POLITICS
05/23/2016 07:30 am ET Updated Aug 14, 2017

It's Disturbingly Common For Americans To Go Days Without Safe Drinking Water

The systems responsible for delivering water to homes and business are decaying faster than we can fix them.
Work crews assess the damage to a ruptured 90-year-old water main in Los Angeles in 2014.
Credit: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Work crews assess the damage to a ruptured 90-year-old water main in Los Angeles in 2014.

On April 19, Brian Power woke up to a big problem.

A 12-inch water main had burst open at 4:15 a.m. near the Cougar Country Drive-In, the restaurant he manages in Pullman, Washington.

The main break had dumped several hundred thousand gallons of water into the streets, increasing the risk of contamination for Pullman's water supply. The city issued a boil water order after the break, meaning its 31,000 residents had to boil their water before cooking, drinking or brushing their teeth.

Pullman didn't require area restaurants to close, which some municipalities have to do when boil order is in effect, but Power opted to shut down his restaurant for three days while the city carried out its repairs. It would simply be too expensive and challenging for the restaurant to adhere to the guidelines of the boil water order, he decided. 

“There was the option for us as a business to stay open,” Power told The Huffington Post. “But due to the equipment and how much direct water we pull from the line for our business needs, it was the better and safer option for us to be closed.”

That decision came with its own costs -- Power estimates that closing the restaurant resulted in him losing about 10 percent of the profits he would have made that month. 

What happened in Pullman is emblematic of a larger problem facing the U.S.: The systems responsible for delivering safe water to homes and business are decaying.

Most Americans are aware of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, but typically don't think similar conditions could affect their everyday routines. Lead didn't enter Flint's water supply because a water main broke, but the ongoing problems there illustrate how a lack of resources and short-sighted decision-making about a community's water supply can hurt thousands of people. 

Water is a daily necessity. Think about it: How many times a day do you use water from a tap?

If you live in the U.S. and are practicing basic personal hygiene, that number is probably at least five — if not much more. Beyond drinking, we use water to brush our teeth, shower and wash our dishes. We’re also using a lot of it — more per person than any other country — and tend to dramatically underestimate our usage level.

 

What's Broken Where?

It’s hard to say how many water systems are struggling to consistently deliver safe drinking water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention releases annual reports on waterborne disease outbreaks, but they don't draw a link between such incidents and the infrastructure breakdowns that can cause them. The Environmental Protection Agency lets customers access consumer confidence reports with information about their own water system's safety record, but the search function on these reports isn't very user-friendly. 

That's where the national data on water safety pretty much ends. Neither the CDC nor the EPA provided additional information on the subject when HuffPost asked for it. 

So to evaluate water systems across the country, we spoke with nearly a dozen experts on water policy and tracked a month’s worth of boil water advisories via an analysis of news stories.  

If we’re having to boil water, there’s clearly a failure in the system. David Dzombak, Carnegie Mellon University civil and environmental engineering professor

 

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that a water main breaks in the U.S. every two minutes

Anissa Lynn, a 22-year-old who works as a nanny, is familiar with how water main breaks can strain someone's patience and finances.

Lynn lives in an apartment complex in a medium-sized city about an hour outside of Indianapolis, and told HuffPost she’s been dealing with boil orders “on and off since January” -- she has experienced as many as three boil orders due to water main breaks in a single month. 

Boil orders make tasks like cleaning and cooking “nearly impossible to do,” she said. When advisories are in effect, she relies mostly on eating takeout and has to buy bottled water to brush her teeth.

The experience has been so frustrating that it's part of the reason why Lynn and her boyfriend have decided to leave the area.

“I've never had to deal with a boil advisory before I lived here,” she said.

Boil advisories are indicative of a larger issue, said David Dzombak, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

“If we’re having to boil water, there’s clearly a failure in the system,” he said.

 

How Often Are Americans Being Asked To Boil Their Water?

The frequency of water boil orders is simply not being tracked at a national level, several experts said. 

HuffPost used Google alerts to monitor how often people in the U.S. were required or advised to boil their water between Feb. 22 and March 22.

This analysis found 142 separate incidents in 27 different states involving at least some residents in a city or town being told to boil their water for at least 24 hours.

The southern region had more incidents than any other: Leading the way with 17 incidents was West Virginia, followed by Kentucky with 14; South Carolina and Florida each had 13, and Texas had 12.

Smaller cities greatly outnumbered larger ones in the sample. Seventy-three precent of the incidents happened in cities with populations less than 20,000. This is in line with a 2009 New York Times analysis, which found that the majority of incidents involving public water systems delivering contaminated water took place in smaller cities.

Only 9 percent of incidents took place in cities with a population of 100,000 or more — among them were Columbia, South Carolina; Toledo, Ohio; and Jacksonville, Florida. 

Most of the boil advisories -- 67 percent -- were due to a water line or water main breakage.

Cities or towns that were home to multiple, separate incidents are indicated by darker circles on the map below.

What Does It All Mean?

There are certain limitations to this data sample. 

Weather events like heavy rain or snowfall can contribute to main breaks and subsequent boil orders, said Steve Via, director of federal relations at water safety advocacy group American Water Works Association.

