Access to safe water and working sanitation systems should be a basic right in the world’s richest nation, yet both are seriously lacking—especially in many communities of color
A mother in Flint, Michigan, bathes her eight-month-old son with bottled water (above), fearful that tap water is contaminated with lead. Though Flint’s lead crisis, which began in 2014, garnered national attention, many other U.S. communities face similar crises today. A 2014 chemical spill into West Virginia’s Elk River tainted waters downstream (below) and the drinking water of some 300,000 residents. (Photo above by Zackary Canepari/Panos Pictures/Redux)
IMAGINE TURNING ON YOUR TAP and being afraid to drink what comes out. Or fearing that sewage will back up into your home after a heavy rain. Or having to drive for miles to find a water station because you lack running water at home. Hundreds of millions of people around the world face these challenges daily—including millions here in the United States.
According to a 2019 report from the nonprofit DigDeep and the U.S. Water Alliance, more than 2 million U.S. residents are living without running water and basic indoor plumbing, and many more are without adequate sanitation. Among the 286 million Americans who get their water from community water systems, 44 million receive water that fails to meet health standards of the Safe Drinking Water Act. “Too many people are either drinking water contaminated with lead, have water systems that are not operating properly or their water sources—if from a well or a river—are increasingly contaminated,” says Simone Lightfoot, associate vice president of environmental justice and climate justice at the National Wildlife Federation.
The people facing these threats are some of the most vulnerable in America, and are mostly low-income individuals in rural areas, Tribal communities, people of color and immigrants. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data from 2016 to 2019 reveal that public water systems violating safe drinking water standards are 40 percent more likely to serve people of color. Compounding the hardship, clean water is essential not only for health but for economic development. “It is hard to recruit businesses into an area that does not have sustainable, resilient and expandable water and wastewater infrastructure,” says Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice.
The U.S. disparity in access to clean water reflects a failure of political will, investment and equity. But passionate activists and community groups are leading the way toward positive change. And—if equitably allocated—funds from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill will help fuel their success.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, lead pipes that carry water to residences are a primary cause of lead in drinking water—and there is no safe level of lead, which can cause lower IQ, premature birth, heart disease and many other ills. Though lead pipes exist in all 50 states, Michigan and New York are among the top states with the most lead service lines—and some cities in those states are exposed to astronomical lead levels. For example, many homes in Benton Harbor, Michigan—a majority Black community—have lead levels higher than the EPA allowance. In 2020, one home had levels 60 times higher than allowed.
Community activist Rev. Edward Pinkney, president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, first learned there was a problem when a council member’s daughter visiting from Texas complained of loose particles and a yellow tinge in her bath water. Pinkney discovered that residents could not use their tap water to “drink, brush their teeth, cook or make baby formula because it’s unsafe.” After three years of vacillating information about the safety of their water, activists in September 2021 filed a petition asking the EPA for emergency intervention. State officials advised residents to drink bottled water, and the state’s 2022 budget allocated $10 million to replace lead service lines and $15 million for a drinking water emergency fund. “It took three years and a petition to force this to happen,” Pinkney told ABC news. “We must take a stand and make sure that every single community has clean water.”
Mount Vernon, New York—another majority Black city—has a different water problem: a 100-year-old crumbling sewage and stormwater infrastructure. Starved of investment for decades, the system is so decrepit that heavy rains cause sewage to pour into the nearby Hutchinson and Bronx rivers and back up into homes and businesses, creating a frequent, foul, unsanitary mess. “This has had a devastating impact on public health and safety,” says Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard, who inherited the problem when she took office in early 2020. “But we just don’t have the tax base as a smaller community to handle hundreds of millions of dollars in sewage and stormwater infrastructure replacement.”
To tackle the problem, Patterson-Howard sought partnerships with state, federal and environmental groups, including NWF, to find solutions. Because of such efforts, in April, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a $150 million infrastructure investment for Mount Vernon, calling it “a transformative environmental justice victory.” “No matter how bleak a situation has been, if people come to the table and everyone does their part, you can actually get positive outcomes,” says Marcus Sibley, NWF’s Northeast–New York Metro director of conservation partnerships. Patterson-Howard succinctly concurs: “When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.”
Far from city centers, many low-income rural communities also face a serious lack of access to safe water. The rivers and wells of West Virginia, for example, have suffered decades of environmental degradation from various extractive industries, with water pollution events in almost every corner of the state. One of the worst occurred in 2014, when 10,000 gallons of toxic coal-processing liquid spilled into the Elk River. Its contaminated waters then flowed into the Kanawha Valley Water Treatment Plant in Charleston, which directed nonpotable water into the homes of about 300,000 West Virginians.
Across the state, residents frequently receive boil-water notices due to “disinfection by-products”—harmful chemical substances that can form when a disinfectant such as chlorine reacts with natural organic matter in water. (For 17 years, residents of the town of O’Toole lived with a boil-water advisory that only ended in 2019.) Water tanks stand alongside many houses, often an indication of well water contamination due to fracking waste injected underground, polluting groundwater. And many homes lack connectivity to a sewer system. Instead, their pipes empty raw sewage directly into rivers.
