Nation's Water Crisis Extends Beyond Flint

Flint, Michigan residents are in crisis, placed in a situation no one in this country should have to face. Their water is contaminated with lead, putting their health at risk. But while the city's situation is extreme, it is not alone in its challenges.

Other communities nationwide could face a similar public health emergency if elected officials don't act to beef up U.S. water infrastructure. In recent years there have been reports of high levels of lead in the water supply in Washington, D.C. and Providence, R.I., among other places. However, public concern should also be focused on the state of the aging pipes that deliver water to the homes of millions of Americans.

This matter is a ticking time bomb that must be addressed by policymakers at all levels of government. That's why the Teamsters last year rolled out its "Let's Get America Working" platform that specifically addressed the need to invest in better water facilities.

A 2013 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) only rated the nation's drinking water a "D", noting much of the country's water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life. The document states, "America's drinking water systems are aging and must be upgraded or expanded to meet increasing federal and state environmental requirements that add to the funding crisis. Not meeting the investment needs of the next 20 years risks reversing the environmental, public health, and economic gains of the last three decades."

The cost over the next 25 years could reach more than $1 trillion, according to the American Water Works Association (AWWA). The group notes the needs are greater than $1,000 per person in five regions: Far West, Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, Plains and Southwest. Capital spending has not kept pace with needs for water infrastructure. The trend toward state and local governments' assuming the bulk of the investment requirements in the coming decades will continue, with local governments paying an increasing share of the costs.

A recent report by AWWA notes the top priority is replacing underground pipes, much of which were put in place more than 50 years ago. Delaying the process, the group says, could lead to higher rates of pipe breakage and a reduction in quality of water services. Household water bills will climb higher as a result.

And while much of the public focus might be on urban areas' water systems, the larger challenge could lie in smaller jurisdictions. The U.S. has more than 52,000 water systems, but some 82 percent of Americans are served by just eight percent of these systems. These smaller utilities will face even larger economic challenges to upgrade their infrastructure because they serve fewer customers but require more pipe miles per customer due to their more rural nature.

Just because these water challenges are widespread, of course, doesn't mean Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder should be let off the hook for what's going on in Flint. The situation there is a tragedy that Michiganders have been aware of and city residents have been dealing with since April 2014. Decisions made by state officials over the last year-and-a-half have led to a community being forced to use water from the Flint River - a source that has been found to contain unacceptable levels of lead.

What it does prove is America needs to invest in its water systems. Doing so will ensure public health and have the added benefit of putting people to work as well.

Elected officials need to ask themselves what they would do if their own families faced such a health crisis. Certainly they would not be satisfied with a response that just delays the inevitable. The public's needs can no longer be ignored.