The Water Safety Conundrum

The Flint Water Plant water tower is seen in Flint, Mich.

The Flint Water Plant water tower is seen in Flint, Mich. AP Photo/Carlos Osorio


Connecting state and local government leaders

Water infrastructure is in desperate need of repair. When will federal, state and local officials come up with the money to fix it?

Gridlock on the highways, stretched-thin mass transit systems and out-of-date schools always lead lists of the nation’s infrastructure challenges.

But there’s another pressing infrastructure challenge that doesn’t always get the attention of transportation and education: water quality. A steady drip, drip, drip of stories about water safety has demonstrated the extent of the problem, which experts believe will require communities and states across the country to come up with hundreds of billions of dollars to fix.

Money is not the only barrier to fixing water systems. A highly fragmented patchwork of governance is another, with more than 50,000 local public and private operators providing services. That is one reason why “creating modern water systems for safe and sustainable use” was one of 12 “Grand Challenges in Public Administration” identified by the National Academy of Public Administration in a recent report

The latest infrastructure assessment by the American Society of Civil Engineers assigns a grade of D to the nation’s water systems—even lower than the D+ average of all infrastructure in the United States. In its summary of the nation’s water challenges, the ASCE says:

“Drinking water is delivered via one million miles of pipes across the country. Many of those pipes were laid in the early to mid-20th century with a lifespan of 75 to 100 years. The quality of drinking water in the United States remains high, but legacy and emerging contaminants continue to require close attention. 

“While water consumption is down, there are still an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States, wasting over two trillion gallons of treated drinking water. According to the American Water Works Association, an estimated $1 trillion is necessary to maintain and expand service to meet demands over the next 25 years.”

Drinking water isn’t the only infrastructure need. The ASCE also evaluates wastewater treatment needs, noting that about 75% of the U.S. population is now connected to about 15,000 treatment plants, and that many more are connecting every year. It puts the need for wastewater infrastructure upgrades at $270 billion or more over the next two decades. Wastewater control is essential to the health of rivers and aquifers which supply the nation’s drinking water.

Disasters and Concerns

Water safety became national front-page news in 2015, when Flint, Michigan, discovered that its pipes were delivering water containing lead and other contaminants. Although people began raising complaints not long after the state switched the city’s water supply 2014, officials waved away those concerns for months before acknowledging a contamination problem so extreme that thousands—including 9,000 children under the age of 6—were exposed to high levels of lead. Many residents of the city were then told to avoid drinking the water and to install new filters. 

The scandal led to criminal charges being filed against state employees, which have since been dismissed, although Michigan officials have pledged the charges will be filed again. For residents, Michigan state government offered free bottled water to citizens until 2017. And the state enacted what is now the nation’s toughest water safety law.

Workers in 2018 back fill a hole used to replace lead pipe with copper water supply lines to a home in Flint, Mich. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

Not all water problems are as devastating as the one in Flint, but troubled water infrastructure is an “age-old issue,” observed William Glasgall, director of state and local government initiatives at the Volcker Alliance, in a recent interview. He noted that government has been fighting to provide clean water to citizens for well over a century: “Until an amazing 18-year-long project was completed in 1900, the Chicago River flowed into Lake Michigan, polluting the water Chicagoans drank and causing not infrequent typhoid outbreaks. The project reversed the river’s flow and solved the problem.”

Water quality commands the headlines whenever new disasters occur. In 1993, Milwaukee suffered from an outbreak of waterborne disease caused by the chlorine-resistant parasite cryptosporidium parvum. It affected over 400,000 people—25% of Milwaukee’s population—and resulted in over $96 million in combined health care costs and productivity losses, according to a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Today, Flint’s water tests as safe, but many wary citizens still avoid it. And the crisis has raised the profile of water safety, as well as lead contamination in particular. The Water Quality Association last April released a new national poll on the topic. 

Among major findings: 

  • More than half of American households are concerned about the quality of their household’s water supply, with 25% saying they’re “very concerned” (up from 18% two years earlier.)
  • Similarly, concern regarding the safety of tap water has grown since the last survey in 2017, with 48% of respondents expressing worry. 
  • Both users of municipal water (54%) and well water (52%) are not totally confident that their water supply is safe.
  • Nearly half of respondents identify lead—the principal problem in Flint—as the primary substance of concern.


Finding the money to meet the huge financial needs across the country will be extremely difficult, in part because of consumers’ worries about high water rates charged by local utilities, which would need to be raised to improve infrastructure. 

The financial challenge was front and center during two recent sessions convened by the National Academy of Public Administration and by the Volcker Alliance, the good government group begun by former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul A. Volcker.  

In March 2016, city officials display an example of the lead pipes in Galesburg, Ill. Lead levels in the city have exceeded the federal standard in 22 out of 30 testing periods since 1992. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

At the NAPA meeting in early November, associate professor Manny Teodoro of Texas A&M University ​unveiled a new “five-point proposal to transform the U.S. water sector.” Teodoro believes that the federal government will need to substantially increase investment in water infrastructure, but says that the increased aid should be accompanied by broad institutional reforms. The five reforms he proposed include consolidating the country’s 50,000 community water systems, regulatory reform, improving technology, investments in training new water system workers and focusing on environmental justice in water infrastructure. 

Tedoro, who has outlined his plan in extensive position papers, wants to see the number of water systems shrunk to fewer than 5,000 by 2030, arguing that the proliferation of different governing structures is itself a huge problem. With environmental justice, he underscored that all communities need access to reliable, safe drinking water, arguing that more resources need to be directed to those that were neglected in the past.    