“Untreated sewage from homes and the effluent from agricultural sites cause high levels of fecal coliform [bacteria], so thousands of miles of rivers and streams are not meeting the Clean Water Act standards for bacteria,” says Angie Rosser, executive director of West Virginia Rivers Coalition, an NWF affiliate. Private septic systems would help solve the problem, but they are costly. “Most private septic systems can cost as much as $25,000—which is out of reach for many rural residents,” says Coleman Flowers. Consequently, many people continue to live with questionable water.
Climate change can exacerbate water crises as powerfully as crumbling infrastructure. In 2021, a massive storm dubbed Winter Storm Uri raged from February 13 to 17, caused widespread devastation from northern Mexico up to Canada and killed more than 270 people. Snow, ice and bitter temperatures disabled power, water and sewer systems across the U.S. Gulf Coast, particularly in Texas. Pipes burst, homes flooded, mold flourished and residents struggled to implement boil-water notices, often without gas or electricity to heat pots. In Houston’s historically Black Third Ward, “residents did not have water back on until Easter,” says Amanda Fuller, NWF’s director of the Texas Coast and Water Program—meaning residents suffered without water for nearly two months.
Many communities in the southern border region go without water year-round. That’s especially true of the more than 2,000 colonias—low-income, unincorporated clusters of predominantly Latinx residents lacking access to safe drinking water, electricity and basic sewage infrastructure. Often built on marginal land such as floodplains, colonias are subject to flooding, and wastewater often pours directly into creeks that lead to the Rio Grande and Gulf of Mexico.
Residents of these U.S. communities must rely on private water haulers or struggle to find and pay for bottled water. With populations that are predominantly low income, there has been little done to make the necessary infrastructure investments. “Although they bear little responsibility for climate change, under-resourced, island nation and BIPOC communities are the ones disproportionately affected,” says Justine Lucas, executive director of the Clara Lionel Foundation, a nonprofit that funds climate resilience and justice projects in the United States and Caribbean.
The Navajo Nation reservation falls within three U.S. states—New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Some 173,000 of the 300,000 members of the Navajo Nation reside on the reservation, where 30 percent lack access to running water or a toilet in their homes and must haul water for household and agricultural needs. This lack of water for handwashing is one reason why the COVID-19 pandemic took such a devastating toll here. And the injustice is rooted in history.
Though the Navajo Nation lies within the Colorado River Basin, its residents were left out of legal compacts that allocate regional water use. “Tribes have been systematically denied access to the conversations and dialogue about how the rivers are managed,” says Garrit Voggesser, NWF’s director of Tribal partnerships.
A witness to the injustice, Bidtah Becker is a former attorney with the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and now is deputy secretary for environmental justice, Tribal affairs and border relations at California’s EPA. Her father had been a federal water-rights attorney, and she became a water-rights attorney for the Navajo Nation, which, in 2002, had zero quantified water rights, she says. “I was literally entering cases that my father had been involved in because these cases take decades.”
But the people are taking action even as the law fails them. The DigDeep Navajo Water Project began in 2014 to provide water to homes on the reservation. The project’s executive director, Emma Robbins, is a Navajo Nation member who has seen the “hopelessness” of people living without clean, safe water. Beyond impacting physical health, “it affects people’s emotional and mental health,” she says. To date, the project has installed water systems to nearly 300 homes, sparing those families the hardship and expense of driving long distances in search of water. “My favorite moments are working with elders,” says Robbins. Access to water helps them remain in their homes, and “they don’t have to worry anymore.”
The intersection of clean water and the health of people and wildlife is irrefutable. Many low-income and people of color interact with nature and supplement their diet through fishing, so access to clean waters is critical. “Water access is a cultural way of living that connects the descendants of enslaved Africans such as the Gullah–Geechee people, Native Americans and some of our immigrant populations,” says Sacoby Wilson, professor at the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health and director of the Center for Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health. To ensure clean rivers and streams, he says, requires reducing polluted discharges and “investments in water infrastructure, enforcement and remediation.”
Some of that help is on the way thanks to passage in 2021 of the bipartisan infrastructure act. Allocating $55 billion for water infrastructure, “it’s the largest federal investment in water ever,” says DigDeep Founder and CEO George McGraw. Such funding, he says, can begin to address “historic disinvestment” rooted in racism: “Race is the strongest indicator of whether you have a tap and a toilet.”
Aside from the obvious moral argument for this work, it makes economic sense. According to a United Nations report, every dollar spent on improving water access and sanitation yields at least a four-fold return in reduced health care costs. As the “richest democracy on Earth,” says McGraw, “we have the knowledge and capacity to universalize access to water. Because we can, we should.”
Crystal Romeo Upperman is an environmentalist and scientist working for cross-sector solutions to equitably address society’s most challenging climate and environmental problems.
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