Robbing Peter to Pay Paul Won't Stop Future Drinking Water Disasters

When I started writing on Switchboard more than six years ago, my first post was about testing for lead in my home and buying a water filter. Maybe it was because Washington, D.C. had a lead in drinking water crisis 10 years ago that I knew to do this. Flint residents are now living through their own lead disaster. Even though many in Congress and across the country are talking about it, few are offering solutions that will actually help those residents.

Some of the focus in Congress and the Administration is on getting funding to a national program that provides loans to water systems to help update their drinking water infrastructure, called the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DW SRF). The DW SRF has been woefully underfunded - and thanks to recent cuts by Congress was substantially lower for this year than it had been in recent years. Additional funding would bring some relief.

But nothing ensures that any money put into the DW SRF as a whole will get to Flint soon, if ever. Other, more directed efforts - for example an amendment proposed by Michigan's U.S. Senators Debbie Stabenow (D) and Gary Peters (D) would provide immediate assistance, providing money to Flint to get the lead pipes out of the ground and out of the drinking water system.

That's the real solution to the problem in Flint and around the country: get the lead out. As long as lead service lines and lead-containing fixtures remain in the drinking water distribution system, the risk of lead-contaminated drinking water remains. The drinking water infrastructure around this country is aging, and we desperately need money to upgrade it.

So, the Administration is right in asking for more money to add to the DW SRF as part of a long-range solution. But unfortunately, under the White House proposal, this would be coming at the expense of another source of funding needed for our failing water infrastructure: the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CW SRF). This program provides critical support to fund water quality projects such as wastewater treatment facilities, green infrastructure to retain and control polluted stormwater runoff, and repairs to leaking and overflowing sewage systems. Many times, these projects aim to protect the very waters that serve as sources of drinking water. Cutting funds that help keep pollution out of our water (CW SRF) and moving the money to remove pollution once it's already in our drinking water (DW SRF) is no solution at all. At best it is a short-term band-aid approach to addressing the chronic levels of underinvestment in our water infrastructure by local, state, and federal government. Both of the SRFs need more funding.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders have been standing in the way of taking any action. So far, they have been resisting the Stabenow-Peters amendment and for years, they have been slashing EPA's overall funding, and trying to block water quality protections proposed by the Administration. The endless attacks have made it harder for the agency to do its job, chilled efforts of agency staff, and contributed to the timidity of the officials in responding to the growing Flint crisis. And they've made it so that any increase in SRFs comes at the expense of other EPA programs at a time when we need a comprehensive policy approach to clean water and strong enforcement of the laws necessary to protect our citizens.

Of course, EPA does more than run the SRFs. EPA's overall budget is spent on things like updating the Lead and Copper Rule under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which EPA was already in the process of reviewing before the crisis in Flint made it clear why such regulations are needed. EPA needs to come up with a more robust, stronger version of the rule to protect Americans from the lead that still threatens to leach from the pipes in their water systems and the pipes within their homes. The Administration ought to set a health-protective, enforceable standard for lead, require better sampling and monitoring of tap water, and make sure corrosion is controlled to keep the lead in the pipes instead of allowing it to leach into the water. Old lead service lines need to be removed completely. And the rule should also ensure effective communication of risk to customers - something that went desperately wrong in Flint.

Utilities that try to cut corners and irresponsible regulators who turn a blind eye to obvious problems can cause the whole system to fail - as we have seen so painfully in Flint. Stronger, more health protective standards and adequate funding make such failures less likely and more containable.

Just a little over a year ago, we celebrated the 40th Anniversary of the Safe Drinking Water Act. For all the good it has done, Flint has shown us that much, much more still needs to be done. Congress needs to let EPA do its job and give it the money to do it. We need to upgrade our deteriorating infrastructure. And we need to get the lead out.

About the Authors

Mae Wu

Senior Attorney, Health program

Join Us