Crumbling water infrastructure is sickening Americans across the country and at this rate, it could be only a matter of time before it becomes a national health crisis. Our state and federal leaders must begin prioritizing infrastructure repair now, and they should hold those who fail to keep drinking water safe accountable.
This potential epidemic is centuries in the making. The installation of underground water infrastructure throughout the country took place during three main time periods because of population growth: in the 1800s; from 1900 to 1945; and post-1945. But because different materials and techniques were used for installing pipes during these periods, they are all now reaching the end of their lifespans at the same time.
A failure to maintain this infrastructure is starting to wreak havoc. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are 240,000 water main breaks annually across the country, with this number expected to rise in the years ahead.
Meanwhile, the cost of repairing old lines and maintaining new ones continues to balloon after decades of neglecting to invest in the system. According to the EPA, our drinking water utilities need $348.2 billion in investments over the next 20 years for treatment plants, storage tanks, thousands of miles of pipe and other assets to ensure public health.
And while lawmakers struggle to fund these repairs, the situation is now having disastrous results on communities around the country, as aging infrastructure has turned water — the source of life — into a source of illness.
The crisis in Flint, Michigan, where the lead from aging pipes has contributed to the contamination of drinking and bathing water, has shined a spotlight on the tragic results of neglecting water infrastructure, as the city’s children are now facing irreversible brain damage and developmental disorders from lead poisoning.
Flint is far from an anomaly. In Newark, New Jersey, for example, new data has shown water in schools is tainted with lead, leading to water fountains being turned off at 30 city schools. Earlier this month, communities across Illinois tested positive for high levels of lead, while in California, many small towns lacking money for water infrastructure upgrades have been dealing with arsenic contamination for years. We are forwarded pictures nearly weekly from communities – both large and small – throughout the US where the water coming out of the tap of households is anywhere from yellow to dark brown.
Cities and towns across the country are sharing the same experiences with their water day after day, demonstrating that large swaths of our national water infrastructure are no longer safe and simply cannot wait for further repair.
First, we need to step up investment in water infrastructure on the federal, state and local levels. The entire nation has seen in Flint the effects of neglecting this essential infrastructure. All communities must have access to funds allowing them to repair immediate problems while strengthening their infrastructure for the future.
Second, lawmakers need to strongly enforce laws designed to keep drinking water safe, especially the Safe Drinking Water Act. Originally established in 1974, the SDWA mandates that states conduct assessments of water sources to determine vulnerabilities to contamination. It also frames how the EPA sets standards for drinking water quality.
Third, we need to hold all companies or individuals that play a role in contaminating drinking water accountable for their actions. This includes everyone from politicians who make decisions that lead to water contamination in their jurisdictions, to pipe manufacturers negligent in installing water infrastructure or that withheld vital information on how water supplies may be affected by the pipes if proper treatment were not used. It includes the companies that use the environment to discharge their chemical waste, which inevitably ends up in underground aquifers and thus the groundwater on which many communities depend for their drinking water.
The collective neglect of essential infrastructure networks is leading to catastrophic results for scores of Americans — and it will only get worse without action. The only way we willprevent a major health crisis is for lawmakers to make infrastructure a top priority and to ensure those who willfully neglect ensuring the safety of water supplies are punished for their actions.
Ms. Greenwald leads the Environmental and Consumer Protection Unit at Weitz & Luxenberg, a New York City-based law firm that is part of the Flint Water Class Action Legal Team.