The government-administered water catastrophe in Flint, Mich., a public health emergency mal-engineered by a clumsy confluence of bad decision-making, lax oversight and ideological hard-headedeness, may appear a singular crisis. Unfortunately, it is far from that. The ongoing water emergency in Flint, which may take years to resolve, exposed the rusting state of public water resources across the country; continuing revelations about water hazards in municipal systems have rippled far beyond Flint.
Many can be forgiven for presuming that consuming water in the United States was a dependably safe proposition, and it is for millions, but in the aftermath of Flint’s suffering it has become evident that a vast problem has been ignored for decades as federal and state resources for water oversight and infrastructure maintenance and enhancements were washed away by waves of tax cutting and the budget tightening that resulted. Since 2006, The New York Times reports, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency’s “drinking water office” has lost 10 percent of its staff and 15 percent of its budget, weakening its enforcement capacity, and reductions in federal resources for state regulatory bodies have resulted in a similar oversight diminishment.
One estimate suggests as much as $330 billion needs to be spent over the next 20 years to restore the nation’s decrepit water infrastructure. A competing report says the true figure could be much higher, more than $1 trillion over 25 years and nearly $2 trillion over the four decades. “The pipe networks that were largely built and paid for by earlier generations—and passed down to us as an inheritance—last a long time, but they are not immortal,” say the authors of a study sponsored by the American Water Works Association. They continue:
The nation’s drinking water infrastructure—especially the underground pipes that deliver safe water to America’s homes and businesses—is aging and in need of significant reinvestment. Like many of the roads, bridges, and other public assets on which the country relies, most of our buried drinking water infrastructure was built 50 or more years ago, in the post-World War II era of rapid demographic change and economic growth. In some older urban areas, many water mains have been in the ground for a century or longer...it comes as no surprise that a large proportion of U.S. water infrastructure is approaching, or has already reached, the end of its useful life.
Those aging water networks frequently connect to lead-lined home pipes that may be just as old. It is lead from these home water pipes, in fact, degraded by the Flint River's more corrosive water (which had been left untreated with anti-corrosives by penny-pinching officials in Michigan) that created the lead hazard in Flint.
“Flint is a microcosm,” Robert Glennon, a professor of law and public policy at the University of Arizona in Tuscon, told the Christian Science Monitor in January. “The maintenance of water systems and wastewater systems is not just an urban problem, or a problem for places with low-income residents. It’s a problem all over the nation that needs to be addressed.” A recent investigation conducted by USA Today found excessive levels of lead contamination at 2,000 water systems across the country.
Most distressing, many of the highest lead levels were found at schools and day care centers. According to the USA Today report:
A water sample at a Maine elementary school was 42 times higher than the EPA limit of 15 parts per billion, while a Pennsylvania preschool was 14 times higher, records show. At an elementary school in Ithaca, N.Y., one sample tested this year at a stunning 5,000 ppb of lead, the EPA’s threshold for ‘hazardous waste.’
In Newark and Baltimore public schools, lead contamination is so serious that administrators rely on bottled water for cooking and distribution to students rather than taps and water fountains.
USA Today, citing Census Bureau figures, reports that about 75 million homes across the country were built before 1980. That means they are likely to contain some lead plumbing—more than half of the nation’s housing units. Fixing the infrastructure which brings water to homes may be futile if some sort of retro-fitting campaign is not undertaken to replace the final yards of water delivery.
Lead contamination is especially worrisome because of its serious effects on children’s neurological health and psychological and educational development. Medical professionals are increasingly convinced that there is no “safe” level of lead exposure, previous government “acceptable” thresholds to the contrary. Lead poisoning is associated not only with poor educational attainment but increased levels of violence and a variety of neurological deficits, many of which have serious implications in adulthood and in civic life.
In her December emergency declaration Flint Mayor Karen Weaver implored state and federal intervention not only to restore Flint’s water supply but to set aside resources for the future. Damage done to children because of lead exposure is irreversible, and Ms. Weaver’s resolution anticipates the need for increased spending on special education and mental health services and increased stress on the juvenile justice system.
But the threat of lead poisoning is only one of the hazards hidden in the nation’s water supply. The New York Times reports: “The biggest hole in the drinking-water safety net may be the least visible: the potential for water to be tainted by substances that scientists and officials have not even studied, much less regulated.”
“The E.P.A. has compiled a list of 100 potentially risky chemicals and 12 microbes that are known or expected to be found in public water systems, but are not yet regulated.”
Around industrial and military sites well-water fields are hopelessly contaminated by substances unknown to nature and unresponsive to its purification processes. Homes and communities relying on well water around farm fields can anticipate that their water supplies are similarly afflicted by pesticides and other chemicals.
The United Nations declared access to fresh water a fundamental human right in 2010, and Pope Francis agrees, arguing in "Laudato Si'" that "access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights." But he is not naive about what the invisible hand may make of this human right, noting, “Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market.”
In a video posted at the Fordham University website in January, Christiana Peppard, an assistant professor of theology and the author of Just Water: Theology, Ethics an the Global Water Crisis, asked, “Who has the right to clean, fresh water?”
The Catholic sense, that the only acceptable answer is "everybody," raises questions "for different political bodies, cities, institutions: how should that water be provided? To whom is responsibility owed? What does it mean to care for the poorest and to make sure that people who bear the strongest burdens of environmental racism do not continue to carry forward toxic legacies?” These are questions “raised profoundly by the situation in Flint and it is echoed in many other place in the U.S. and worldwide.”
They are not philosophical or spiritual questions—or not only those. Accessing and delivering clean water is inescapably a practical challenge. According to the A.W.W.A. study on the nation’s aging system, the annual investment in water systems must more than double in coming years in the United States to meet not only increasing population demands but the replacement of timed-out water infrastructure. A substantial part of that burden could fall on water system rate payers who may see their water bills triple in the coming years of system-restoration. The report adds that small water systems in sparsely populated communities may face the highest per capita replacement costs.
In an era where many local governments seek civic rejuvenation via increased privatization of civic services, government monies for water system renewal may be harder to come by, and in the nation’s poorest communities squeezing more money out of entrapped rate payers may not be feasible. Faced with such imbalances and accepting the premise that fresh water is a human right, how will one of the world’s wealthiest nations ensure that all citizens have access to safe water for cooking, cleaning and drinking? And how far does its obligations extend beyond national borders to other communities which may have never had the luxury of taking access to life-giving water for granted?
Editor's Note: March 22 is World Water Day.