Water Equity: Two Million Americans Lack Access to Water

By: Bill Eller

Climate change and COVID-19 have been a one-two punch to water infrastructure, especially in those areas were the population is especially vulnerable, including low-income, rural and majority minority communities, many of which suffer from a lack of water equity.

There are two million people in the country without running water and basic indoor plumbing, and there is a correlation between a lack of wealth and lack of access to infrastructure. Household income, unemployment levels and education all play a factor, with entire communities sharing in both poverty and poor infrastructure, with “clusters” of lack of access found in the Navajo Nation, California’s Central Valley, Texas’s Colonias, Appalachia, Puerto Rico, Alaska, Maine, the Dakotas and the rural South. Race played the largest role in lack of access, with indigenous Americans 19 times more likely to lack access than white Americans, while Black and Latinx households are twice as likely to lack access.

In many of these communities, money wasn’t invested in infrastructure to begin with, and, as federal funding continues to wither, these communities fall further behind in water equity. This country has had a problem with federal funding of infrastructure for decades. Since 1977 the amount of federal funding for water infrastructure of all types has atrophied – from 63 percent of total capita to 9 percent today – and much of it is in low-interest loans.

Many loans either require matching funds or repayment terms that at-risk communities can’t manage, even before the pandemic drained many municipal coffers. Low-income communities simply don’t have the tax revenue to match grants or repay loans, so even that trickle of federal funding goes to more prosperous communities. The pandemic’s economic downturn means even less local money available for infrastructure repair, unless Congress passes a relief package that includes infrastructure funding.

Despite lagging federal funding, the Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that $472.6 billion is needed to replace thousands of miles of water distribution pipes, along with thousands of other drinking water assets – and that doesn’t include needs for sanitary and stormwater sewers. Nor does the estimate count needed projects that aren’t eligible for Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, meaning that the more than $470 billion is an understatement of the country’s needs.

Lack of access isn’t the only obstacle to water equity– more than one in ten American households had unaffordable water bills in 2017, but that was estimated to soar to more than a third by 2022, because of the need for infrastructure repairs and resiliency measures to combat climate change.

Prior to the pandemic-induced economic downturn, a study found that utilities were forced to shut off service to an estimated 5 percent of customers, meaning that approximately 15 million Americans lost access to running water. This study also found a link between poverty, unemployment and race and lack of access to water and recommended additional federal funding and affordability programs at a local level. Jackson, Mississippi, was highlighted for avoiding shutoffs because voters approved an increase in sales tax to fund infrastructure improvements instead of increasing water rates.

In 2020, a study of the water rates in 12 cities found that, on average, water rates increased by 80 percent over the course of a decade, primarily because of skyrocketing costs associated with aging infrastructure and climate change. The study found that large swaths, ranging from 46 percent to 80 percent, of those considered low-income – making less than twice the federal poverty line – would have water bills that exceeded 4 percent of their household income by 2030. The study also found liens and shutoffs could force residents to abandon their homes.

The pandemic has only exacerbated the lack of water equity, with one in eight Californians owing water debt – disproportionally Black and Latinx households – and half a million Virginians are also behind on their water bills. One Minnesota city saw utility debt increase by 15-fold, and the same story is playing out across the country where customer debt grows and no one is sure how or if that debt can be paid, while utilities must continue to provide services while caught between Scylla and Charybdis – unable to collect payment due and equally unable to ignore their own financial responsibilities to continue treating water and maintaining aging infrastructure.

A lack of water equity can impact physical and mental health – those without access to clean water may not be able to adequately engage in hygiene practices that prevent the spread of disease or may become dehydrated or ill from drinking from contaminated sources. In more than 20 states, a lack of access to water is considered child neglect, and the stress of not being able to reliably access water can negatively impact mental health.

Water equity may correlate with increased cases of COVID-19 among Black, Indigenous and Latinx Americans. Handwashing is one of the stoutest defenses against the disease, and many states have had or currently have shut-off moratoriums in effect to increase access to handwashing during the pandemic. Each group is several times more likely to contract the disease than their white American counterparts, although there are factors beyond access to water, including access to medical care and distrust of the government, that contribute to the spread among these populations.

An inability to access sanitary sewers can similarly have a negative impact on health – for example, in Lowndes County, Alabama, only 20 percent of residents have access to a sewer system and it isn’t unusual to have raw sewage backing up into homes and yards. When untreated sewage backs up, it can taint local water supplies and wells. In Lowndes County, the ground is too moist for traditional septic tanks, and other areas may find themselves in similar circumstances as climate change causes hotter and wetter weather and puts unforeseen strain on infrastructure.

And this doesn’t account for aging private infrastructure – many of the service lines that connect utilities’ systems with homes and business are also aging, and an estimated more than 9 million lead service lines are still in use, and they are expensive for homeowners, especially low-income homeowners, to replace. The aging lines may also leak or break, causing the loss of valuable treated water and an expensive repair bill for your residents.

You can help by partnering with the National League of Cities Service Line Warranty Program. The Program works with municipalities to craft educational messaging to inform residents about their responsibility to maintain their service lines, something many are unaware of until it’s too late, and provides optional emergency home repair programs to shield them from the financial shock of unexpected repair. For more information on how you can bring these residents peace of mind, contact us.