Clean Drinkable Water Ought to Be a Basic Human Right, But Nobody Seems to Give a Crap

Our country's water infrastructure is falling apart. What's it going to take to get people to care?
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Publish date:
May 30, 2016
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Tags:
water, environment, infrastructure

I've been going to a lot of city council meetings lately, as my Twitter followers have noticed with varying degrees of dismay. City council meetings are long, usually boring, and filled with people making ridiculous statements. Last week's went on for over five hours, in part because some members of the city council don't actually understand how fundamental aspects of the law function.

I bring this up because one of the perennial themes at city council meetings these days has been water, whether we're talking about building a new reservoir, discussing updates to the sewage treatment plant, confirming that we're still in a water emergency, or discussing adjustments to water and sewer fees. Water is kind of an obsession in California, because there is, bluntly, not enough of it. For those of us in Northern California, the problem is heightened by the fact that Southern California keeps trying to abscond with our water supplies.

Water policy is basically one of the least sexy policy discussions imaginable, unless you're a complete wonk. And that's a pity, because it's also one of the most important discussions we need to be having, as the situation in Flint is illustrating. Potable water should be a basic human right, and in the United States, many communities cannot access safe drinking water, or cannot access enough water, as the case may be.

I was sorely hoping that the Flint crisis would serve as a catalyst to bring water to the forefront in the United States, but it doesn't look like that's the case. People are viewing it as an isolated instance in a devalued community, rather than seeing it for what it is.

Flint's horrific level of lead contamination brought the issue of contaminated municipal water supplies into the public consciousness, and it's far from the only city dealing with lead and other toxic compounds in the water. Perchlorate, lead, arsenic, atrazine, chlorine byproducts, and pharmaceutical waste are found in water supplies across the United States.

The communities most likely to be affected by water contamination are low-income communities of color, illustrating a phenomenon known as "environmental racism." Pervasive harmful compounds in low-income communities of color in the United States contribute to an escalated risk of health problems in these communities — if you are a poor person of color, you're more likely to have health issues like asthma, for example, because aerosol pollution is quite common in the regions where people with limited resources can afford to live. This is why people in predominantly Black cities like Richmond, Ca., have more health problems than, say, Salt Lake City, with its majority-white population.

Flint is a symptom of a much larger problem, and the short-term response there has been to truck in massive amounts of bottled water. Supplies are coming from the federal government, corporations, and private foundations, and some are also providing water filters so people can drink their tap water safely.

There's a problem with this response, though: Eventually, it's going to dry up, leaving people back where they started, with a promise that the city will correct the problems in the city's water supply. Promises are easily broken, though, and communities of color haven't been given any particularly good reason to trust the government when it says it will take action on problems like this.

The United States is struggling with outdated municipal infrastructure, including water systems, and Flint illustrates why it's very much not a good idea to allow this infrastructure to degrade. The nation needs to commit to a serious investment in improving water quality, and that includes replacing miles of pipeline and billions of dollars worth of processing facilities. Additionally, many states are looking at the need to construct more reservoirs and aqueducts in response to changing climate patterns, and these things cost a lot of money to build.

We appear to be past the golden age of public infrastructure in the United States. Wealthier cities can afford to keep things going and even include upgrades to their systems, but low-income communities cannot, and federal funds are shrinking. Some cities are using pipes that are over 100 years old — clay and even wood water and sewer mains lurk underground in cities large and small. These at least aren't going to leach lead and arsenic into the water, but they're prone to breakage. In the past month, for example, two separate sinkholes have ruptured San Francisco streets thanks to broken mains, one in Pacific Heights and another in SoMa.

If your streets are swallowing up SUVs, I think it's safe to say that you have a deferred maintenance issue. Yet, it's one that no one appears willing to deal with.

How many more Flints are we going to need to have before the federal government gets serious about funding and supporting water infrastructure projects? As drought conditions continue in the West, making it probable that water supplies will get dangerously low again this year or the next without substantial rainfall, will states finally get serious about promoting efficient water use policy, including changing the way water rights are allocated?

Resource scarcity creates intense political and social pressures, and those can lead to serious social and security problems. A recent World Bank report went in deep on the subject, and while people think of water scarcity and conflict as a problem of the Global South, it's not. It's a problem for all of us.

Photos: Neil Tackaberry/Creative Commons, Daniel Orth/Creative Commons