In Hot Water: How Do We Fix the Water Accessibility Crisis?

Posted on December 8, 2020

Courtney Ransom headshot

This article was written by Courtney Ransom who is a recent graduate from San Diego State University. Courtney wrote this article as part of the Water Resources Cohort. Read all the articles from the cohort.

If you are not yet aware, the water system in the United States is barely hanging on. I say the “water system” because I mean the literal, entire water system—human-made and naturally-occurring—from the water cycle to water infrastructure. The water cycle has kept our weather patterns predictable and our ecosystem healthy for billions of years, but the climate crisis is rapidly changing everything.

People in at-risk groups increasingly do not have reliable access to clean and safe water, presenting an issue of equity. So far, we have been successful in finding solutions, mobilizing our teams, and sharing information with our communities—but we need to work faster, harder, and more resourcefully to build a powerful, equity-focused water coalition that can tackle the challenges of tomorrow.

Access to safe water is not a worry for most Americans. But with the path we are charting, access to safe water will soon become a worry for more and more of us. Many water utilities, the organizations which operate a region’s water infrastructure (pipes, pumps, etc.), are not getting enough money to stay afloat. Water utilities have the challenge of maintaining and operating their life-sustaining infrastructure with the limited funds of ratepayers. In a 2019 survey of water professionals, aging infrastructure was listed as the biggest problem for water utilities.

Fortunately, water utilities find that increasing their community education and outreach builds political support for rate increases—allowing them to fund infrastructure and other projects. But in some communities where members can’t feasibly pay more for water, added community engagement cannot make much of a difference.

Notably, water affordability does not equal water accessibility. For example, an individual may have the means to pay for clean water, but nowhere to reliably get it. Members of traditionally disadvantaged communities—especially people of low-income, rural, tribal, and immigrant and/or refugee communities, face water access issues more often. A 2020 American Public Health Association policy statement describes the need for public health professionals and the Environmental Protection agency to collaborate and find solutions. The statement details how water utilities in vulnerable communities have a bigger burden to tackle… with a smaller budget. These communities are at risk of dangerous water quality issues: They have less money to fund maintenance and improvements for infrastructure and their water resources are often more contaminated by surrounding activities, like agriculture, industry, and waste. Too many have lost their lives and quality of life to the failure of our water systems, and we need to act now to fix it.

Along with increased transparency and input from public health experts, decision-makers should refer to guides like the US Water Alliance’s Pillars of Water Equity. Guides like this focus on access, investment, and resilience. By focusing on these pillars in decision-making, we can ensure access to an equitable, wet future.

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