The Flint, Michigan, drinking water disaster has left many Americans anxious about the safety of their own tap water. New research confirms that there are, in fact, real reasons to be concerned. Since the 1970s, water quality has become an increasingly private activity in the US—through increasing home filtration, bottled water, and reliance on the private sector to fund public infrastructure improvements. The negative consequences of this have disproportionately affected the poor. Access to safe drinking water, presumed to be a basic public entitlement, is often a function of where you live and the wealth of your community.
Reasons to Worry about Drinking Water Safety
In 2015, almost 21 million Americans were exposed to contaminated drinking water that violated the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Of the 150,438 public water systems in the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that, every year, more than 50,000 show some self-reported violation of the SDWA, with more than 4,000 showing serious, extended patterns of violations. Many of these violations happen in rural areas, where water utilities serving small numbers of people cannot raise the money they need to do adequate maintenance and testing.
Recent crises such as the ones in Flint, Michigan and Toledo, Ohio, have intensified public concern about the quality of their drinking water. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, eight in ten Americans worry a great deal (63%) or fair amount (22%) about the pollution of drinking water, these are the highest levels of concern reported since 2001. A breakdown of the survey results further reveals that lower income and non-white Americans are markedly more anxious than others about their drinking water.
And yet the public is likely only aware of the most high profile cases. Lead and copper contamination is chronically under-reported, and poorly enforced. In fact, nearly 90 percent of reported violations face no formal action by the EPA. The federal government seems set against intensifying enforcement and monitoring that could reduce SDWA violations.
Even when water systems are in compliance with EPA standards, there is reason to worry about whether the standards themselves are adequate. There are hundreds of known contaminants in community drinking water systems, many of which are not regulated because no regulations have been created. As chemicals from agriculture and industry - nano-particles in particular - become more common in the products we consume, the lack of enforcement and pace of our regulatory system will not be able to limit the public’s exposure.
Water Privatization Poses Unequal Risks
Public support for more federal investment in water infrastructure remains very high, despite the fact that federal investment has dropped dramatically since the 1970s relative to the population’s needs. A large and increasing majority (75 percent) believe that municipalities, not consumers, are primarily responsible for ensuring water safety.
And yet, responsibility for water quality in the US has increasingly fallen on the consumer. The wide American adoption of home filtration, is more politically consequential than it might initially seem. Filtration technology can drastically improve water quality, but wide adoption shifts the burden of cleaning water toward users and away from municipalities and regulatory agencies. Successful filtering depends on consumers navigating the wide and often technical differences between water filters, continuously monitoring quality, and knowing when filters should be replaced.
And then there is the cost. It is grating to pay more to ensure the quality of a public service for which we already pay. But the stakes are very high for people at the lower end of the income scale. The cost of home filtration ranges quite a bit but can add hundreds of dollars a year, depending on the quality of the system and the cost of replacement filters. So to the degree that access to safe water increasingly relies on these devices, it represents an income-based stratification in access to clean water.
This cost is added on top of a premium that the poor already pay for clean water in America. In the greater Chicago area, towns with median household incomes in the bottom 10 percent already have water rates more than 30 percent higher than towns with incomes in the top 10 percent. In Detroit, the city has shut off tens of thousands of home water connections for people with delinquent water bills.
More home water filtration may also reduce pressure on the public sector to make needed repairs, and as such it represents a form of water service privatization. Money that might have been used to improve aging infrastructure to benefit everyone, now goes to the private filtration industry. Trillions of dollars is necessary to update American water infrastructure. Given that those who will benefit the most will likely contribute the least financially, modernization has not been a priority. But attempting to massively stimulate private investment with modest public incentives will likely skew the benefits away from low-income residents because the necessary development will only materialize in places likely to provide clear financial returns.
Lower-income citizens, many of them on aging underfunded rural systems, will need to rely more heavily on home filtration, bottled water, or continue to take their chances with degrading infrastructure. Shifting responsibility and cost to individual consumers might seem more efficient since it allows people to pay for exactly the amount of risk-avoidance they want, rather than having a uniformly high standard of water quality for everyone. But because many people in the US are unable to pay for their already very inexpensive water services, the effect of this system would stratify safe water access by income. This situation is intrinsically unjust.
There is no question that solutions will be expensive. Historically, the path of least resistance has been toward less public investment and uneven quality distributed roughly on the basis of wealth. Clean water, in the abstract, is a politically neutral objective. But opinions about the value of clean water must run into hard realities about what would be necessary to reduce the very real risk that millions of low-income, primarily rural, Americans face in turning on the tap.
Michael Tiboris, PhD., global water fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. His research is particularly focused on water resource policy, cooperative resource governance, and global justice. He holds a PhD in ethics and political philosophy from the University of California, San Diego.