The Time to Fix Our Broken Water System Is Now

Emergency workers in New York City after a water main break flooded streets  on January 13, 2020.
Emergency workers in New York City after a water main break flooded streets on January 13, 2020.
Image: Getty

In the interim stimulus bill the Senate passed on Tuesday evening, federal lawmakers failed to include any relief for customers struggling with their water bills. As a result, millions of Americans who are being told to stay in their homes and wash their hands as often as possible could face impossible choices, such as whether to prioritize paying rent or buying food over paying their water bills, and risk getting their service turned off.

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This despite calls from 100 members of Congress and 800 environmental organizations to address shutoffs—and despite basic human decency. It shouldn’t take a pandemic to protect Americans’ access to fundamental human needs. But officials’ failure to act on this now is particularly unconscionable because the skyrocketing unemployment crisis will make it even harder for people to pay their water bills. More than 17 million have filed for unemployment since coronavirus began to spread across the country, and millions more may soon be in the same position. There’s a solution sitting on the table for Congress to take up that would fix America’s water access and infrastructure crisis and create jobs in one fell swoop.

Since the pandemic took hold in the U.S., many municipalities and more than half of all states have voluntarily instated moratoria on shutoffs. But those protections only cover 60 percent of the nation’s population, and the policies vary significantly. Many don’t restore service to those who already had it disconnected. Due to poor implementation, a number of households that should be protected are falling through the cracks. Some of the moratoria—which were enacted just weeks ago—are already expiring as well. And none of those policies provide relief for households’ accumulated bills once the emergency ends. It’s clear that federal action is necessary.

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Advocates previously pushed for a moratorium of this kind to be fit into the federal CARES Act, but lawmakers didn’t deliver. But representatives are expected to negotiate another stimulus package in the coming weeks, which gives them another chance to stop water shutoffs during the pandemic.

They should make that policy permanent and not stop there. This is an opportunity to fund a massive overhaul of the nation’s water systems to the benefit of all households. Luckily, earlier this year, members of Congress in the House and Senate introduced the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act, which lays out a blueprint for how to do it.

“This is a crucial moment because our government has not invested in our water and sewer infrastructure in the way that it needs to at all,” Rianna Eckel, an organizer with Food and Water Watch, told Earther.

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Most of the nation’s water infrastructure was built more than 50 years ago, and much of it is in dire need of upgrades and repairs. Many pipes still have lead in them, hundreds of thousands of water main breaks occur each year, and aging infrastructure can create other problems, too, from sewage leaking into basements to pollution streaming into waterways. All that old, leaky plumbing also means water that could be cleaned and used gets wasted instead.

Federal water and sewage infrastructure funding peaked in 1977, when it reached $76.27 per person annually when adjusted for inflation. But by 2014, that support fell to $13.68 per person, a 72 percent decrease overall and 82 percent drop per capita.

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“When cities can’t collect federal funding to make infrastructure upgrades, they have to raise all the money for upgrades themselves,” said Eckel. “And that makes it a lot more likely that they’ll raise rates continuously.”

As part of the government’s stimulus packages, Eckel’s organization and hundreds of policy experts are asking the government to pass the WATER Act, a bill that would ban water shutoffs, create financial assistance programs for Americans struggling with their bills, and put $35 billion of federal funding per year into assistance programs.

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“That federal investment would take the onus off municipalities and ratepayers to pay for repairs,” said Eckel. It would also allow municipalities to expand infrastructure to reach the 2 million Americans who don’t have access to running water.

In the past 10 years, the average price of water has increased by 30 percent. These price hikes disproportionately impact poor people and people of color. A 2017 investigation from the Chicago Tribune found that residents in black and Latinx communities paid up to 20 percent more for water bills than those in predominantly white neighborhoods while research published last year by the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, found that water will be unaffordable for more than half of black households in Baltimore. The same study also found the vast majority of property liens for unpaid water bills in Cleveland were issued in predominantly black neighborhoods, even though nearly 60 percent of the area’s population is white.

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The WATER ACT would help mitigate these uneven impacts. To make repairs and expansions, the act would also set aside government funding for municipalities to hire people seeking jobs to replace pipes, stormwater infrastructure, and sewer systems. Food and Water Watch estimates that the WATER Act would create hundreds of thousands of jobs. In their proposal for a Green Stimulus released last month, experts suggested the creation of a Clean Water Corps, modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal in the 1930s. Creating such programs, which could be run similarly to the Peace Corps and Americorps, are among the most popular environmental policies associated with the Green New Deal.

If the federal government doesn’t increase funding to make water infrastructure repairs, Eckel fears more municipalities will turn to private corporations for support. Currently, only 11 percent of Americans receive water from privately owned utilities, but with revenue for water projected to decrease amid the coronavirus pandemic due to declining commercial use, nonpayment of bills, and fewer connection fees charged to new businesses and homes, many more municipalities could be tempted to turn to corporate control.

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“Private companies come in and they offer to cover all of the costs that utilities need to pay to maintain their infrastructure and pay to do all the infrastructure upgrades, which is a really sweet deal for a utility,” she said. But it’s not such a sweet deal for water customers, because research shows that privatization leads to higher rate increases.

Higher water prices would be particularly disastrous moving into the summer, as temperatures get hotter and it becomes even more important to stay hydrated. Heat waves are already hitting the South, and it’s only April.

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As the climate crisis progresses, heat waves will become worse and more common, making protecting Americans access to water all the more crucial.

The progression of climate change will also make our water infrastructure even more vulnerable to collapse, as storms put increased pressure on pipes and droughts put increased pressure on drinking water supplies.

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“These upgrades are urgent,” said Eckel. “We don’t have time to waste.”

Staff writer, Earther

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DISCUSSION

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Dense non aqueous phase liquid

How about a supporting figure on water spending? From your Congressional Research Service:

Funding for EPA Water Infrastructure: A Fact Sheet (Updated March 6, 2019)

Usually around half of EPA’s annual budget goes to funding water/wastewater capital projects. This would be construction of new or major modifications of anything from water towers to turd mills. States and local municipalities are on the hook for funding some of the capital cost and pretty much all operations of water/wastewater stuff.

On the other hand, maybe Goldman Sachs and other finance types will do the lord’s work on public private partnerships (3P) for our great nation’s water infrastructure. Finance bros are people, too, you know. Who needs environmental engineers when there’s a constant supply of MBAs from top tiered colleges?