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5 Deadly Threats to Our Precious Drinking Water Supply

World Water Day is a chance to stop and realize that humanity is facing a frightening water crisis.
 
 
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If you brushed your teeth this morning or flushed the toilet or had a cup of coffee, consider yourself lucky. Actually, if you turned on your tap and potable water freely came out, consider yourself truly blessed. Because so many of us in the United States are in this situation it can be easy to forget that nearly 900 million other people aren't so lucky. It can be easy to forget that globally we face a frightening water crisis. And it can be hard to notice that even here in the US there are dire threats to our water supply right now.

The people hardest hit by the water crisis are in developing countries -- places it is easy for many world leaders (and the rest of us) to overlook. And even the number of those without clean water -- last tallied at 884 million -- can be hard to grasp. Here's another way of looking at it: if you take that number and translate it into the population of developed countries, the people living in the world today without access to clean drinking water would equal all the people living in the US, Canada, Argentina, Chile, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, France, Germany, England, Italy, Spain, Japan, Australia and Norway.

Like our economic, food, health and climate crises, if you're a person of color and/or poor, you'll be hardest hit. According to the United Nations, if you are a poor person living in a slum you're likely to pay five to 10 times more for water than wealthy people living in the same city. And so too, are women disproportionately affected because they are the ones responsible for getting water each day in most developing countries -- work that often means hours of difficult labor under dangerous conditions. 

In a story for National Geographic, Tina Rosenberg writes about Aylito, a 25-year-old woman who has to walk an hour each way to a dirty stream to collect water for her family -- three times a day. Seventy percent of the people in her community have a waterborne disease and even the nearest health center often lacks clean water. When an NGO proposes a project that could bring clean water and sanitation to within steps of her home, Aylito's response is heartbreaking. Rosenberg writes, "She has never dared to think that someday life could change for the better -- that there could arrive a metal spigot, with dignity gushing out the end."

With that sentence, Rosenberg captures the essence of the water crisis; it is about life and death, but it is also about the quality of our lives and our human dignity. Who we are as people is tied to our access to water throughout our lives. From our birth to our breakfast this morning, our lives have been shaped by how much water we have, where we got it from, and how clean it is. And depending on where we live, the water problems we may face will look vastly different -- from drought to pollution to poor management.

Here in the US, clean, affordable, safe drinking water faces five threats:

1. Racial and Economic Inequalities

While an international law recognizes the human right to water, unfortunately there is no binding enforcement and in the US there are no laws guaranteeing that you'll have clean water or that you'll be protected from water shut-offs if you can't afford it. One of the areas that has been hardest hit is Detroit, a city that is majority African American. The unemployment rate is 1 in 6 and in some neighborhoods as high as 50 percent. As a result, water use went down too -- Detroit's water utility supplied 20 percent less water in 2009 than it did in 2003.

Usually we think using less water is a good thing, but the city's water utility saw the loss of water use as a loss of revenue, so they hiked rates. A community already hit hard struggled even more to keep up. In 2006, the number of people who had their water shut off reached 45,000. Unpaid water bills were added to property taxes, meaning that people who couldn't pay risked losing not just access to clean water and sanitation, but their homes as well.

Elsewhere in the US there are similar issues. An estimated 13 percent of Native Americans lack access to safe water and/or wastewater disposal, compared to less than 1 percent of non-native American households.

The racial disparities abound elsewhere, too. In California's Central Valley, many Latino farmworker communities have unsafe drinking water, mostly from nitrate pollution from farms and feedlots. As Rebecca Plevin writes for New America Media: 

In Tulare County -- where 60 percent of residents are Latino and 23 percent of people live below the poverty line -- about 20 percent of the small public water systems are unable to meet the nitrate maximum contaminant level on a regular basis, and another 20 percent of small systems are over half that maximum level, according to the report.

High levels of nitrate come from fertilizers, animal factory waste, and leaky septic systems, according to the Community Water Center. Nitrate levels above state and federal standards can cause death in infants less than six months old, stillbirths, and cancer in adults.

Valley communities inevitably shoulder the costs of this water pollution, de Albuquerque said. She describes how residents of Seville -- where the median household income is $14,000 -- devote about 20 percent of their income to water and sanitation costs.

2. Privatization

We all know the water we drink comes at a price, but many of us may not think about who "owns" our water. Does it matter if our water comes from a public utility or a private company? Sometimes it may matter a great deal.

The former logging town of Felton, California, found this out when the small company running its system was sold to California American, a subsidiary of American Water, which was then acquired by the London-based Thames Water. In the first year, the company issued a 74 percent proposed rate increase over three years. The town fought back, but within a few years, services had gone down, rates had gone up and residents began to organize. They formed FLOW -- Friends of Locally Owned Water and came up with a plan to buy back their water system and have it run instead by a neighboring public utility. They had to convince their neighbors to pass a ballot initiative for $11 million -- which meant accepting a property-tax increase of $600 for 30 years. People were so unhappy with the company that they passed the ballot measure with 74 percent of the vote.