Financing Difficulties

In reaction to growing concern about water safety, Congress in 2014 enacted the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. The so-called WIFIA program accelerated investment in water infrastructure by providing long-term, low-cost supplemental loans for regionally and nationally significant projects. Last January, another law was enacted to encourage efficiencies in state and local planning for water projects. 

Water policy experts say the federal government should contribute more. But even if it did so, the major burden of paying for improvements would continue to fall on rate-paying customers of local water utilities.

But local governments have gotten into trouble when assuming that big bond issues for water and wastewater projects could be paid off by ratepayers. A case in point is the 2011 bankruptcy filing by Jefferson County, Alabama, which found that the $4 billion in debt it took on for a sewer system upgrade was unsustainable. The bankruptcy caused deep cuts in services in the county, which includes the city of Birmingham.

That case has served to caution local officials around the nation as they budget for improvements in water and wastewater systems, and has induced some state governments to take a more active financial role.

The problem is especially severe in older industrial states, where sustained underinvestment in water systems has come back to bite public officials and citizens. 

New Jersey serves as a case in point.

Bayonne, a diverse, moderate-income city of about 65,000 people just across the Hudson River from New York City, about 10 years ago reached a crisis point with leaks, breakages, lead pipes and other problems. Needing a large investment in the city’s water systems, officials retained a private company to finance improvements. It has increased per gallon water rates by more than 50% since taking over the system in 2012. Some in the community are saying the rates are becoming unaffordable. And, now, the city is having to launch another hugely expensive water infrastructure project, the most expensive in its history, to refashion wastewater management facilities. The costs will run into the hundreds of millions over the next two decades. 

Bayonne is not alone. A report issued in July 2017 found 11 harmful contaminants in the water supplies of 45 New Jersey towns “that can cause cancer, developmental issues in children, problems in pregnancy and other serious health conditions,” according to a dispatch in the Morristown Patch. The report was prepared by the Environmental Working Group, an independent nonprofit organization that maintains a database on the safety of tap water by state and by zip code. 

During the summer, Newark, the state’s largest city, reached a crisis point with its water quality when federal officials declared that efforts to deal with lead contamination were not adequate. As a consequence, the city began distributing bottled water in many neighborhoods. In September, a key state agency signed off on issuance of $120 million in bonds to finance solutions, including the replacement of 18,000 service lines at a cost of $5,000 to $10,000 per home.

Elaine Younger, 11, and Tahvion Williams, 14, right, load water in their family's van at the Newark Health Department in Newark, N.J. on Aug. 14, 2019. Residents began picking up bottled water days after elevated lead levels were found in homes where city-issued filters had been distributed months ago as part of an ongoing effort to combat contamination. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

On Oct. 10, Gov. Phil Murphy stepped into the fray, unveiling what he called a “comprehensive statewide plan to address lead exposure.” The key feature of the plan is a proposed $500 million bond issue to support replacement of lead service lines, as well as remediation of lead-based paint in homes. The plan would replace lead service lines free of charge for Newark residents, the governor’s office has said.

During the Volcker Alliance session on infrastructure, Glasgall cited Tennessee as having first-class planning and budgeting practices for capital improvement projects. The state’s high performance is delivered by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR), which since 1996 has been producing an inventory and assessment of infrastructure needs.

But even in Tennessee, water repairs are a looming problem. The latest report, in January 2018, estimated that the state would need $45 billion for infrastructure by mid-2021 and said that about two-thirds of this cost is unfunded. Transportation and education are the most expensive items on the list, but water and wastewater occupy third place, demanding $1.4 billion over the five-year period.

At the Volcker Alliance session, and in a later interview with Route Fifty, Tennessee state Sen. Bo Watson spoke of the pressing water infrastructure needs faced by many communities in the state. “There is a dramatic gap between what’s been done and what the needs are,” he said, noting that costs are rising rapidly every year. Watson’s Senate district includes Hamilton County and Chattanooga, its main city. These and other jurisdictions, including Nashville, are working to implement consent decrees with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to clean up their water. 

But it isn’t so easy, Watson noted. “The drinking water systems are 80 to 100 years old and in a constant state of repair and replacement,” he said. Most of the money must come from users of the water systems “and the public simply does not have sympathy for rate increases sufficient to do this,” Watson added.

Nor do people want a wastewater treatment plant in their backyards. Watson cited a bitter fight last year over location of a new plant officials see as necessary to accommodate population growth and help protect the state’s two major rivers, the Tennessee and the Cumberland. The proposed site was rejected, and Watson said a different site would be considerably more expensive, requiring more pumping stations and other facilities. 

Asked about Teodoro’s suggestion that water districts be consolidated, Watson said: “From an academic point of view that may sound good, but politically it is very difficult, just like school consolidation. Hamilton County has seven or eight water districts, created by the state but managed by local and county governments. It’s extremely difficult to get them to consider it.” 

Glasgall, Teodoro and other experts observe that investments in water quality often are not readily observable to the public, not grabbing attention like upgrades in transportation systems or educational facilities. And people and political leaders, they say, don’t pay much attention to the quality of their water unless a crisis occurs. Improvements come down to a choice between people’s pocketbooks and their health, and too often the easy out is to not pay much attention until a real crisis develops. 

Timothy B. Clark is Editor at Large at Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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