The trainwreck that is the state of Michigan’s handling of Flint’s water crisis is likely to be the first in a long pile-up of American water quality catastrophes. Ignoring for a minute the diminishing availability of water from above and below ground sources, which in itself is expected to have a disasterous long-term effect on water use and management across the country, the larger short term problem is our aging water infrastructure.
In Flint, the high levels of lead that threaten the health of thousands of children and adults came not from the contaminated water of the Flint River, itself, but leached out of household pipes made of or soldered with lead. Laws restrict the amount of lead allowed in new pipes, solders and water fixtures (lead can corrode from both brass and metal fixtures), but in older communities and cities around the United States a large percentage of our 700,000 miles of drinking water pipes predate these laws.
The average lifecycle of water pipes ranges from 15 to 100 years but in many places some pipes are now 150 or even 200 years old. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated in 2012 that the United States would need to spend a minimum of $335 billion dollars on replacing drinking water pipes in order to just maintain our current access to clean water, not to mention an additional $298 billion on upgrading and expanding wastewater systems.
Pennsylvania is one of the states most vulnerable to aging pipes impacting the health of its citizens. Presently the rate of lead exposure in 18 Pennsylvania cities far exceeds those of Flint. In 2014 nearly 10% of over 140,000 children tested for lead had “dangerously elevated” blood levels of 5 micrograms per deciliter or more. In Flint, the highest blood levels recorded topped out at 6.3% of children in some neighborhoods. Pennsylvania also has one of the lowest scores in the country for the quality of its wastewater system due to expiring infrastructure.
Six cities, including Philadelphia, are currently under contract with the Center for Disease Control to monitor the levels of lead in their drinking water. Of these, only two are currently able to provide lead exposure data at a neighborhood level – New York and Chicago. Luckily both report significantly smaller percentages of children with dangerously high lead levels. The largest, 1.17% of children tested, was recorded in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a neighborhood where 22.5% of its residents live below the poverty line. On a city-wide level, Houston reported 2011 lead levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter or higher in 0.4% of its children; Los Angeles County reported the same in 0.25% of its children.
Some federal funding exists for the improvement of water infrastructure but there is a significant gap between what is available and what is needed. Newer legislation such as the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), a loan program created in 2014 that guarantees secured loans for both public and private sector water infrastructure improvement projects exceeding $20 million in total cost, are positive steps forward but overall will hardly make a dent in the endless backlog of investment needs in the water sector.
Even when water infrastructure funding is in the coffers of a state entity, there’s no guarantee it will be put to its much needed use. A report written in 2013 noted California’s failure to spend $455 million of the $1.5 billion it received over 15 years for its Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. Meanwhile, that same year, federal regulators determined that California needs to spend $39 billion on infrastructural improvements through 2026 if it wants to continue to provide clean drinking water to the public.
There’s no getting around the enormous cost to the public to guarantee we have safe water in the future. Whether that cost is a fiscal one or a human one is up to lawmakers.