A similar story happend in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, when the town decided to sell off its drinking water and wastewater infrastructure in 2001 and invest the money in a trust fund to be used for city services. Privatization didn't end up being the economic boon the city was promised. Tough economic times drained the city's trust quickly and residents saw their water and sewer rates jump 85 percent since American Water, the largest water corporation in the country, took over. Then in 2010, the company proposed a 229-percent rate hike for sewer services, forcing the city to have to spend more money legally fighting the increases.

Actually, the economic problems of cities is one of things that often draws interest from multinational water companies looking to buy or lease public water systems. Much like Naomi Klein's explanation of "disaster capitalism" in The Shock Doctrine, companies use a crisis to cash in. But often things don't work out for the best interest of the city or town. According to a 2002 Century Foundation survey of 245 municipalities, 73 percent of them ended private water contracts because of poor service. And a 2009 report from Food and Water Watch found that out of nearly 5,000 water utilities and 1,900 sewer utilities, private companies--which are beholden to shareholders--charge up to 80 percent more for water and 100 percent more for sewer services.

For some the idea of private versus public water systems may come down to a matter of economics and efficiency -- who provides the best service and best prices. Of course, people don't get to shop around to determine which water company they want: there is one set of pipes in town.

For others, is it a matter of principle and the belief that water, which is essential for life, should be publicly controlled and not run by a company that has its shareholders as its top priority.

3. Aging Infrastructure

One of the reasons municipalities are faced with difficult choices when it comes to their water systems is because a whole lot of our infrastructure is old -- 100-plus-years old in some places -- and the cost of repairing or rebuilding that infrastructure has become expensive at the same time communities are struggling economically in other ways. The federal government used to pay for most new water projects. Prior to the 1980s, 78 percent of funding for new water infrastructure came from the federal government, but that's down to only a few percent now. And money once doled out through the Sate Revolving Fund has been drastically cut as well.

It's all part of a larger privatization push in the last 40 years that has resulted in a fire sale of things that were once part of the commons and belonged to the people.

Currently our infrastructure leaks about 7 billions gallons of water a day -- enough to supply 70 million people a day. In 2009 the American Society of Civil Engineers gave our drinking water and wastewater infrastructure a grade of D- and the current EPA estimate of how much it may cost to fix it is around $335 billion more a year for 20 years, according to Elizabeth Royte in the anthology Water Matters.

There are a number of scenarios on how to get the money needed for upgrades. For one, we can raise rates across the board -- usually not the most popular option, but some communities have raised rates on a tiered basis, with those with the highest usage (like the folks who fill swimming pools and water large lawns) paying a higher rate then families who use water for just the basics. The second idea is a federal trust fund (similar to what we have for highways and harbors), where taxes on industries that draw on or dispose waste into the water would help support grants that would be distributed to communities through the State Revolving Fund. This is a favorite of enviro groups, but not so for big industry, which prefers a water infrastructure bank, backed by the Treasury, that would make low interest loans to communities.

Of course the other idea would be to drastically rethink our infrastructure with more water recycling, efficiency, green design, green roofs, permeable pavement, rainwater harvesting and a whole lot of solutions that are being implemented little by little.

4. Licenses to Pollute

How have we done in the 40 years since the Clean Water Act was passed? Back when the Cuyahoga River was flammable, about two-thirds of our rivers and lakes weren't safe for fishing and swimming. Today, the number is around 40 to 50 percent. Better, but not great. Why? Because the law has been chipped away over the years -- and it was an imperfect law to start, particularly because of its exemption for agriculture.

Two Supreme Court Cases in 2001 and 2006 created ambiguity over which waterways would be protected and there has been a recent legislative assault coming mostly from Republicans. In the last two years several bills have come out of the House of Representatives -- although not passed by the Senate -- that blatantly attack clean water laws. The Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011 basically stripped the EPA's right to carry out its duties to enforce the Clean Water Act. And there have been calls from Republicans to abolish the EPA altogether.

Investigative reporting from the New York Times' Toxic Water series puts into context how troubling this is. Without safeguards like the Clean Water Act we're in serious trouble. In fact, we need to be doing more, not less to protect our waters. In 2009 Charles Duhigg wrote for the Times:

Records analyzed by The Times indicate that the Clean Water Act has been violated more than 506,000 times since 2004, by more than 23,000 companies and other facilities, according to reports submitted by polluters themselves. Companies sometimes test what they are dumping only once a quarter, so the actual number of days when they broke the law is often far higher. And some companies illegally avoid reporting their emissions, say officials, so infractions go unrecorded. ...