Via noted that these weather events often occur in late winter and early spring, when HuffPost’s data was captured.

Kevin Morley, also of the AWWA, noted that having more people than usual in an area can strain a water system and contribute to increased breakage rates. Florida, for example, was in the middle of a peak tourist season during the period of time HuffPost analyzed, which could help explain why the state experienced so many water main breaks.

Eastern states experienced more advisories than western ones. Eastern water systems are typically densely packed together, Via said, and therefore can be susceptible to a chain reaction of problems. 

Systems in the eastern U.S. also tend to be older — although an older pipe isn’t necessarily more likely to break than a newer one. 

“While age is a factor, it’s not the only factor,” Morley added.

What the pipes are made of and their installation conditions matter also.

 

Most of us don't think about these various factors — until, suddenly, something goes very, very wrong. And that can make the financial hit sting even more for the people and businesses affected.

Jackson, Mississippi, ordered a citywide boil order in March. Rather than closing up shop, the management at Manship Wood Fired Kitchen decided to take the precautions needed to continue serving food.

This meant draining a 300-gallon ice maker and getting it professionally cleaned, purchasing clean ice and bottled water from a vendor and adding extra steps to the cooking process, explained restaurant co-owner Steve O’Neill. Brewing tea was a particular pain, co-owner and chef Erroll Alexander Eaton added.

“You don’t realize those small things until you have to deal with it,” O’Neill said. “It’s all adding extra cost on an already thin margin.”

Power, from the Cougar Country Drive-In, similarly described the forced closure of his restaurant as a wakeup call.

"Suddenly when you don’t have water or the water you do have you’re not sure if it’s safe, it makes you appreciate more what is generally available," he said.

One side of the sink in this Flint home holds jugs filled with bottled water that a family can use to flush toilets. On
Credit: Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press via Getty Images
One side of the sink in this Flint home holds jugs filled with bottled water that a family can use to flush toilets. On the other side, bottled water that has been boiled for 45 minutes is used to wash dishes.

 

Where Do We Go From Here?

Water infrastructure rarely becomes a community concern until a crisis happens -- which could help explain why America’s water systems are in such dismal shape.

Funding for water infrastructure improvements is a particular concern, said Maura Allaire, a post-doctoral research scientist at the Columbia Water Center. 

Federal spending on water and wastewater utilities has stagnated since the 1980s, according to a paper released last year by the University of North Carolina's Environmental Finance Center. Because funding hasn't even been adjusted for inflation, its real impact has diminished over time. 

Expanding and repairing the nation’s water infrastructure would cost an estimated $1 trillion between now and 2035, according to the AWWA. 

That price tag includes the cost of replacing pipe networks, most of which are at least 50 years old, and updating existing networks to meet the needs of growing populations. It does not including funding new technology that could make systems more efficient, according to a new white paper from the Columbia Water Center.

The need to fix water systems is becoming increasingly dire. An EPA analysis reported an almost 70 percent increase in the need for water infrastructure investment — including pipe replacement and water treatment — between 1995 and 2011.

And the money to do what needs to be done is not there. The ASCE forecasts that the difference between the work that’s needed to be the done and the money available to do it could be $105 billion over the next nine years. That gap could grow to $152 billion by 2040 if it remains unaddressed.

The problem is, quite literally, growing by the day.

This strain on resources means that public water systems across the country — all 156,000 of them — are being forced to make do with what they have. Some have cut corners to save money while still attempting to meet the water quality standards laid out by the EPA and required by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

We have to look no further than Flint to see that cutting corners can come with a massive public health cost

This leaves a gap that state and local governments attempt to fill, usually by increasing water rates for customers at the local level. Politicians are typically hesitant to raise water rates in their areas -- particularly because the effects are felt “beyond the typical election cycle," Allaire said.

But delaying investment only makes the problems worse. Climate change isn’t helping either.

Soil movement associated with changes in annual rainfall and sea level rise can make water pipes more likely to break, water system company American Water noted in a 2009 paper. Increased agricultural runoff can make for toxic algal blooms that reduces the quality of raw water and increases the cost of water treatment.

All of this means there's less money available to make necessary improvements to water systems that are increasingly in a state of disrepair. 

 

A first responder from at the site of a water main break in the Queens borough of New York City in October 2015.
Credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
A first responder from at the site of a water main break in the Queens borough of New York City in October 2015.

Finding new sources for funding is the only clear solution to the problem, water safety advocates argue.

“The inability to keep up with the need from allocations from legislatures is now very clear and there’s no sign that the situation is going to change anytime soon,” Dzombak said.

But the crisis in Flint has pushed awareness of water quality into the public consciousness. In a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released last month, Americans ranked contaminated drinking water as a national health problem trumped only by cancer and heroin abuse. 

And drinking water safety continues to rise to the top of the news cycle, even if it's no longer dominating it. While visiting Michigan earlier this month, President Barack Obama said “an underinvestment in the things that we all share” was a consequence of a “broader mindset” that has undervalued safe water for the residents of Flint and other communities.

Now comes the question of how that underinvestment can be reversed. And that question remains open -- but urgent.

“There are going to be some tough choices we’re going to have to make in the very near future,” Allaire said.

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Alissa Scheller contributed graphics to this piece.

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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