POLITICS
02/11/2016 05:45 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2017

America’s Water Infrastructure Is In Absolutely Terrible Shape

The problem isn't limited to Flint and the fix is a complicated and politicized mess.
Volunteers distribute bottled water to help combat the effects of the crisis when the city's drinking water became contaminat
Jim Young / Reuters
Volunteers distribute bottled water to help combat the effects of the crisis when the city's drinking water became contaminated with dangerously high levels of lead in Flint, Michigan.

As the residents of Flint, Michigan, continue to grapple with their toxic drinking water, a disaster that will continue to be felt for decades, we are understanding more and more that Flint is not as much of an aberration as we'd like to think.

One of the key factors contributing to the crisis in Flint, the city’s decaying water infrastructure, is not unique. The nation's water infrastructure needs exceed $600 billion, and the funding is not there to meet those needs, according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

That fact has not been lost on prominent people like activist Erin Brokovich, actor Mark Ruffalo and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, all of whom have pointed to examples of other communities in states other than Michigan, including New York, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania that have also dealt in recent years with elevated levels of chemical contaminants, like lead, in their drinking water.

Exactly how big is the problem beyond these headline-grabbing catastrophes? It’s hard to say. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention releases annual reports detailing outbreaks where biological contaminants -- like E. Coli or Legionella -- impacted a community’s drinking water, such data is more difficult to come by when it comes to man-made crises like Flint.

To get an idea of why that is, The Huffington Post recently spoke with David Zetland, a water policy expert and professor of economics at Leiden University College in Den Haag, the Netherlands. In 2014, Zetland published Living With Water Scarcity, a book examining questions of water safety and access.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Given what's unfolding in Flint, a number of prominent voices have pointed out that many of that city's water issues are not unique, but we're not seeing data backing it up. Why are we relying on isolated examples with such an important issue? Shouldn't we know more?

I think the way to approach that question is to consider how water is usually managed. In most instances, drinking water is provided by some kind of public or private entity with the support of the government. It’s a natural monopoly and you are told what to do. If you’re told you need to measure the amount of lead or chlorine in the water or deliver Game Boys to every household, they’ll do it. Their job is to follow these commands. If you compare that kind of system to a more consumer-driven industry, the metrics of success and performance evolve essentially according to whatever customers are looking for. 

I’m not calling for water to go to the market, but if I’m suggesting ways to improve this, one way is more responsiveness to what consumers are interested in. It’s not necessarily just a dialogue between the regulator and the water utility. The nitrates in the groundwater in the eastern U.S., as far as I can understand, are a time bomb waiting to explode. And we pretty much know people consuming well water near farms are already getting too many nitrates in their water. There are a lot of these kinds of contaminants out there and there’s got to be a fine line between testing for everything and regulating everything out of the water because, quite frankly, what you can detect is not necessarily unhealthy for you and removing the contaminants from water is costly.

Most people want them removed but don’t want to pay for it. And this is the narrative you could almost copy and paste onto any water quality story that’s happening right now.

"There’s a whole change of institutions and management every one of these cities is going to have to go through if they plan to remain inhabitable in the next 150 or 200 years." David Zetland, water policy expert

You study water policy throughout the world. How much is this a uniquely American problem vs. something other places are also struggling with?

I wouldn’t say there’s anything unique to us. What tends to happen is people in developing countries have poor water quality from the beginning and usually are going to suffer from bacterial contaminations. They literally have a boil order on their water 365 days a year to make sure it doesn’t kill them. With different building codes in different countries, the lead pipe issue might predate water systems in their countries, so they won’t be exposed.

There is a very significant difference between the U.S. and a lot of European countries. I live in the Netherlands where the infrastructure is 150 percent intact. They over-maintain the network. That’s the problem Flint would like to have. And I think one of the reasons this shows up in the Netherlands is they’ve been crazy about water since forever, otherwise we’d be washed away.

But a more interesting way to talk about it is the question of how many renewal cycles your city has gone through. Many water systems in the U.S. are still on their first infrastructure. If you look at cities like Phoenix or others that have grown recently, they put in the pipes in 1900 or 1950 and haven’t gone through the whole 50-100 year cycle, so they’re not used to renewal. Other systems are past the first cycle.

Are there some American water systems that are approaching this in a more effective way?

[Washington] D.C. is a place where they had a system in very bad condition. Their new manager [George Hawkins] basically said, “You’re going to have to pay more for water and we’re going to do everything we have to do. Sorry, the water bill is going up.” And the likelihood of a Flint disaster is going to be lower. Some of these cities have gotten used to the idea that we have to renew the system and are on system 1.5 or 2.5. The Dutch might be on their fourth renewal. They have the technology in place to inspect pipes, crews that are used to doing this and the building permits to make it happen. There’s a whole change of institutions and management that every one of these cities is going to have to go through if they plan to remain inhabitable in the next 150 or 200 years.

This is an urgent issue but many Americans are still unaware or uninterested. How do you make them care? How do you make water sexy?

The main thing is that these water managers and water professionals are sometimes doing a great job and sometimes not and it’s not obvious to the water consumers what’s going on. I’m a big fan of benchmarking the water utilities against each other. A lot of them don’t want to be compared to each other, but that’s something regulators can order and we know how to do it. There’s a World Bank initiative called IBNET that does benchmark utilities around the world, but most U.S. utilities are not in that database.

I’m also a big fan of water quality testing at the tap. What you have going on right now in the U.S. is people are basically either too afraid to ask the question of “Should I be drinking my water?” so they're drinking it or showering with it or, instead, they’re buying bottled water because they don’t trust their tap water. If I was going to address that head on, I would say the utility should have a program that’s maybe subsidized and maybe randomized that would not only test tap water at peoples’ taps, but publish those results and geocode it on the web. Then you could go on Google Maps and, say, 14 houses within one block of your house were tested for water quality and 12 of 14 passed all the standards. It’d be like having maps for sex offenders. We need a drinking water quality test failure map or success map.

Obviously, that costs money, but I would pay money to do that. And at a certain point, 1 house tested per 50, the data starts to get pretty good and that information allows people to trust the system.

So it all comes back to money -- why is it such a challenge to shore up the funding to make improvements that are essential? 

Water pricing is very politicized even though the water itself is a very obvious commodity that should be delivered through a good quality system. It’s necessary for a sufficient level of civilization, and you can’t be a developed and civilized country without it.

But both public and private water providers are regulated either by the other city employees -- which creates a conflict of interest -- or a statutory regulator, and they’re all under pressure to keep prices down. A politician can’t allow a price increase, so they put downward pressure on water prices since they can’t do that on cable bills or hot dog prices or Super Bowl tickets. Everyone thinks they’re a hero until that pressure results in no water at all. And usually those politicians are retired by then.

Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email joseph.erbentraut@huffingtonpost.com.

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