When it comes to water infrastructure, America’s challenges resemble those of a developing country. It’s time for that to change
‘Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, nearly 14m households were unable to afford their water bills. Illustration: Erre Gálvez/The Guardian
How can it be that in the midst of a pandemic, children living in the richest country in world history are being poisoned by tap water? For decades, our government has put corporate profits ahead of guaranteeing its people the right to clean water. We have neglected the most basic public investments to keep Americans healthy and safe. Now, as America battles an unprecedented public health crisis, we can no longer continue along a course in which companies have been allowed to buy up, privatize, and profit off a basic human right. The solution is not more privatization – it is for Congress to end decades of neglect and immediately invest billions into our public water systems so that we can finally guarantee clean drinking water to everybody.
That’s why we joined with Representative Ro Khanna to introduce the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (Water) Act. This comprehensive legislation would provide up to $35bn per year to overhaul our water infrastructure across the nation.
Unbelievably, when it comes to water infrastructure, America’s challenges resemble those of a developing country. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our drinking water infrastructure a “D” grade and our wastewater infrastructure a “D+”. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that raw sewage overflows at least 23,000 times each year. Up to 1.7 million Americans lack access to basic plumbing facilities such as a toilet, tub, shower, or basic running water. Almost 200,000 households have absolutely no wastewater system. Up to 10m homes across America get water through lead pipes. Six years since the start of its water crisis, Flint still does not have clean water. Meanwhile, in Denmark, South Carolina, families are forced to travel 20 miles each month in order to collect clean drinking water.
Not only do Americans have to deal with poor-quality and often toxic drinking water, we have the “privilege” of paying an arm and a leg for it. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, nearly 14m households were unable to afford their water bills, whose prices increased more than 40% since 2010. At this rate, more than a third of American households may not be able to afford their water bills five years from now. Furthermore, due to the economic meltdown caused by the coronavirus, millions of Americans who don’t know where their next paycheck will come from are now at risk of losing their water service. As public health officials warn that this deadly disease will be with us for quite some time, how are families supposed to wash their hands regularly when their utility company is shutting off their water?
It should not be a radical idea to say that all families should be able to protect themselves from the coronavirus and other illnesses by practicing good handwashing and hygiene with affordable, clean water in their homes. Our legislation is designed to ensure that disadvantaged communities – including small, rural, and indigenous communities – receive the funding and assistance they need to cover everybody. The Water Act would provide grants to households and communities to make repairs to water infrastructure, replace lead service lines and safely filter out toxic compounds from their drinking water. Under the bill, families who need help could get grants for upgrades to household wells and septic systems. Schools would also receive up to $1bn a year for water infrastructure upgrades to address lead and other water problems. And this bill helps hold utility companies accountable for engaging in service shutoffs, discrimination, and civil rights violations.
The United States of America should not have toxic or unaffordable water. When people in the world’s richest country turn on their taps, the water they drink should be clean. As we deal with a deadly virus that has killed 120,000 Americans already, handwashing, good sanitation, and safe, hygienic environments are not optional. Let us go forward together, and demand that Congress finally make the necessary investments in clean water for all Americans, putting human lives ahead of corporate profits. Our most vulnerable communities depend on it.