Water, water everywhere, but is it safe to drink?

You’ve likely not had to think too much about where your water comes from if you live in north America. But the planet’s most plentiful resource is in danger of becoming unsafe and unaffordable—even for you.

Story by Lance Frazer

In 2010, the United Nations formally recognized the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as an “essential” human right. At that time, according to the UN, more than 800 million people lacked access to safe drinking water, more than 2.6 billion did not have access to basic sanitation and 1.5 million children under the age of 5 died every year as the result of water- and sanitation-related diseases.

Flint Water Plant TankIn the United States and other developed nations, water problems often go unnoticed, until they are hit hard with something like the 2016 tragedy in Flint, Michigan. But according to a recent study by Michigan State University Professor Elizabeth Mack, not only do we need to be concerned about maintaining a safe and adequate water supply, we’re looking at a future where millions of people may not be able to afford what water we do have.

Mack, an assistant professor of geography, recently published a study as part of a National Science Foundation grant. In it, she estimates that about 11.9 percent of U.S. households (13.8 million people) may find water bills unaffordable. And given historic water price trends (including a 41 percent increase in water rates since 2010) and income issues in many areas across the country, 2022 may see that number rise to 35.6 percent of American households. That’s more than 40 million people.

How do you know if you’re spending too much on water? In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency calculates that water and wastewater spending should make up no more than 4.5 percent of a household budget. Mack calculates that a household must earn at least US$32,000 a year to be able to afford water at current rates without having to dip into money set aside for food and medical care. (Poverty level for a four-person household is figured at about $24,000 annually, and according to 2015 United States Census Bureau figures, 43.1 million people lived at or below that level).

Modern urban wastewater treatment plant.“People (in the U.S.) look at the number of households impacted by water access and affordability issues and say ‘no way, not in this country,’ but the truth is very different,” says Jason Hubbart, director of the Institute of Water Security at West Virginia University.

As the Flint tragedy unfolded, the state of the country’s water infrastructure was brought front and center again. It will cost, according to estimates, $1 trillion to repair and renovate the nation’s system, and another $36 billion to buffer these systems against the impact of a changing climate.

Hubbart lives in the heart of one of the regions hit hardest by both water affordability and availability, and he agrees the country is facing pressure on several fronts.

“Projections indicate it will get drier in the West, wetter and warmer in the Midwest,” he says. “But water is also being hit by increasing population pressures. We’re seeing many areas across the country where economic and other pressures are forcing people to relocate, leaving those behind who cannot afford to move, or don’t want to leave the areas where their families began, to bear more of the burden of cost. The country’s infrastructure is a huge issue, because many of these systems haven’t been renovated since they were built in the post-World War II era.”

Waste water treatment plantKatherine Garvey, a specialist in environmental law and environmental justice at the West Virginia University School of Law, has spent a lot of time in places like McDowell County, and has seen firsthand the impact of water issues on local families.

“These are the coalfields, where a lot of people are out of work,” she says. “We’ve also seen a lot of water problems resulting from acid mine drainage and other pollutants impacting both the cost and the availability of water. Many of these systems draw water from abandoned mines, which can be huge reservoirs of water that, while not perfect, is a lot better than what can be drawn from many of the rivers and streams around here.”

Christina Hemphill Fuller, assistant professor in Environmental Health at Georgia State University, points out that these and other issues tend to affect minority and low-income populations disproportionately, whether talking abou,t inner-city or rural areas.

In California, a state with 1 million of the nation’s 20 million living on untreated water, Pacific Research Institute Senior Research Associate Laura Feinstein points out, “Our studies have shown that when water becomes unaffordable, families will skimp on other things to be able to afford water.”

Water and Health

Not only is water becoming less affordable, in some areas, it has become more likely to make us sick. An analysis of Medicare records by Tufts University researchers found that between 1991 and 2006, more than 600,000 hospitalizations related to three pathogens commonly found in plumbing systems resulted in Medicare payments of about $600 million annually, a cost that researchers estimate may now exceed $2 billion annually. Researchers indicated that an aging infrastructure and typically unregulated premises plumbing systems were largely responsible for these infections. The concern is that costs will rise as antibiotic-resistant strains develop.

Jeffrey Griffiths is one of the study’s authors and a former chair of the Drinking Water Committee for the E.P.A.’s Science Advisory Board.

irrigation of agricultural field“The presumption has been that water treated with a residual disinfectant would kill any worrisome bacteria or viruses,” he says. “Thus, the vast majority of regulation has focused on the treatment plant. At the household level, the regulatory environment has focused on pipe integrity, not microbial safety. Plus, there are places, like Flint, where the residual disinfectant that was added was too little. For federal action, more studies are needed across the country.”

In Wisconsin, Florida State University Assistant Professor of Geography Chris Uejio, along with the Wisconsin Department of Health and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, looked at the impact of climate change on untreated groundwater sources and the chance of a future rise in gastrointestinal illnesses affecting children under 5. Wisconsin, where about one-quarter of the population gets its water from private wells, is projected to see dramatically increased levels of rainfall as climate change proceeds, which could increase the level of pathogens washed into the area’s groundwater supply.

