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The Daunting Water Crisis Requires a Bold Federal Response

In Jackson, Mississippi, and throughout the South, communities are struggling to meet their residents' most basic needs.

City of Jackson workers make repairs at the site of a water main break on East Pascagoula Street on March 08, 2021 in Jackson, Mississippi. Residents in parts of Jackson, Mississippi, where 80% of the residents are Black, have been without running water since mid-February after the city was hit by back-to-back winter storms. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

City of Jackson workers make repairs at the site of a water main break on East Pascagoula Street on March 08, 2021 in Jackson, Mississippi. Residents in parts of Jackson, Mississippi, where 80% of the residents are Black, have been without running water since mid-February after the city was hit by back-to-back winter storms. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

In Jackson, Mississippi, thousands of residents have gone weeks without water. It is a crisis caused by systemic injustices, crumbling water infrastructure, and the climate chaos that brought unprecedented freezing temperatures throughout the South in February. 

At a time when large corporate interests are increasingly exercising control over society, the WATER Act limits water funding to publicly run systems and small, locally run entities, ensuring that federal dollars go to public benefit—not to profiteering water corporations.More than 100 water mains burst in Jackson, leaving residents without water for bathing and cooking. Emergency bottled water was distributed across the city for drinking, and some residents have also gathered and used melted snow and rainwater.

This should not be happening in the United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world. And while the water woes being experienced by residents of Jackson are more acute than in other places struck by the recent freezing Southern weather, communities throughout the South have experienced widespread water main breaks and failures, largely driven by an aging infrastructure

Recent years have seen a spate of severe water crises—in Flint, Michigan, rural California, and Martin County, Kentucky, to name a few. Nationally, millions of people lack access to clean, reliable water. Our water infrastructure is crumbling and fiscal austerity is at the core of the problem. 

Each year, more than 240,000 water main breaks occur, wasting more than two trillion gallons of drinking water. For decades, federal funding for water infrastructure has been declining. It peaked in 1977, and since then spending has been cut by 77 percent (based on real dollars as of 2017). 

This dramatic cut in federal support has increased the burden on state and local communities, which have struggled to keep up. In cities like Jackson that have experienced a declining tax base, the problem has been dire. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba estimated it would cost $2 billion to bring his city’s water system up to date. The city’s total annual budget is only around $300 million. 

The inability of cities to replace aging pipes is just one part of our national water crisis. We also have an aging wastewater system, rampant lead contamination, a separate and lurking rural water crisis, and significant water needs in Indigenous communities. 

Unsurprisingly, the hardest impacted communities are largely communities of color. Jackson’s population, for example, is more than 80 percent Black. Study after study has found that Black and Indigenous communities disproportionately lack access to safe water in the United States. 

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This daunting crisis requires a bold federal response. As President Joe Biden and Congressional leaders assemble a much-hyped infrastructure package, they must prioritize funding for our aging water systems. 

A blueprint for what this funding should look like is the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act, recently introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders and Representatives Brenda Lawrence and Ro Khanna in the House. 

The WATER Act would provide $35 billion a year to restore and renew our aging water infrastructure, including targeted provisions to help hard-hit areas like low-income communities, rural water systems, and Indigenous communities. It includes grants to schools and homeowners to replace lead pipes and service lines, and it would help make our water systems climate resilient—something for which the current crisis in Jackson has starkly demonstrated the urgent need. 

President Joe Biden has said he intends to introduce an infrastructure package in the coming weeks to help the economy recover from the COVID-19-induced recession. Investing in water infrastructure would certainly help do that, and spending proposals laid out in the WATER Act could create nearly one million jobs across the economy. The bill’s requirement that the infrastructure be built with U.S.-made iron and steel, along with prevailing wage requirements, would further help workers and the economy. 

At a time when large corporate interests are increasingly exercising control over society, the WATER Act limits water funding to publicly run systems and small, locally run entities, ensuring that federal dollars go to public benefit—not to profiteering water corporations. 

Our nation is facing multiple crises—the pandemic, an economic downturn, a climate crisis, and a water crisis. President Biden has an opportunity to lead the nation through all of these. To do so, however, requires real leadership and a comprehensive agenda. 

In fighting for significant funding for public water infrastructure, Biden and Congress can help ensure that millions of people in the United States have reliable access to clean public water, while simultaneously revitalizing the economy and building climate resilience for our collective future.  

Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of the consumer advocacy group Food & Water Action. She has worked extensively on energy, food, water and environmental issues at the national, state and local level. Experienced in developing policy positions and legislative strategies, she is also a skilled and accomplished organizer, having lobbied and developed grassroots field strategy and action plans.

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