Lack of access to clean drinking water, sanitary bathrooms, and treated wastewater is an ongoing emergency for many parts of the United States.
According to the Time article “The Water Crisis No One In America Is Fixing,” in rural and urban communities throughout the country, water tainted by pollutants, woefully inadequate sewage treatment, and a lack of toilets or plumbing reveals a legacy of neglect.
It may come as a surprise that more than 2 million in America lack basic indoor plumbing. These areas or communities without or poor access to clean drinking water and plumbing are primarily indigenous, less educated, poorer, and older.
For instance, around 90% of households in rural Lowndes County, Alabama, have no wastewater treatment because they cannot afford it. Installing a septic system costs more than what people earn a year in this area, and even if they have one, it tends to fail because of their impermeable clay soil. Families cope by improvising or jerry-rigging their pipe system to drain sewage from their houses; however, these sometimes fail and contaminate the environment, resulting in hookworm infestation in their residents.
In a book titled Waste, written by Catherine Colemen Flowers, who grew up in Lowndes County and became an advocate for environmental justice and author, she describes the people living in the area as having a violent and racist history and descendants of enslaved people like herself. Flowers left the place to get an education but returned to help her community by educating them about poverty and environmental justice. She says she takes activists, donors, and politicians to see for themselves the conditions of the people living in her county – with no heating in the winter and no plumbing all year round. Some cope by jury-rigging PVC pipes to drain their sewage waste into cesspools in the woods or yard, where it can breed parasites and diseases and contaminate the kids playing in these areas (Read an Excerpt, 2020).
Another example is the predominantly Black Jackson City, the capital of Mississippi, where a severe flood damaged their aging water treatment plant in September 2022. What ensued was the resident did not have safe drinking water for weeks. In January 2023, the cold weather had damaged their water system. More than half of public schools lacked drinking water, so they had to conduct virtual classes for a few days.
In Flint and Benton Harbor, two majority-Black cities in Michigan, residents suffered severe lead contamination in their drinking water caused by aging lead pipes and poor water quality. In West Baltimore, aging water treatment infrastructure is again blamed for the E. coli bacteria-contaminated water.
Flowers founded the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice to “eliminate the health, economic, and environmental disparities suffocating rural and marginalized communities.” The grassroots organization believes that funding from all governments bolstered by awareness and recognition that reinvesting in neglected communities will help fix their wastewater, water, and sanitation woes and the environment. Above all, Fowers believes that access to water and sanitation are fundamental human rights, regardless of where one lives.
Fixing these water and wastewater problems will require significant investments. According to Time, nearly $800 million in federal funds has been allocated for water projects in Jackson, and 2022, the US EPA and Department of Agriculture launched Closing America’s Wastewater Access Gap Community Initiative, to be piloted in Lowndes County and ten other underserved communities where residents lack basic wastewater management.
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), a landmark federal law, also provided another $599 million to improve water systems in disadvantaged communities. The article says the funding is insufficient; nevertheless, it is an excellent start to reverse decades of damage (Nelson, 2023).
According to the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, the United States has approximately 153,000 public drinking water systems and more than 16,000 publicly owned wastewater treatment systems.
Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) “depicts the condition and performance of American infrastructure in the familiar form of a school report card—assigning letter grades from A to F based on the physical condition and needed investments for improvement.”
The 2021 report is ASCE’s latest report, giving the country’s 16,000 plus wastewater treatment plants a depressing D+ grade. A significant number of them have reached or exceeded their design capacities. The country’s drinking water infrastructure, consisting of 2.2 million miles (3.54 million km) of underground pipes channeling safe drinking water to millions of people, has been given a grade of C-, only marginally better than the wastewater infrastructure.
This grade also shows great opportunities for improvement through applying infrastructure management techniques, appropriation of resources, implementation, funding, and the use of innovation and technology to provide solutions for aging infrastructure.
Nelson, B. (2023, February 16). The Water Crisis No One In America Is Fixing. Time. Retrieved from https://time.com/6255560/water-sanitation-crisis-ohio-train-derailment/
Read an Excerpt from Waste. (2020, November 17). The New Press. Retrieved from https://thenewpress.com/blog/book-excerpts/read-excerpt-from-waste-by-catherine-coleman-flowers
Water and Wastewater Systems. (n.d.) Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency. Retrieved from https://www.cisa.gov/topics/critical-infrastructure-security-and-resilience/critical-infrastructure-sectors/water-and-wastewater-sector#.
2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure grades reveal widening investment gap. (2023, March 3). ASCE. Retrieved from https://www.asce.org/publications-and-news/civil-engineering-source/article/2021/03/03/2021-report-card-for-americas-infrastructure-grades-reveal-widening-investment-gap
Drinking Water. (2023). 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. Retrieved from https://infrastructurereportcard.org/cat-item/drinking-water-infrastructure/