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America's Water Systems are Decaying

“The United States has one of the safest and most reliable drinking water systems in the world.” So says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“92 percent of the population supplied by community water systems receives drinking water that meets all health-based standards all of the time.” So says the Environmental Protection Agency.

Growing up as a child in America’s heartland, I never gave a second thought about drinking tap water. Nor did for many years as an adult. But I do now.

While the CDC’s and EPA’s statements may still be generally true, a 2018 peer-reviewed study from the University of California at Irvine and Columbia University found that health-related violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act — the federal law that regulates our tap water — are widespread, with “9–45 million people possibly affected during each of the past 34 years.”

In 2015 alone, more than 20 million people “relied on community water systems that violated health-based quality standards,” the authors wrote.

Horror stories have emerged: Flint Michigan several years ago and now Jackson, Mississippi. But other water utilities across the U.S. say their cities could be next to see a water crisis as they struggle with the cost of upkeep of their own systems, forcing them to choose between short-term patches and costlier long-term solutions.

No doubt, the public is picking up on this. In 2016, two years after the Flint water crisis began, an Associated Press-GfK poll found just under half of Americans were “extremely or very confident in the safety of their own tap water.”

Americans with lower levels of income and Black and Latinx people were especially more likely to worry about their water being contaminated, according to the poll.

When promoting the infrastructure bill before it became law last year, President Joe Biden declared, “Never again can we allow what happened in Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi.” But you can almost be assured that it will happen again in multiple towns and cities across the country.

Our nation’s drinking water infrastructure is composed of 2.2 million miles of pipe, most of which is underground and unseen by the millions of consumers who rely on it every day; unfortunately, this often means that water infrastructure is out of sight and thus out of mind.

Some of the nation’s oldest pipes were laid in the 19th century, and pipes that were laid post-World War II have an average life span of 75 to 100 years, meaning that many of them are reaching the end of their design life.

Indeed, failures are being reported daily by the roughly 148,000 public water systems that exist nationwide. Water-main breaks, boil-water advisories, and treatment-plant failures are all becoming more common as the water infrastructure ages.

There is a water main break every two minutes and an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water are lost daily, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. The EPA estimates that about 14 percent of treated water is lost to leaks, with some water systems reporting losses of more than 60 percent.

The median age of the oldest part of those systems in 2020 was 113 years, and the average age of pipe is 40 years, according to the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, a lobbying group in Washington, D.C., representing about 200 public drinking water utilities.

Half of the 1,600 miles of water main that distribute water across New Orleans are more than 80 years old, exceeding their expected service life, says Ghassan Korban, executive director of the Sewerage and Water Board.

The Jackson Situation

Jackson’s water crisis has been years in the making, officials say. The infrastructure in Mississippi’s capital has been likened to “peanut brittle,” prone to water main breaks, perennial service disruptions and sewage spills onto residential streets.

Residents have long contended with disruptions in service and frequent boil-water notices, including one that had already been in effect for more than a month due to warnings the water could contain bacteria, viruses or parasites.

Some of Jackson’s pipes were installed before the Great Depression. Add to that a long history of deferred maintenance, which has culminated in repair costs eclipsing the city’s entire budget. Attempts to fix the problems have been marred by insufficient revenue in a city that has been losing population for decades.

Jackson residents might hope that the federal government will come to the rescue. Last year’s ambitious $1 trillion federal infrastructure will provide some relief. Mississippi is set to receive $429 million from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to fix its water and wastewater systems over the next five years.

The problem is that repairing Jackson’s system alone may cost billions. And that is according to both Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a Democrat.

One of two state agencies responsible for pushing out millions of dollars in federal infrastructure funds said it could be at least mid-to-late 2023 before any allocations roll out. And, again, the federal allotment of $429 million is meant to reach communities across the state and not just Jackson.

The Problem of Funding

Nationwide, funding for drinking water infrastructure has not kept pace with the growing need to address aging infrastructure systems, and current funding sources do not meet the total needs. In general, however, state and local governments have invested more than their federal counterparts.

Despite the growing need for drinking water infrastructure, the federal government’s share of capital spending in the water sector fell from 63 percent in 1977 to 9 percent of total capital spending in 2017. On average, about two-thirds of public spending for capital investment in water infrastructure since the 1980s has been made by state and local governments.

Maintenance costs reached an all-time high of $50.2 billion above capital investment in 2017, in part due to deferred capital projects. A recent survey found that 47 percent of the maintenance work undertaken by utilities is reactive and done as systems fail.

Decades-old drinking water infrastructure systems, costs of regulatory compliance, and stagnant federal funding have all resulted in many water utilities struggling to fund the cost of operations and maintenance of these systems. Watch for future Flints and Jacksons to emerge.

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