Overhauling The U.S.’s Crumbling Infrastructure: Access to Clean Drinking Water is a Human Right

Seven years ago, the U.S. media began reporting on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. While the City of Flint has finally replaced its pipes and the 95,000 residents of Flint have become eligible to receive a portion of a $650 million dollar settlement, many residents of Flint still do not trust their water. This lack of trust stems from years of community neglect and environmental racism. The water crisis experienced by Flint, Michigan isn’t a rare incident, many communities around the U.S. lack access to clean drinking water. As the Biden Administration engages in partisan negotiations over the proposed infrastructure bill, the American Jobs Plan, repairing U.S. water infrastructure must remain a priority. 

It is estimated, that every year, nine to forty-five million Americans obtain their drinking water from a source with contaminants that violate the Safe Drinking Water Act. These contaminants have a wide variety of health effects, from acute effects like stomach disturbances, to chronic effects like certain cancers and neurological disorders. Under the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Lead and Copper Rule,  lead concentrations must not exceed 15ppb and copper concentrations must not exceed 1.3ppb in more than 10% of the sampled taps of residents. The regulation provides that if levels exceed this, the public must be informed, and service lines may need to be replaced in order to protect public health. However, many of the small, rural communities struggling with unsafe drinking water can’t even afford to hire a full-time water treatment operator, so the idea of these communities being able to afford the costs associated with replacing their drinking water infrastructure without adequate federal funding and oversight, is not realistic. 

Under the current American Jobs Plan proposal, $111 billion in total will be allocated to improving U.S. drinking water. Within that total, the Administration proposes that $45 billion dollars in grants will be enough to replace 100% of U.S. lead pipes and service lines. Also, within that total, the Administration proposes providing $56 billion in grants and federal loans to help modernize rural water infrastructure and $10 billion to be allocated to water surveillance programs. While media coverage and the GOP make these costs seem way over budget, are these proposals even enough to fully address the issue at hand? According to a Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment released to Congress by the EPA in 2018, the costs associated with repairing U.S. drinking water utilities is estimated to be $472.6 billion. The costs associated with replacing pipes, service lines and mains alone are estimated to cost $312.6 billion, according to the EPA’s survey, drastically above the proposed $45 billion. 

As Congress and the Biden Administration are actively engaged in negotiating the terms of the American Jobs Plan, the allocation of funds to repair our nation’s drinking water needs to increase rather than decrease. Access to cleaning drinking water is a human right that has been established under the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, a right that should be guaranteed in both developing and developed nations like the United States.