You don’t have to live in Flint, Michigan, to be the victim of exposure to less-than-safe drinking water. A recent report by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that last year, millions of Americans were served by water systems with multiple lead-related violations. The violations point to the increasing need for upgrades to water supply system infrastructure nationwide.
“No amount of exposure to lead is safe,” according to the NRDC, which adds that it can be especially toxic to children. And, with estimates that from 15 million to 22 million Americans’ drinking water is routed to their homes through lead pipes that can leak lead into the water, the NRDC recommends greater investment in the nation’s water infrastructure to ensure safe drinking water throughout the country. The report says the current congressional funding of $2.37 billion per year for water infrastructure needs “falls far short of the enormous need.”
Other funding cuts related to water distribution in recent years have also contributed to the growing need for additional capital. The Association of State Drinking Water Administrators reports that in 2013, federal drinking water grant funds were cut significantly and 17 states cut their drinking water budgets by more than one-fifth.
Estimated cost for replacement of lead pipes is $5,000 per pipe, or between $16.5 billion and $50 billion. The reverse side of that, however, is that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates the cost to address deferred maintenance to ensure safe drinking water would be $384 billion by 2030.
The need for upgrades to many water systems throughout the country is evidenced in the report’s finding that more than 5,000 water systems that serve 18 million Americans in 2015 were operating in violation of the federal Lead and Copper Rule. But, that does not mean that every person served by that system has excessive lead in his or her water because not all homes were tested and lead levels can vary in each home.
Among the largest community water systems that had Lead and Copper Rule violations in 2015, according to the NRDC report, are the city of Houston, where more than 2.2 million are served by the system; the city of Hialeah, Fla., with nearly 300,000 customers; Howard County DPW Distribution in Maryland that serves 247,000 residents; and Racine Waterworks in Racine County, Wisc., which serves 105,000.
Although only serving a population of 87, the Beaver County RWD #2 had the highest number of Lead and Copper Rule violations reported in 2015 with eight. Nearly two-dozen water systems reported six violations in 2015.
The startling figures revealed by the NRDC report speak to the degree of age and decay in the nation’s water infrastructure, which includes millions of lead service lines that need replacement, large numbers of drinking water treatment plants that need improving and distribution systems desperately in need of repair or replacement of aging and outdated parts.
Unsafe drinking water is “a national problem that needs a national solution” states the report. And in this case, a major element of the solution – investment in water infrastructure by both the public and private sectors – not only will ensure safe drinking water nationwide, but will also create jobs and provide for economic growth. A recent study revealed that an investment of $188.4 billion in water infrastructure over the next five years would generate $265.6 billion in economic activity and create approximately 1.9 million jobs.