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Could the COVID-19 crisis restart America’s clean water movement?

A recent analysis by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) confirmed what many officials have suspected—California’s tainted drinking water problem is only getting worse. As the EWG study showed, more than 5 million Californians have unacceptably high levels of contaminants, particularly nitrate, in their drinking water. These pollutants have been linked to serious health problems, including organ damage, respiratory illnesses and cancer.

In keeping with the nationwide patterns of structural racism that the virus has exposed in the United States, communities of color are disproportionately affected: the study found that the higher the contamination of the water system, the more likely the population it serves is majority Latino. The San Joaquin Valley, the US’s most productive agricultural region, is particularly badly affected.

Most worryingly, this trend was identified a decade ago by scientists researching groundwater contamination patterns in the area. So little has been done to address this chronic problem in the intervening years that the issue is actually getting worse. As the EWG report’s author noted: “Nitrate levels have been going up over time for many Latino communities. Not only are these communities using potentially unsafe water, but also nitrate levels in the water are getting worse”.

While community development organizations have stepped in to help residents improve their water supplies in the short term and bottled water has provided these communities with a lifeline, permanent solutions have yet to be implemented at scale.

The need for clean water is greater than ever

Californian officials are well aware the state has a massive problem with its drinking water. Just last year, the state established a $130 million-a-year fund earmarked for rebuilding and improving the state’s water infrastructure. However, implementation has somewhat stalled due to the COVID-19 crisis, as the cap-and-trade revenue that was supposed to fund the program has cratered amidst the public health emergency. The pandemic, however, should hasten attempts to upgrade water infrastructure, not delay them.

The novel coronavirus is exacerbating existing problems in disadvantaged communities, even as clean water becomes a crucial resource in maintaining the hygiene measures necessary to stop its spread. The rigorous hand-washing regimen that’s a key part of slowing virus transmission is impossible to follow without ready access to clean running water: a situation that’s becoming more common by the day in California. Bottled water – when it’s been freely available – has served as a lifeline for communities without safe tap water, but residents need more reliable, long-term provision.

Moreover, questions have been raised about whether the virus could spread via improperly treated water. It’s thought that any heightened risk of waterborne virus transmission is more likely to occur where inadequate wastewater treatment processes exist – which is why sub-par water infrastructure has become a growing cause for concern in these communities.

A national problem requiring a large-scale response

Could the coronavirus pandemic be the impetus that policymakers need to resolve these long-standing issues keeping many citizens from clean and safe water?

While California is a particularly acute case, inadequate access to clean and safe water is a problem in communities throughout the United States, and many citizens have completely lost trust in their tap water, relying solely on bottled alternatives.

Taken as a whole, the US water system is among the best in the world. However, its benefits aren’t available to all, and parts of the infrastructure are at breaking point as a result of chronic under-investment. In 2019 alone, federal, state, and local governments in the US spent $81 billion less than needed to maintain and upgrade the national supply system. Based on current trends, that gap could grow to $136 billion by 2039, representing a $2.2 trillion total investment gap in that timespan.

Rural water systems in particular struggle to maintain clean and affordable drinking water. Around 97 percent of America’s 150,000-odd public drinking water systems serve less than 10,000 people. This rough patchwork of pipes is prone to line breaks that can make them susceptible to contaminants. One proposed solution would involve larger systems absorbing smaller ones, so extending the infrastructure – and spreading costs – across more customers. In the San Joaquin Valley, most disadvantaged communities are less than a mile away from those with safe drinking water, according to a 2018 study.

A fresh impetus for clean water for all?

The coronavirus pandemic has given us an opportunity to review and reboot our approach to water equity. Every citizen has the right to clean water, and yet, the issues that continue to plague some of our country’s poorest communities are contributing to a profound national public-health crisis. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data from 2018 showed more than 30 million Americans across the country are living in areas where water systems violated safety regulations.

The causes vary. In the San Joaquin Valley, it’s agricultural run-off. In other states, lead pipes are quietly poisoning entire cities and industrial sites are leaking their carcinogenic chemicals into the waterways. The effects are the same: poor health outcomes that shave years off already disadvantaged lifespans.

Plans have recently been submitted to include money for the improvement of water utilities as part of the next COVID-19 stimulus package. The pandemic has exposed the dangers of decades of disregard for the safety of millions of low-income people – especially people of color. But a renewed program of investment in technology, alongside a guaranteed minimum water supply for basic needs and the outlawing of shutoffs, could signal the start of real progress.

The right policies could turn the current crisis into a fresh commitment to rebuild America’s public water systems and reboot trust in that most fundamental of human rights: safe, affordable water for all.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of EconoTimes

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