Blair Horner: The Nation’s Growing Drinking Water Crisis

Mar 28, 2016

Recent events in Flint, Michigan and here in New York, the troubles in Hoosick Falls, Binghamton, Syracuse, Western New York, and Long Island, have focused public attention on the problems of keeping drinking water clean. 

But those problems are not isolated incidents: drinking water problems exist across the nation.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency projects it will cost $384 billion over 20 years just to maintain the nation's existing drinking water infrastructure. Replacing pipes, treatment plants and other infrastructure, as well as expanding drinking water systems to handle population growth, could cost as much as $1 trillion.

Water infrastructure problems are not the only problem.  As the planet heats up, water shortages will also strain the nation.  According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 40 out of 50 states expect some level of water shortage in the coming decade.  Droughts, floods, emerging climate change, water quality degradation, and aging infrastructure pose serious challenges to America’s water and wastewater systems.

It was against that backdrop that last week the White House marked “World Water Day” to “raise awareness of water issues” in the United States, and to help “build a sustainable water future through innovative science and technology.”

The United States will need innovative new technologies and management strategies to solve its growing water challenges, including continued population growth, climate change, and aging infrastructure, in the decades ahead.  

From Los Angeles to New York, many regions are not only contending with aging, overburdened water facilities—including areas with lead pipes similar to Flint—but are also confronting an enormous backlog of costssevere financial constraints, and difficulty in coordinating action across thousands of individual community water systems.

In the near term, the biggest issue may simply be identifying where the problems exist. Often, water piping systems are more than a century old.  As a result the most important maintenance needs can be difficult to identify, as the risk for widespread leaks and other public health concerns mount over time.  

With some of the oldest infrastructure in the nation, the pipes under New York's cities and towns are failing at an alarming rate: New York City saw 513 water main breaks last year; estimates are that as much as 20 percent of the treated water that enters the New York City’s pipes leak out before it even makes it to the faucet.  In western New York, there were 1,453 water main breaks last year.  The revelations of dangerous lead levels in the drinking water of Flint and in Binghamton underscore the dangers caused by apparent lax oversight and crumbling, century-old infrastructures.   The toxic chemicals found in Hoosick Falls and on Long Island underscore the hazards resulting from weaknesses in health regulation.

The problems will only get worse and the cost of fixing them is already huge. Estimates for fixing New York State’s water system range from $22 billion to $39 billion in costs over the next 20 years.

In response, the state has offered zero- and low-interest loans and grants. The state's Environmental Facilities Corp. has approved more than $400 million for drinking water projects in the past year.  Lawmakers approved $200 million in additional water funding earlier this year.

But the money is merely a down payment on the billions needed to address the problem.

Obviously, the plans to offer support fall far short of the need and the situation at the local government level is murky at best.  The state needs to step up with a plan that includes aggressive monitoring coupled with big bucks.

Some lawmakers are advancing legislation to require regular, public reporting of water tests.  For example, Senator O’Mara and Assemblywoman Lupardo are advancing legislation to require testing for lead in the drinking water supplies of schools.  Both have had schools in their districts report high lead levels.

While laudable, such reporting is only the first step in a long journey.  The state will need aggressive, public reporting programs and will have to put together a significant financial package – one that may entail a “drinking water bond act.”  A bond act allows the state to borrow money if it is approved by voters.

But the state’s leaders simply cannot ignore this festering problem.  It is time to act.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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