Opinion

To Avoid the Next Flint, Addressing the Data Gap is Critical

America knows it has a safe drinking water problem; tragedies such as the ongoing crisis in Flint, Mich., have forced water issues front and center in the national consciousness. And Flint is not alone – in the just the last three months, there have been notable water issues in more than 40 states, from elevated lead levels to concerns about toxic chemicals.

The painful reality: For too long we as a country have failed to adequately plan for the necessary infrastructure upgrades and, worse, have failed to be transparent about the risks this poses to the public.

But even now that Americans are waking up to this problem, we’re now confronting an even trickier question: how do we fix it? That question has uncovered another pernicious problem: We as a country don’t know much if anything about the water we drink.

Consider a landmark study on lead testing in our nation’s schools released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in July. The survey found that 41 percent of school districts surveyed, representing 12 million kids, had done no lead testing in the last year. An additional 16 percent of the school districts approached by the GAO couldn’t even answer whether they had conducted testing, because they didn’t know.

A doctor couldn’t make a diagnosis without understanding a patient’s symptoms and medical history. Similarly, America won’t be able to address the growing crisis of unsafe drinking water without first addressing the massive data gap cities, states, and school districts are facing around the country.

Addressing the lack of data we have about our water starts with testing. While the Safe Drinking Water Act and Lead & Copper Rule set federal standards for drinking water, the reality is that the actual amount of testing that occurs is much smaller than most citizens imagine. For a water system that serves 100,000 or more people, officials are required to test 100 taps every six months. Smaller systems have much more lax requirements, with testing occurring for a handful of taps over a much larger timeframe. The reality is that testing can frequently occur only once or twice over a period of years.

It’s clear that more testing at the tap – compiling more data that can be used to assess our water problems – is important. Citizens across the country, in every city and town, need to press their public officials on how they plan to improve water quality and address infrastructure challenges. But that is only part of the formula. It’s also about making testing – and analyzing and acting on the results from that testing – easier and more efficient.

The fact is that water testing is both expensive and time intensive. Take the process for acquiring a sample under the Lead & Copper Rule: your water utility has to arrange a time to drop off a bottle at your house for the sample, remind you to fill the bottle, arrange a time to collect the sample, send someone to collect it and bring it to a lab, wait for the test results, and then report the results to residents and regulators.

That’s all for a single sample; replicate that repeatedly and you start to see the challenge. Additionally, figuring out what to do with that data once it’s received can further tax local resources. While some large cities may have the IT resources and budget to centralize and create efficiencies to improve the process, the reality is much different for most public water and school systems.

Getting this right – starting with the data – is critical. We need to understand what the data tells us about our drinking water and be able to easily act on that information. In addition to the moral imperative to ensure that our fellow citizens have clean drinking water, the economic cost of not acting is astronomical. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, removing leaded drinking water lines from the homes of children built in 2018 would protect more than 350,000 kids while yielding $2.7 billion in future benefits.

This isn’t just about investing in what’s right, it’s about investing in our future.

Megan Glover is the co-founder and CEO of 120WaterAudit and an advocate for safe drinking water.

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