Some violations are relatively minor. But about 60 percent of the polluters were deemed in "significant noncompliance" -- meaning their violations were the most serious kind, like dumping cancer-causing chemicals or failing to measure or report when they pollute.

Even more shocking then the fact that companies are polluting this much is that they're getting away with it. As Duhigg writes, "The Times's research shows that fewer than 3 percent of Clean Water Act violations resulted in fines or other significant punishments by state officials. And the E.P.A. has often declined to prosecute polluters or force states to strengthen their enforcement by threatening to withhold federal money or take away powers the agency has delegated to state officials."

In Water Matters, Jeff Conant says, "It is not merely who owns the water, but who has a right to pollute and exploit it." Right now, we've given industry a virtual free pass to pollute. In one example, Duhigg writes about the effects of coal mining where the toxic waste slurry that is leftover after the coal is cleaned is injected into abandoned mines where it can leak into the water supply. He explains what has happened in one area near West Virginia's capital: 

In the eight miles surrounding Mrs. Hall-Massey's home, coal companies have injected more than 1.9 billion gallons of coal slurry and sludge into the ground since 2004, according to a review of thousands of state records. Millions more gallons have been dumped into lagoons.

These underground injections have contained chemicals at concentrations that pose serious health risks, and thousands of injections have violated state regulations and the Safe Drinking Water Act, according to reports sent to the state by companies themselves.

For instance, three coal companies -- Loadout, Remington Coal and Pine Ridge, a subsidiary of Peabody Energy, one of the largest coal companies in the world -- reported to state officials that 93 percent of the waste they injected near this community had illegal concentrations of chemicals including arsenic, lead, chromium, beryllium or nickel.

Sometimes those concentrations exceeded legal limits by as much as 1,000 percent. Those chemicals have been shown to contribute to cancer, organ failures and other diseases.

But those companies were never fined or punished for those illegal injections, according to state records. They were never even warned that their activities had been noticed.

5. Dirty Energy

The battle over our energy future is already in full swing. As fossil fuels become harder to get to, will we continue to use more and more outrageous practices to extract them, or will we make the switch to clean energy? So far, as the BP spill in the Gulf reveals, we are still trying to get to fossil fuels that are well out of reach. Oil companies are clamoring to drill in the Arctic; coal companies are using destructive mountaintop removal mining; gas companies are resorting to hydrofracturing (or fracking) shale; and Alberta is being plundered in the dirty pursuit of tar sands.

All of that will have huge implications for our water supply -- how much we have to use and how clean it is.

Mountaintop removal mining has buried over 1,200 miles of headwater streams in Appalachia. Communities have seen their wells polluted from mining waste and live in constant fear of floods and spills from waste -- like the sludge impoundment that breached its dam in 2000 in Martin County, Kentucky sending over 300 million gallons of toxic sludge into creeks and across people's lands, destroying the drinking water for 27,000 residents.

Tar sands production in Alberta, Canada uses 2.5 to 4 barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced and has resulted in waste-filled lakes as big as 50 square kilometers that are so toxic they're deadly to any birds that land in them. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would carry more tar sands across the US -- all the way to the Gulf, where it will be mostly shipped overseas. The potential for a spill in US is big. TransCanada said its first Keystone pipeline which is already operational, would likely spill once in seven years but there have been 35 spills in two years.

And fracking, which has gained notoriety from the popular film Gasland is threatening water quality all across the US -- from Pennsylvania to Texas to Wyoming to California. Residents near fracking sites have complained of health problems, water contamination and even dangerous methane leaks. Companies looking to cash in on the natural gas gold rush are also steamrolling local governments. In Steven Rosenfeld's report on Pennsylvania's new Act 13 law, he writes:

Act 13 stripped local municipalities of zoning authority to block wells and any related operation--pads, pipelines and processing plants. It imposed a new tax on wells--but only shares those revenues with towns that delete anti-drilling provisions from local zoning codes. It empowers the state's Public Utilities Commission to invalidate zoning codes that might block drilling, and tells the PUC it must act on behalf of "aggrieved" landowners or gas companies. Similarly, Act 13 gives gas companies eminent domain power to take property for drilling operations. And it imposes confidentiality rules for physicians and health professionals who might treat anyone suffering from a drilling-related illness, and says those medical files are not public records.

Turning Crisis into Opportunity

Much like the climate crisis staring us down right now, our water woes offer a chance to rethink business as usual. Water puts us at a crossroads of food, agriculture and energy. All are areas that need to be overhauled if we are to stave off crisis and get this country back on track. But to do that we'll need leaders capable of seeing further down the line than the next election cycle. And leaders who aren't in the pocket of corporations because the water crisis is also a crisis of politics, democracy and economics. And we'll also need not just elected officials, but people in their communities who are willing to fight back against polluters, against inequality in distribution, and for greener and more holistic solutions to water management.

This is not something we should do; it is something we have to do.

Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet and editor of the new book Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.
 
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