Water Investment Needed to Keep U.S. Healthy


Mention infrastructure and many people only think about roads and transit. But they are missing out on the broader problem facing this country, and their health could be at risk because of it.

The water crisis that affected the people of Flint, Michigan beginning in 2014 raised Americans’ attention to the problems this nation’s drinking water systems face. Deteriorating pipes and other fixtures are jeopardizing the health of many, especially the young, elderly and infirmed.

Flint, however, is not an isolated incident. A new investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found as many as 63 million people from coast-to-coast were exposed to potentially unsafe water more than once over the past decade. And many local water treatment plants, it found, can’t afford the equipment necessary to filter out contaminants.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates local water systems will need to investment some $384 billion in the coming decades to ensure drinking water will be clean. But those high costs are not distributed evenly. Those living in smaller communities will face costs twice as higher as those in larger jurisdictions. A big portion of the cost is because pipes and treatment plants build in the mid-20th century need to be replaced.

This is not the only recent document highlighting such shortcomings. Earlier this year, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that 77 million people—roughly a quarter of the U.S. population—spread across all 50 states were served by water systems reporting violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2015.

“America is facing a nationwide drinking water crisis that goes well beyond lead contamination,” said Erik Olson, health program director at NRDC and a report co-author. “The problem is two-fold: there’s no cop on the beat enforcing our drinking water laws, and we’re living on borrowed time with our ancient, deteriorating water infrastructure. We take it for granted that when we turn on our kitchen tap, the water will be safe and healthy, but we have a long way to go before that is reality across our country.”

People are catching on to the scope of the problem. A Gallup poll released in March shows 63 percent of Americans are concerned “a great deal” about polluted drinking water.  In fact, it’s their top environmental concern.

The Teamsters got involved with bringing clean water to the people in Flint in the wake of the calamity there. But this is a problem no amount of good will can fix. The American Water Works Association notes the cost for water upgrades exceeds $1,000 per person in five regions: Far West, Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, Plains and Southwest.

It’s time for the federal government to stop kicking the can down the road on this issue. For too many, it’s a matter of life or death.