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It looks fine and tastes good, but tap water is unsafe for many Americans

Outdated infrastructure, like lead pipes, has led to harmful water quality all across the country.

By HOM Editor
November 2021

When you pour yourself a glass of water from the tap in your kitchen, you can hold the glass up to the light and the liquid looks crystal clear.

Next, doing your best impression of a wine connoisseur, you swirl the water around in the glass and tip it slightly so you can poke your nose into the glass and smell the liquid. It has no scent that you can discern.

Finally, you gulp it down, sending a soothing feeling through your body as you replenish your body of needed water and it tastes just like it’s supposed to taste – refreshingly bland.

It looks safe. It smells safe. It tastes safe. But is it?

That depends on where it came from. In some parts of the country, that water is perfectly fine. In others, it’s contaminated. And in many more, you just don’t know.

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Water quality is a hot button issue in America, but more so on the local level than the national level. States and local municipalities tend to focus on water quality issues more than the federal government does.

But maybe, considering how many places around the country are starting to find out just how unsafe their water is, it should no longer be a backburner issue.

Recently, members of the U.S. Senate’s Environmental and Public Works Committee went on a working road trip to both West Virginia and Delaware to hear about water quality concerns and discuss efforts to improve the water quality in those states.

The hearings in both states centered on having access to, and then maintaining, clean drinking water infrastructure.

“You can’t have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness if you don’t have clean water,” Delaware Sen. Tom Carper told WHYY, a public television station based in Wilmington. “Unfortunately, far too many Americans — from Ellendale, Delaware to Beckley, West Virginia and across our country — can’t trust the water that comes out of their taps.”

Carper was mainly referring to constituents in his state, many of whom live in the rural, southern portion of Delaware, who lack consistent access to clean drinking water. And it’s made difficult because without outside testing, it’s next to impossible to tell if the water is safe or not.

Federal funding exists for water quality education as well as testing on properties that rely on well water, but they only go so far.

West Virginia Sen. Shelley Capito told WHYY that hearings, like the ones they heard in Delaware and her home state, were additional proof of the need to pass the bipartisan Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act.

The House finally joined the senate in the passing of the legislation. The Act, which overwhelmingly passed the Senate in April and has support from the Biden Administration, is awaiting action in the house. It calls for the reauthorization and increased funding for both the Clean Water and the Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, filling those coffers with $14.65 billion each. Additional funding will come in the way of $250 million for lead testing in schools and $500 million to continue to fund the Lead Reduction Grant program for another five years.

Until the funding is disbursed, states and municipal governments are on the frontlines of the water quality battle. And it’s not just in rural communities either:

  • In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine recently announced the first round of water infrastructure grant funding that was awarded as part of the Ohio BUILDS initiative. In this initial announcement, $93 million of an eventual $250 million was given to 54 projects impacting 60 Ohio counties. Once the remainder is distributed, funding will be available to improve water quality infrastructure in every county in Ohio.
  • In North Carolina, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services – with the help of its mascot, Stormy – received national honors for outstanding work. Recognized by the National Association of Flood and Stormwater Management Agencies, Storm Water Services was the winner in its Excellence in Communications and Green Infrastructure Awards. Storm Water Services won first place in the Improving Water Quality category for large municipalities for the “Stormy: Making Water Quality Good in Your Neighborhood” surface water quality campaign.

    The campaign included digital web banners, social media, photography, and two engaging – yet informative – 30 and 45-second videos featuring Stormy. In one video, a socially distanced Stormy plays his guitar throughout Charlotte as a catchy melody explains to residents that only rain should go in a storm drain. In the second video, Stormy highlights the various volunteer efforts that are happening in our neighborhoods. These videos air year-round to engage and educate residents.

  • In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster recently made a major rural infrastructure proposal that would provide $500 million in American Rescue Plan funds to revitalize South Carolina’s water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure. The proposal would modernize rural water systems statewide, providing safe drinking water and the infrastructure needed for economic development in rural communities. Under the proposal, the $500 million in funding would be administered based on three criteria: Economic Development, Public Health, and Regionalization.
  • In Georgia, the Walker County Board of Commissioners will consider a request at its next meeting to invest in a multi-million-dollar project to produce clean drinking water for the county, supply water to underserved and unserved rural communities, and create economic development opportunities. The Walker County Water and Sewerage Authority recently developed a $45 million water and sewer system improvement plan. It would fund the construction of a new water treatment plant and a distribution network to supply water throughout the county, along with a system to redirect sewers from the north end of the county to the sewer treatment plant in Chickamauga where it can be treated more economically than in Chattanooga. The Walker County Government has been asked to invest $5 million into the improvement plan since 50,000 Walker County residents will benefit from the enhancements.

You can find efforts like that across the map, and all are for the betterment of our communities and the water quality in our area.

That said, some stories get lost in the shuffle.

In Benton Harbor City, Mich., elevated levels of lead were found in the drinking water. Local authorities have recommended that residents drink bottled water and have set up water distribution sites throughout the city.

But some community leaders see this simply as a Band-Aid, and not a fix.

“We have a national crisis here, the urgency is not happening, people’s lives are being altered,” Nathan Smith, a Benton Harbor City resident and activist told MLive.

This is just the latest problem in Michigan, where crumbling infrastructure has led to a water crisis.

According to multiple reports, car lines have been wrapped around blocks for weeks at local distribution locations where many low-income residents are collecting those cases of bottled water.

“You still have to pay for water you can’t drink, you can’t brush your teeth with, you can’t cook with, or bathe with it,” Rev. Edward Pinkney, president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council told ABC News. “No city in this country should have to go through what Benton Harbor went through for the past three years.”

Benton Harbor’s water system has exceeded EPA standards for lead contamination since 2018, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. In six tests over that period, each six months apart, at least 10% of the water samples taken from homes and businesses in the city have shown lead contamination above 15 parts per billion.

A local coalition of community leaders and environmental organizations filed an emergency petition in September 2021 looking for help from the Environmental Protection Agency.

After the filing, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order for the bottled water distribution and promised to replace all of the city’s lead pipes within 18 months, a massive project that will cost roughly $30 million.

Still, Benton Harbor has become disenfranchised with the government. More than 90% of the population in Benton Harbor is non-white. The median household income is less than $22,000 a year. The city has a poverty level at 45%, according to Census Data culled by ABC. Unemployment in the city is high and with that has been decades of economic decline because of a lack of interest from both the public and private sectors.

According to ABC research, 1-in-6 zip codes in majority nonwhite areas has at least one water district with “excessive” water contamination. This compares to 1-in-8 Zip codes in majority white neighborhoods. Additionally, 1-in-4 of the country’s poorest zip codes have at least one water district with excessive lead contamination, compared to 1-in-11 in the country’s wealthiest zip codes.

As for Benton Harbor? It is one of only 76 water districts in the country to have at least three tests exceeding EPA lead standards since 2018.

As time ticks on, the historic deal brokered by the Biden Administration and Congress on infrastructure will allocate a $55 billion investment in clean drinking water, including dedicated funding to replace all lead pipes and service lines in the nation.

But time is of the essence.

“Our water systems really are sort of underground ticking time bombs,” Eric Olsen, senior strategic director for health at the Natural Resources Defense Council told ABC. “Because not only do we have lead pipes all over the country in all 50 states, but we have these aging water mains that burst 250,000 times a year across the country.”


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