Some states show evidence of backsliding. In Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Dakota and Puerto Rico, the number of people living without complete plumbing recently increased.

This problem is not isolated to a few families “living off the grid,” but is the result of historical and geographical factors that have left entire communities without basic services. The stories of human hardship we encountered in our research were staggering. On the Navajo Nation, families drive for hours to haul barrels of water to meet their basic needs. In West Virginia, they drink from polluted streams. In Alabama, tropical diseases once thought to have been eradicated are resurfacing. Families in Texas border towns worry because there is no running water to fight fires.

What can be done to ensure that all Americans have access to running water and basic sanitation?

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First, the government must begin accurately measuring the water access gap. One of the simplest recommendations in our report is for the Census to revamp its questions on complete plumbing access to once again include toilets, and add questions on wastewater services, water quality and cost. After all, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.

Secondly, federal, state and local governments need to reimagine outdated water regulations that don't account for the extreme circumstances confronting some Americans. Authorities need to dramatically increase and restructure the funding to help these communities build systems that work for them, especially in remote locations where traditional, centralized water infrastructure may be unfeasible.

Finally, we need to support local organizations working hard to bringing clean water to their neighbors. In every region we visited, there are nonprofits, faith-based organizations and groups of concerned citizens advocating for change and delivering drinking water to people in need.

Years ago, I received a phone call from 90-year old Beverly Byers. Beverly grew up on a sharecropping farm in Mississippi, and when her family finally got running water more than 50 years ago, she thought she was the last person in the country to get it. "How could this still be a problem today?" she wondered. Beverly believed, as I do, that access to clean, safe water is a human right. Turning a blind eye to the suffering of millions of Americans denies not only their dignity but our shared humanity.

Our eyes are open now.  We are a resilient and creative people, and with the right focus, resources and partnerships, we can close this water-access gap in our lifetimes. 

George McGraw is the founder and CEO of the nonprofit DigDeep, based in Los Angeles.