The Time Has Come for Stronger Investment in Water Infrastructure – Especially for Underserved Communities

July 9, 2018 | 10:56 am
Photo: US Marines
Sara Schwartz
ORISE Research Participant

When news of the Flint water crisis broke headlines, 21 million people across the country relied on water systems that violated health standards. Low-income communities, minority populations, and rural towns disproportionately deal with barriers to safe water. Drinking water challenges are complex: failing infrastructure, polluted water sources, and low capacity utility management are all part of the issue. Declining investment in water infrastructure over the last several decades has exacerbated the problem. Access to safe water is essential for human health and well being. Without serious investment in our water infrastructure we will continue to put communities at risk. As a country we must support existing funding sources for water infrastructure, develop new and innovative funding mechanism for long-term solutions, and more effectively prioritize the water needs of underserved communities. Furthermore we must support the science that helps us understand the nature and extent of these water challenges.

To be clear, the U.S. as a whole has very good water quality. The 21 million Americans without safe drinking water make up 6% of the country’s population. But this low percentage means nothing to those who can’t turn on their tap to quench their thirst, take a shower, or cook their food. A host of federal programs help reduce the number of communities without safe water. The EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) and Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), the USDA’s Rural Development Water Program, and HUD’s Community Block Grants, provide essential funding and low-interest loans to fill gaps in state and local resources. These projects not only replace dilapidated pipes and pumps, they also provide trainings for utility operators, support partnerships to consolidate resources, and hire experts to identify the cause of contamination. These opportunities are crucial in rural municipalities where water utility operators are commonly residents who volunteer their time.

Figure 1: Spatial clusters (hot spots) of health-based violations, 1982-2015. Hot spots of health based violations by county. Higher Z-scores indicate a higher number of health violations as compared to the average. Source: Maura Allaire et al. PNAS doi:10.1073/pnas.1719805115. Copyright: National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

But how do we know if the communities that need the most help are getting it? In the case of the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, states are required to prioritize systems with the highest health risk and the greatest financial need. An EPA database helps states identify which drinking water systems have the highest number of Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) violations, but it does not track whether these communities are considered low-income or disadvantaged.

For communities that can’t afford to take on the debt of a low-interest loan like the ones provided through the DWSRF and WIFIA, grants offer a debt-free alternative. The USDA’s Rural Development Water Program offers about ten types of grants for rural and small communities and tribes. The 2018 Congressional Budget also included a new EPA grant solely for addressing the water needs of disadvantaged communities.

Regardless of these efforts, there are communities without safe water. From 1982-2015, the number of drinking water violations actually increased. It is unclear what proportion of this increase is due to stricter safety regulations, more polluted waterways, degrading infrastructure, operating errors, or a combination of these factors. What we do know is that most of the health violations link back to pathogens and that the communities with the most violations are low-income and/or communities of color. A study from the American Water Works Association concluded “in communities with higher populations of black and Hispanic individuals, SDWA health violations are more common…it is in the poorest of communities that race and ethnicity seem to matter most in determining drinking water quality.” Housing density is also a factor. A study from the National Academy of Sciences showed that urban and suburban areas tended to have fewer violations than rural areas.

Figure 2: Total violations per water system by housing density category and income group. Violations represent the portion of water system-year observations with violations. Low-income counties have median household income below 75% of national median household income. Source: Maura Allaire et al. PNAS doi:10.1073/pnas.1719805115. Copyright: National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

On top of increasing violations, investment in water infrastructure has decreased. An analysis from the Value of Water Campaign shows combined federal investment in drinking water and wastewater infrastructure has declined from 63 percent of total capital spending to 9 percent since 1977. State and local governments have also decreased their capital spending on water infrastructure in recent years. The EPA estimates we need to invest $472.6 billion in our drinking water infrastructure over the next 20 years. Majority of this need can be attributed to rehabilitating, upgrading, and replacing existing infrastructure.

Federal investment in water infrastructure must continue and grow. Federal funds for infrastructure do more than build new systems and replace pipes; they support management and maintenance to achieve long-term goals. Communities all over the country struggle to have safe water. There are people working hard to address these issues, but more work is needed. Everyone has a role to play by supporting politicians who prioritize the needs of our failing water systems and the communities that rely on them. We must also support the science that has enabled us to better understand the nature and extent of these water challenges and their disproportionate impact on underserved communities. Safe water must no longer be a luxury.