It’s Time to Reinvest in our Water Infrastructure—to Protect Drinking Water and to Create Jobs

Photo courtesy of Flickr

By Liz Kirkwood, FLOW Executive Director

“Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.”

These (slightly paraphrased) words of the English poet Coleridge from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” describe the saltwater of the seas. But today they could apply to some areas of Michigan, whose drinking water sources are not salt water, but freshwater.

During national Drinking Water Week (May 3-9) it’s worth observing the sad irony that in Michigan, which is surrounded by an endowment of 20% of the world’s freshwater in the Great Lakes, there are communities where people don’t have access to clean, affordable, safe drinking water.

The most appalling example is the City of Detroit, whose drinking water is unavailable to tens of thousands of residents whose service has been shut off. This unacceptable health hazard is the result of an inhumane policy that automatically shuts off water for delinquent payment of bills. Sister Great Lakes cities Chicago and Milwaukee have adopted policies forbidding similar shutoffs. Until Detroit residents have access to the city’s water, they will be unable to protect themselves from COVID-19 through handwashing or benefit from the same in-home water most of us take for granted.

But the denial of access to clean, safe drinking water is not limited to customers in the cities of Detroit or Flint, where lead poisoned the water supply six years ago. Across the state, private water wells are contaminated by such toxic chemicals as PFAS and nitrates. FLOW’S 2018 groundwater report showed that many rural water wells are contaminated with nitrates, the result of animal waste and nitrogen fertilizer application as well as failing septic systems. Between 2007 and 2017, of drinking water samples tested by state government’s environmental laboratory, 19% were contaminated with nitrates. Nitrates threaten the health of infants and there is growing evidence they may pose cancer risks. With no local or statewide program in place to routinely test private water wells, many well users may be exposed to drinking water contaminants and never know it until their health is compromised.

Public drinking water treatment and delivery systems are nearing or exceeding their design lives. In simple terms, they’re outliving their usefulness, and there is no plan to raise the funds to replace or upgrade them.

These holes in our drinking water systems are the result of federal and state government neglect. According to a 2017 report, the federal government’s contribution to water infrastructure capital spending has dropped precipitously over the past 30 years from 63 percent in 1977 to a meager 9 percent in 2014. Similarly, state governments have fallen short in providing adequate assistance. The eight states of the Great Lakes region face over $77 billion in estimated water infrastructure needs over the next 20 years. This crisis is compounded as many communities already face unaffordable water rates and struggle to maintain already weak infrastructure. In Michigan, the annual gap between available funding and water infrastructure is conservatively estimated at $800 million.

There are few political risks for public officials who champion a funding solution to our clean water woes. A recent national survey found that 84% of Americans support increasing the federal investment in our water infrastructure—and 73% support investing in water infrastructure to increase resilience to climate change, even when told this could cost more than $1.27 trillion.

One of the co-benefits of investments in water infrastructure is job creation. Upgrading and building drinking water treatment facilities would create thousands of jobs in Michigan alone. In the wake of the pandemic-caused economic collapse, creating water infrastructure projects is imperative.

During this national Drinking Water Week, we must focus on the need to rebuild our drinking water infrastructure. Michigan is a water-rich state, and its residents deserve access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water. All of its residents.

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