Report: Water Infrastructure Solutions for Health & Justice

This week, the Clean Water for All coalition released a new white paper that details how our nation's water infrastructure too often fails our communities and proposes policy solutions to create a national water infrastructure that works for everyone.

Water infrastructure directly affects our health. When it works properly, it provides us with safe drinking water and limits pollution in our local rivers and streams. On the other hand, when it falls into disrepair, it can lead to contamination that can make people sick.

This week, the Clean Water for All coalition released a new white paper—co-authored by NRDC, along with our partners at PolicyLink and Black Women's Health Imperative—that details how our nation's water infrastructure too often fails our communities. NRDC recently found that more than 27 million Americans are served by water systems violating health-based standards established in the Safe Drinking Water Act. These failures are especially common in vulnerable populations, such as low-income communities and communities of color. While higher-income areas enjoy high-quality infrastructure, low-income areas have suffered decades of underinvestment and disinvestment. People of color live in areas with higher rates of contaminated water, stormwater and wastewater overflows, and increased risks of flooding. 

This two-tiered system violates the American principles of equality and justice—and it has serious consequences for public health. The good news is that we know what needs to be done to solve our nation’s water infrastructure problems. Clean Water for All's new paper proposes policy solutions to create a national water infrastructure that works for everyone, and explains why the Trump administration’s infrastructure proposals won't help the communities that need assistance and justice the most.

Highlights from the Paper

In order to fix America's water infrastructure, first we have to understand what's wrong with it. The paper provides an overview of our nation's main water infrastructure challenges:

  • Aging Infrastructure. Much of America’s water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life. Older water systems are more likely to include lead pipes, and many systems across the country are literally falling apart. Old pipes are easily broken by roots and other disturbances, allowing drinking water to be wasted or contaminated, or sanitary sewers to leak or overflow.
  • Climate Change. Climate change exacerbates the challenges of aging infrastructure and adds new challenges. The impacts of climate change on our water infrastructure include sea level rise, storm surge, extreme precipitation, decreased water quality, water shortages due to drought, flooding, increased water treatment requirements and costs, and higher energy demand for treatment plants.
  • Insufficient Funding. We need to invest at least $743 billion in maintaining and repairing our drinking water and clean water infrastructure over the next twenty years just to meet current environmental and health standards. Yet at the same time that our nation’s infrastructure faces increasing challenges, our society is committing less money to its upkeep and repair. Federal spending on water infrastructure is decreasing, leaving cash-strapped state and local governments to pick up the tab.
  • Affordability Challenges. The costs of maintaining and improving water infrastructure are becoming increasingly difficult for communities to afford, and the passing on of those costs to consumers has created an affordability crisis for many in this country. Since the year 2000, water and wastewater prices have more than doubled. This affordability crisis is even more pronounced for lower-income customers, whose water and wastewater costs represent a higher proportion of monthly household expenses.

Next, the paper describes the devastating impacts that these infrastructure failures can have on public health in low-income communities and communities of color, including:

  • Toxic Drinking Water. Every day, Americans are exposed to toxic drinking water. Decades of underfunding and poor maintenance of the water treatment facilities that clean our water and the eroding pipes that carry it to our communities, schools, and homes have tainted many public water systems with toxic chemicals that are harmful to health. Communities of color, in both urban and rural settings, are often hit the hardest by toxic water.
  • Natural Disasters. Discriminatory land use and zoning policies have placed communities of color in low-lying flood zones and other “vulnerability zones” located near industrial facilities. Living in a flood-prone area or vulnerability zone exposes communities to dangerous health impacts from failing infrastructure after natural disasters—impacts that are projected to become more frequent and severe due to climate change.
  • Algal Blooms. For communities in rural areas, algal blooms from agricultural runoff are an increasingly serious threat to public health. Caused by an excess of nitrate-based fertilizers, algal blooms contaminate water and can cause skin rashes, stomach or liver illness, and respiratory problems. Certain drinking water treatment processes can remove algal toxins, but treatment is not always successful due to poorly maintained and outdated facilities.

In order to address these serious problems, the paper lays out four key policy solutions for healthy, sustainable water infrastructure:

  • Increase Our Investment. We must significantly increase federal funding for our nation’s water infrastructure by growing existing funding sources and developing new and innovative sources. As we increase the overall amount of funding for water systems, we must ensure that it is directed, under principles of equity, to the communities that need it most, including disadvantaged areas that have critical needs but lack the ability to raise funds from local sources.
  • Ensure Affordability for All. Because every human being needs safe, clean water and sanitation, we must find ways to ensure that low-income households can afford water services. Federal water infrastructure funding should direct assistance to the communities that need it most, but we should also promote affordability at the local level by encouraging states and water utilities to adopt low-income customer assistance programs, equitable rate structures, and strategies that reduce system-wide costs.
  • Support Natural Infrastructure. Nature-based solutions offer a wide range of social, economic, and environmental advantages that conventional methods do not provide. As proven in communities around the country, these approaches can save money, grow the economy, and improve lives. Our infrastructure investments should prioritize these approaches before resorting to conventional methods, especially in low-income communities and communities of color.
  • Maintain Environmental Safeguards. Our nation’s bedrock environmental protections must be maintained and enforced, and never sacrificed in the name of infrastructure “streamlining.” Infrastructure projects can have enormous consequences for our water. We must ensure that projects are carefully sited and designed to avoid damage to our waterways—or not built at all if the risks of harm are too great. Weakening clean water protections could place low-income communities and communities of color at an even greater risk of suffering harm to their environment and public health.

Finally, the paper argues that the Trump administration's infrastructure plan, released in February 2018, isn't the answer. As NRDC explained at the time, the proposal did not further any of the policy solutions described above. Instead, the plan promised a meager, insufficient pot of money attached to dangerous rollbacks of the nation’s environmental safeguards.

The Paper Represents a Call to Action

All Americans deserve clean, safe water. To achieve it, we must all work proactively and speak out for the policy solutions needed to fix our infrastructure problems. This new paper provides a great resource to help reach that goal.

Right now, the communities hit hardest by water infrastructure failures are building collective power by raising their voices and working together, advocating for better access to clean water and meaningful investments in water infrastructure. Clean water advocates must build on this movement by supporting local communities and building even more new advocates to demand change.