Americans Find Toxic Water at The Bottom of Their Well

Environment Policy Brief #149 | By: Todd J. Broadman | October 10, 2022

Header photo taken from: Justin Metz / Consumer Reports




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Contaminated water runs toward the Grand Calumet River and Lake Michigan, the source of drinking water for East Chicago, Ind.

Photo taken from: Michael M. Santiago / News 21

Policy Summary

Worldwide, 1 in 10 people cannot access clean water within a 30-minute walk from their home and by 2030 this situation is projected to grow and displace up to 700 million. Closer to home, as the water treatment infrastructure in the U.S. continues to deteriorate, many Americans are facing a similar plight.

In terms of that plight, Jackson, Mississippi serves as one stark example among thousands, of a water infrastructure given way to neglect. Jackson is a city of 160,000 residents who no longer have clean drinking water. The city’s water treatment plant shut down last August due to a major pump failure. Since then, a massive effort led by the National Guard to distribute bottled water has been in place.

Nationwide, the American Society of Civil Engineers has issued a grade of C-minus to the drinking water infrastructure. Virtually all funding for water treatment and associated infrastructure rests with states and local taxing authorities. The federal government contribute less than 4%. In low-income districts. This means that the necessary tax revenue for water maintenance and improvements falls far short of requirements, what is termed “systemic disinvestment.”

 The average U.S. water-network pipe is 45 years old, with some cast-iron pipes more than a century old. “Absent an emergency, cash-strapped water utility managers will continue to deal with aging water systems by economizing on routine maintenance and deferring upgrades for as long as possible,” is Berkeley Professor David Sedlak’s grim prognosis.

The result of being highly localized means there are approximately 50,000 separately managed water systems operating in the U.S. — compared to only 3,300 electric utilities. A relatively small number of the water systems are privately run, about 12%, the vast majority operated by municipal governments. Local governments are faced with the difficult balance between investing in necessary and costly upgrades, and increasing water rates to pay for those upgrades. 

The estimated cost to fix Jackson’s water plant is over a billion dollars. New York City has already spent $6 billion to complete one third of the new water tunnel necessary to repair two older tunnels constructed a century ago. About one third of its water leaks out through the two aging pipes.

The exorbitant infrastructure costs are paid not only through water consumption taxes, but also through the issuance of bonds. And here also we find great disparity between higher and lower income water districts. Private investors purchase bonds based upon their rating and return.

 For example, in the case of Jackson, Mississippi, Moody’s Investor Service downgraded their bond rating to junk status, declaring, “The downgrade reflects the city’s support of and exposure to the stressed City of Jackson Water and Sewer Enterprise” and the “low wealth and income indicators of residents.” This means that bondholders had to be paid more interest for the increased risk of default. Jackson would have to pay up to an additional $4 million annually in interest alone.

As water customers are faced with unclean drinking water, they invariably take officials to court. The crisis in Flint, Michigan resulted in former Michigan governor Rick Snyder being charged with willful neglect of duty for redirecting Flint’s water supply to the Flint River without proper treatment — the catalyst for that city’s crisis. Four residents in Jackson have filed a lawsuit against the city for failing to protect the water supply from extreme weather events, in their case a flood.

There are also “environmental justice” concerns as expressed by EPA head Michael S. Regan, in areas like Jackson that are low income and majority Black. These are areas of “long-standing concerns in historically marginalized communities.” In the Chicago area, levels of lead in the water were found to be highest in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Native American households face a similar predicament. The city of Baltimore recently detected E. coli in its public water system.

Policy Analysis

The huge scale of infrastructure upgrades and new capital projects, in not just water, but in roads, bridges, dams, and other services, have not been given the attention they need. This is because the projects are long-term and they do not coincide well with shorter term election cycles.

 They also reveal the fragmentation and disparity between economic classes and racial groups. For water infrastructure alone, over the next decade, upgrade estimates across the country tally to over a trillion dollars!

At a paltry $55 billion, the amount of funding allocated from President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for safe drinking water, the federal contribution to fix this looming crisis barely makes a dent. “This is becoming a chronic problem, and we’re not going to grant our way out of it; the federal government is not going to be able to allocate the needed capital to fix these problems,” said Robert Powelson, president of the National Association of Water Companies, a trade group representing investor-owned utilities.

The deeper issue, according to The Washington Post, is rooted in racism – which translates into environmental injustice. For example, when federal courts forced Jackson schools to desegregate back in 1970, white families left in big numbers (estimated at 40,000) and with them went the tax base for infrastructure. The sense of contributing to the collective social good also followed them out of the city. 

The EPA provides a range of financial resources, including grants, made available to support public water systems with enhancing the quality of drinking water and improving public health.

Chart taken from: The EPA

(click or tap to enlargen)

Jackson’s recent effort to raise Mississippi’s state sales tax failed as did their effort to authorize a bond sale. They face a Republican, white, dominated state legislature, and one that is now tabling the move to privatize the water system.

The bulk of the water infrastructure funding under the recent legislation is being distributed through the EPA’s drinking water and clean water revolving loan programs. 

The drinking water program has $30.7 billion (including $15 billion for replacing lead pipes) and the clean water program — mainly wastewater treatment and managing stormwater — has $12.7 billion. The remaining billions are distributed through programs that target specific problems or communities. A formula determines each state’s designated share. There is also a required state match of between 10% and 20%.

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