Water: Essential for Life, Victim of Politics

By Jim Olson, FLOW founder and senior legal advisor

Recent reports show that four decades ago, Congress was advised that citizens in our cities and towns would face lead poisoning from lead pipes in municipal drinking water systems. Nothing was done. The failure of Congress to address this crisis then and now is a window into the collapse of our society’s shared view that government exists for the common good of all.

A recognized research scientist advised Congress in the 1980s that citizens in our cities and towns would be exposed to lead in drinking water. But as with tobacco, asbestos, agent orange, PFAs, and climate change – the list goes on – government leaders sat and sat and sat again on the lead poisoning threat. Imagine, Congress didn’t act for forty years to address something as fundamental to life and health as drinking water, and it did not act until the lead-poisoning of residents in Washington D.C., the City of Flint, and elsewhere boiled into national outrage.

Behind the lead poisoning and similar health issues is the failure of Congress to restore federal grant funding to communities across America. Beginning in the late 1980s, Congress halted federal grants, monies that had made municipal drinking water safe and affordable since the early 1970s. By the mid-1990s, federal aid turned into massive loans that shifted the financial burden to cities and towns and their resident ratepayers to pay for their drinking water.

The result: grossly unaffordable water bills and a plague of deteriorating drinking water systems, all dumped on the backs of the poor and middle class. This outcome is not surprising given that in 1977 federal funding provided 63% of funding for water infrastructure systems in the United States. But by 2014, this had fallen to 9% – with most of the funding coming in the form of loans to be repaid by local ratepayers.

Politicians too often wait to do anything until there is an emergency or crisis. Then they drag their feet until hauled into court or public pressure becomes too strong to ignore. By the time an emergency exists, the damage is devastating and irreparable, and the costs to fix the problem are magnitudes higher than the cost if the problem had been met head on in the first place. Rather than “win-win,” our leaders chose “lose-lose.”

In the 1980s, deregulation, neoliberalism, so-called free markets and tax cuts, heavily tilted toward the wealthy, became more important to presidential administrations and leaders on both sides of the political aisle than the safety of citizens. Now, this bury-the-problem disease is endemic.

Water is public, not owned by anyone. Water is held and managed by states as sovereign for their people. Why? The reality is that water is essential to life and health and serves everyone. Water must not become the victim or servant of political self-interests and ideology.

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