THE BLOG

Drinking Water: A Human Right at Risk in America

02/25/2015 03:35 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015

Take a moment to imagine life without running water. Imagine the ordeal of having to find water not only to stay hydrated but also to bathe, clean, and cook. Imagine the challenge of caring for infants, the sick, or the elderly when the tap runs dry.

Over the past year, hundreds of thousands of Americans -- including residents of my hometown, Detroit, and residents of cities and municipalities around the country -- have had to live out this nightmare. While the causes and consequences of the nation's water crises vary, the core message for policy makers around the country is the same: We need strong and sustained investments to ensure all Americans' access to safe and affordable drinking water.

One year ago, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department announced it would begin an unprecedented policy of water shutoffs. Over the course of the year, more than 33,000 households, or 90,000 residents, were cut off from service for late payment or delinquency.

These shutoffs did not happen in a vacuum.

With its location on the world's largest freshwater system, Detroit should have access to plenty of high-quality drinking water. Yet insufficient investment and shifting population resulted in household water rate increases of more than 119 percent over the course of a decade. Some residents on public assistance have been hit with monthly utility bills totaling more than 50 percent of their monthly household income. By denying residents the ability to maintain proper sanitation, these actions create costly long-term challenges of dysfunction and disease. Water shutoffs force residents to leave a city, further weakening the tax base and worsening the fiscal position of local government.

I fought alongside activists, concerned citizens, and nonprofit organizations to stop these coldhearted and counterproductive shutoffs and propose new long-term investments in affordable water. We won important concessions, including a temporary moratorium and financial assistance programs. But, as of the start of the year, nearly 14,000 customers were still without service, and there's risk of another 12.8-percent rate increase starting in July.

This year, I will be advocating to ensure that Detroit's Water and Sewerage Plan fully implements the water affordability plan passed by Detroit's City Council in 2006 to account for residents' financial need in water billing and to prevent discrimination in access. But we also need strong local, state, and federal investment in infrastructure around the country.

There are dire threats to safe drinking water beyond Detroit. Just an hour's drive south in Toledo, more than 400,000 people were left without water for two days in August after supplies were found to be unsafe for household use due to the presence of microcystin, a toxin from algae blooms in nearby Lake Erie. Earlier in the year, a toxic chemical used to process coal spilled out of a ruptured storage tank into the Elk River, leaving 300,000 West Virginia residents unable to drink or to cook, clean, or bathe with their tap water.

These ecological and industrial water crises -- like Detroit's crisis of affordability and access -- underscore the need for immediate investment. The EPA estimates that the capital needs of water utilities over 20 years amount to $384 billion and another $298 billion for wastewater and runoff.

On Thursday, Feb. 26, at 2:00 p.m. in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., I will be joining the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, a national human rights organization, for an important hearing on how federal, state and local agencies can come together to craft solutions to ensure universal access to quality drinking water. The panel will be moderated by the noted writer and scholar Michael Shank and will feature several of my distinguished colleagues in Congress, including Rep. Charlie Rangel, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Rep. Brenda Lawrence, Rep. Debbie Dingell, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee.

If you're in Washington, please join us for Thursday's discussion.

In the world's most prosperous nation, it's unthinkable that anyone should go without safe, affordable water.