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October 09, 2019 HUMAN RIGHTS

Rural America's Drinking Water Crisis

by Madison Condon

While Flint, Michigan, rightfully captures headlines, another water crisis affecting millions of Americans continues to go largely unnoticed. All across rural America, small community water systems are failing to protect public health due to a perfect storm of forces. Poor regulation of agricultural waste and other pollutants, shrinking populations, and aging infrastructure all contribute to the increasing incidents of water quality violations dotting the rural landscape. There are nearly 60 thousand community water systems in the United States and 93 percent of them serve populations of fewer than 10,000 people—67 percent serve populations of fewer than 500 people. In 2015, 9 percent of all water systems had a documented violation of water quality standards, exposing 21 million people to unhealthy drinking water. These violations were more likely to occur in rural areas, where communities often have trouble finding the funds to maintain their systems.

Many water supply systems were designed and built decades ago, and old systems are susceptible to a variety of failures. Corroding pipes can leach lead and copper directly into the drinking supply. Some need technological updates to keep pace with stricter pollutant standards that reflect our evolving scientific understanding of risk exposure. Pollutant levels are also just much higher than they used to be. Water supplies in farming communities often have harmfully high levels of nitrates, which seep into the groundwater from fertilizer and manure. Yet, 85 percent of the communities with nitrate violations have no treatment systems for removing the chemical.

The costs of compliance can be huge. Systems that can handle the treatment of nitrate range from the hundreds of thousands to several million dollars. The town of Pretty Prairie, Kansas, population 650, was recently forced to build a water treatment system to address nitrate levels, at a cost of $2.4 million. This cost of roughly $3,600 per resident is a substantial burden in a town with a median income of $33,000. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that updating rural America’s water infrastructure (just those systems serving populations of less than 10,000) would require $190 billion of investment in the coming decades. Where this funding will come from has been left unanswered. Water infrastructure is typically paid for by the rates charged to individual users. But regional economic changes and demographic shifts mean that decades old water systems in need of repair sometimes now serve rate-paying populations just a fraction of the size they were initially built to serve. Some communities have a hard time simply finding a qualified technician to oversee the water treatment process. The job requires training and certification, yet pays part-time hours in towns often populated mainly by retirees.

Some, including President Trump, have proposed utility privatization, or public-private partnerships, as a funding solution, but this strategy still requires water rates paid by consumers to fund projects over the long term. In tiny communities with average incomes well below the national average, it’s not clear if users will be able to shoulder the tripling or quadrupling of water rates necessary to entice private investors. Further, because they require a profit margin not sought by public operators, private utilities charge households 59 percent more on average than local governments for drinking water service.

For some communities, regionalization might be a more palatable alternative to privatization. Under this scheme, water utilities are consolidated across communities, spreading operation costs across a broader population and enabling towns to reap the advantages of the same economies of scale that private operators are able to facilitate. For the residents of O’Brien, Texas, a regionalization agreement with a neighboring town was a welcome alternative to privatizing—the town leadership just had to put aside their longstanding football rivalry in order to come to the table. Rather than attracting investors to build a new treatment facility, O’Brien’s population of just over a hundred people now receive water from its neighbors and share some of the operation costs.

Regionalization is not a panacea, however. Some communities are too isolated to make cost-sharing economical. And others have conflicts far more complicated than high school sports that prevent political cooperation. In Delaware, for example, many rural communities are unincorporated and not part of any organized town or city government. This means that they are often not included in the closest town’s centralized municipal water or sewer system. While the most cost-effective solution might be to extend a town’s water and sewer lines to its rural neighbors, only town citizens can vote on whether to do this. Those living outside the towns, who for historical reasons are disproportionately poor and people of color, are unable to vote on their own  access to clean water. While federal funding can help pay for the expansion, it cannot directly address this representational challenge.

Present levels of federal funding are woefully inadequate to address America’s mounting drinking water crisis. In 2019, just $2.8 billion was allocated through appropriations for all water infrastructure projects nationwide—less than one half of a percent of the amount of investment the EPA estimates is needed. Not only are water quality violations more likely to occur with water systems that service minority or low-income populations, but oft-discussed solutions to America’s rural drinking water crisis, such as privatization and regionalization, fail to address the unique barriers that poor communities and communities of color face. In the end, a massive influx of government funding is needed to make sure that millions of Americans are not left exposed to health-harming pollutants put in their drinking water by under-regulated industries. 

Madison Condon is a fellow at New York University School of Law where her research focuses on the intersection of economics and regulation. She has a degree in environmental engineering from Columbia University and received her J.D. at Harvard Law School.