Can We Trust The Water?

Water, a basic human necessity, is often taken for granted in the United States. We rely on our public water infrastructure for clean, safe, drinking water that we use for many of our day-to-day needs. We assume that our water infrastructure is strong, safe, and reliable and therefore trust the water that comes through our pipes and into our homes, business, and schools. Unfortunately, at nearly a century old, much of our infrastructure has outlasted its useful lifespan and is now crumbling, potentially causing generations of damage in communities across the country.

The community of Flint, Michigan, began to experience the dire consequences of our aging water infrastructure first-hand when the city--to save money--switched its water source from the Detroit Water System to the Flint River nearly three years ago. The Flint River, notoriously known for its stench and murky waters, was the city's new drinking water supply. Flint residents were assured by the local government that it was safe to drink. Because there was no reason to believe otherwise, the community continued to rely on the public water supply. Unknown at the time, corrosives from the Flint River were stripping away at the city's decades-old pipelines, causing lead to leach into the water.

Not only was the water not safe to drink, but children in Flint began exhibiting dangerously high levels of lead in their systems and Flint was suffering from an outbreak of Legionnaire's disease. In the nearly two years it took to deem Flint's water unsafe, the damage had been done. Today, the Flint community is focusing on addressing these potentially life-long consequences of lead exposure in its children. The consequences can include decreased IQ, reduced attention span, underperformance and violent or aggressive behavior. The community of Flint will need tools and resources to address these issues to attempt to mitigate potentially generations of damage to the community. And Flint is not the only community that is grappling with this issue. From New York City to Washington, D.C., to Newark, elevated lead levels are affecting communities across the country.

In January, Flint was declared a state of emergency, and today, nearly a year after that declaration, Flint has still not received federal relief to help mitigate this crisis. Today, Flint's local government says the water is safe to drink again with a filter, but it's too little too late for a community that has lost trust in the basic water infrastructure we take for granted daily.

Luckily, we are finally starting to see action from Congress to make the necessary investments in our aging water infrastructure across the country--and to get aid to the citizens of Flint. The House and Senate have both passed their respective versions of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), the most likely venue to secure funding for Flint and a step in the right direction for providing sustained investment in America's water infrastructure. The bills must now go to conference committee to work out the differences. We urge Congress to use the language in the Senate's bill, which not only authorizes but appropriates aid for Flint, as a starting point in negotiations to provide the immediate assistance that this community desperately needs. This funding is only the tip of the iceberg of what's needed to adequately address our failing water systems--not only in Flint but across the country.

In addition to providing assistance to the Flint community, Congress should also invest nationwide in modernizing and upgrading our water infrastructure before a crisis like this happens again. The threat of lead exposure faces all Americans. There are millions of lead service pipelines across the United States, increasing the risk of lead leaching into public water supplies. Repairing the nation's water infrastructure will help to ensure that Americans are provided with clean, safe water that is free of lead and other forms of contamination, will prevent the loss of billions of gallons of drinkable water, and will create quality, family-sustaining jobs across the country.

With national water infrastructure that is decades--even a century--old, we are running on borrowed time. It is critical that the final Water Resources Development Act provides resources to address water infrastructure across the country, as well as processes to address lead contamination in cities already affected. All American's should trust that their water is safe and that their local infrastructure is reliable.