Water, Water, Everywhere — But Way Too Often It’s Undrinkable

By Brian Lombardozzi
Sep 15 2016 |
The state of America’s drinkable water infrastructure is woefully inadequate. | Photo by mloge

America’s drinking water infrastructure needs a serious upgrade.

Today, as the “Imagine a Day Without Water” campaign is coordinating with many allies to raise awareness and educate America about the value of water, the U.S. Senate has passed a key piece of legislation to repair and rebuild our water infrastructure systems.

That’s a good thing. Now, it’s the House of Representatives’ turn. It needs to ensure that the taxpayer dollars spent on repairing and rebuilding our water infrastructure support high-quality, American-made materials like iron and steel that will create jobs and invest even more in our economy.

Unfortunately, some communities in America — most notably Flint, Michigan — already know too well what it is like to try to go a day without water. 

For places like Flint, the experience hasn’t been an elected exercise.

In 2013 the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state of the United States’ drinking water infrastructure a D. Grading aside, this means that much of the country’s drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life. Decaying drinking water infrastructure is causing more and more communities to face issues of lead contamination in their drinking water.  

According to the American Water Works Association, “there is a gap between the financial needs of water and wastewater systems and the means to pay for these services through rates and fee.” Many utilities across the country, in fact, won’t have the money to perform much-needed infrastructure upgrades over the upcoming decades.   

To understand what those upgrades entail, let’s look at what currently makes up the three main lines of our water infrastructure: transmission, distribution, and service. 

Transmission lines in the United States are made from cast iron, concrete, steel, ductile iron, PVC, and asbestos cement. 

Distribution lines (commonly referred to as water “mains”) are made from wood, cast iron, steel, concrete, ductile iron, PVC, and asbestos cement. 

The service lines are made from lead, copper, galvanized steel, polyethylene, polybutylene, and PVC. 

Health risks exist in all three areas, and not just with asbestos cement and lead. For example, copper pipes present concerns when lead solder is used in the joints. Older, domestically made PVC used lead as a stabilizer, and it’s still found in PVC pipe imported from China and India. 

Upgrades need to be made with materials that aren’t going to continue the problem. American manufacturing has a role to play in this solution; we have the companies, skilled workforce, and capacity to manufacture the materials needed. And making sure the materials used to upgrade our water infrastructure are American-made provides assurances that the materials meet American standards.

However, we all must hold policymakers accountable so that the solution to this specific bit of infrastructure decay doesn’t further a public health crisis in American communities.

But that’s not all

Unfortunately, the lack of investment in drinking water infrastructure is but one failure of public policy in this area.

In Washington, DC circa 2001, following a treatment change that accidentally increased the water’s corrosiveness, the water started leaching lead from city pipes. The leaded water didn’t come to the public’s attention until 2004, and when it did the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said testing showed DC kids hadn’t suffered high levels of lead in their blood. 

City officials used these CDC assurances to quell the public outcry. But in 2009, a team led by Virginia Tech civil engineering professor Marc Edwards published research proving the CDC wrong, demonstrating that kids suffered elevated blood lead levels when lead spiked in the city’s water.  Unfortunately, policymakers failed to protect the health of DC residents and potentially tens of thousands of DC children were affected.

Thanks to the work by that same Virginia Tech team, much of Flint, Michigan’s story is well-known. But in Flint, another major policy failure popped up. Even though the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tried to make Michigan treat Flint’s water for corrosion, and despite suggests from both outside and inside the EPA that the public in Flint should be warned, no one bothered to warn them, or cite the city of Flint or its state regulator for violating the U.S. Lead and Copper Rule.

Even worse, a 2013 field study in Chicago, IL shows that existing regulatory sampling protocol under that rule systematically misses high lead levels and potential human exposure.   

When it comes to the United States’ drinking water infrastructure, too many policymakers – federal, state, and local –haven’t invested, maintained system safety, or provided the public with adequate health warnings. It would seem they even fail to have the practices in place to identify those major threats to public health.

The bottom line is this: As a nation that leads the world in so many things, it’s shameful we fall so short when it comes to the delivering our citizens with clean, drinkable water. 

The United States needs policymakers who will invest in our drinking water infrastructure and bring it into the 21st century.  America has the capacity to engineer, construct, and manufacture the materials needed not only to get it to that point, but to guarantee no one in the United States must go a day without water.