The study looked at five northern Wisconsin municipalities with minimally-treated drinking water and found that, if climate change proceeds as currently projected without additional facilities for groundwater treatment, it could lead to an increase of childhood gastrointestinal infection from 1.5 percent to 6 percent.

For many years, Uejio says, it was thought that groundwater supplies were cleaner and safer than surface supplies, “but about 15 years ago, testing enabled us to quickly and easily test for pathogens in groundwater. Some tests showed us that around 27 percent of the country’s groundwater supplies contained viruses that could cause illness in humans.

Stopping the pollution“Many of these rural communities are seeing problems common to the rest of the country, and to be honest, regulation has lagged behind the state of testing science and the mitigation of contaminants. Our analysis showed a consistent relationship between rainfall and disease outbreaks in children, but we also have a fair level of confidence that the entire community is at risk.”

The time has come to address effects of climate change on our water resources, says Chris Uejio.

“Ninety-seven percent of the scientists in the field state that it (climate change) is a reality, and that humans are causing the rapid increase in the change,” says Chris Uejio. “The climate is changing, and we need to be able to adapt to it.”

West Virginia University’s Hubbart agrees.

“I think, and it might be controversial to say this, that we sometimes get too wrapped up in how much climate change is naturally-occurring and how much is human-caused,” says Hubbart. “The climate is changing, and it’s changing at a more and more rapid rate, and we should be looking at how we’re going to adapt to an uncertain climate future.”

Feinstein says climate change already is pushing the limits of the infrastructure.

“This is a system that was designed for another climate, with more snow and less rain, and we can’t maintain that system,” she says. “Now we’re seeing the opposite, and it’s only going to get worse, and more expensive, the longer we wait.”

Mack says the study could be impacted by the effects of climate change.

“Research indicates we’ll see an increased incidence of higher-intensity storms, with increased flooding in many areas,” Mack says. “We didn’t design this study as an activist piece, but I would honestly say we were actually conservative in many of our estimates, and unaddressed, it’s likely the situation could be worse than this study indicates.”

What do we do, and who can help?

In its 2016 budget, Canada announced a long-term infrastructure plan which included the CAD$2 billion Clean Water and Wastewater Fund, which resource authorities say, “focuses on meeting the immediate water needs of communities and lays the foundation for longer-term strategic investments.” They add that the 2017 budget proposes to provide $21.9 billion over 11 years for investments in green infrastructure, including $9.2 billion to support projects to deliver clean water, safely manage wastewater and help communities prepare for challenges resulting from climate change. In the U.S., federal infrastructure investment dropped from 1 percent of the gross domestic product in 1977 to .5 percent in 2012, even as GDP rose from US$6.59 trillion to $16.80 trillion.

"This is your water supply " sign near river states that the area must be protected.

“We’ve been told how bad things are and how much it’s going to cost to fix them,” says Hubbart. “But we get told things like that when we’re hit between the eyes with tragedies like in Flint. Those moments make news for a while, then something else is in the headlines, while politicians pass along the responsibility and hope someone else will come up with a solution. What we forget is that there are people going through those same things—and worse—every day, in places all across the country, and their lives don’t make the headlines.”

California, Feinstein says, has passed a number of water bonds to address some of the issues.

“And we’ve begun to talk about a public goods tax,” she says, “where water users would pay a fee on their bill to help with things like infrastructure repair and to help fund assistance programs for those unable to afford water.”

According to Hubbart, there’s talk of progress in his state as well.

“Our new governor seems to recognize that to move forward, West Virginia needs to recognize these issues and at least begin to deal with them,” he says. “There’s been talk of raising taxes to help fund this work, which I think would be a good idea.”

Hemphill Fuller at Georgia State University thinks the next five years will be very challenging.

“I think it’s going to come down to people working harder within their own state to ensure that their right to clean air and water is upheld,” she says.

Mack, author of the study, says there are many issues to consider and that the study was the first in a long series.

“It’s going to take a holistic approach, with cooperation between state, local and the federal government,” she says.

Griffiths thinks water infrastructure projects “should be substantively funded by the federal government, just as they substantively fund or contribute to large infrastructure projects such as highways and bridges.”

But Alan Roberson, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, says we shouldn’t look to the federal level for funding.

“Especially given the political situation now, I’d be skeptical about looking to the feds for any solution,” he says. “I do think they need to be a part of the solution, perhaps with low-income assistance programs for families unable to afford water.

“I think we need to start by targeting the areas in the most dire need, and also work to get a handle on the social and political issues in those regions. I’d also like to see more of an effort to recruit and train bright young minds to design and operate what are technically difficult treatment systems. But I do know the affordability problem is growing and has passed the crisis level in many communities. We didn’t learn from Milwaukee in 1993, we didn’t learn from Flint, and we continue to let things fly under the radar. That has to stop.”

This story originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Kiwanis magazine.


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