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Millions of Americans have no drinking water. Can the Infrastructure Act fix that?

Laurie Bertram Roberts has been drinking mineral water for years.

The tap water she lives in is often questionable, she says. And sometimes it's straight brown.

Bertram Roberts, a longtime Jackson, Mississippi resident, has been dealing with the city's water issues since she was a college student. In their time there, centuries-old pipes in Jackson meant numerous waterline breaks, recurring messages about boiling water, and constant concern about water quality for many residents.

To deal with this, Bertram Roberts and her family rely on 5 gallon jugs of bottled water for drinking and cooking, and filtered water for showering and bathing.

"I lost track of the number of reports about boiling water," said Bertram Roberts, executive director of the Yellowhammer Fund, an abortion rights group.

Jackson's problems, which have long affected the southern and western parts of the city, came to a head last winter when an unexpected snap of cold weather caused pipes to freeze and burst, leaving about 40,000 residents without water for more than two weeks. In the meantime, residents used disinfectants to wash their dishes, snow to flush their toilets, and baby wipes to keep themselves clean. Local organizers, meanwhile, rallied to bring pallets of water bottles, which were often sold out in nearby stores.

"It was crazy," says Morris Mock, a board member of the grassroots Mississippi Rising Coalition. "You had mud (or whatever dirt came out of the taps."

A water distribution line in Jackson. The February water shutdown – which took nearly a month for some residents – was the longest the city has ever seen, following similar failures in 1989, 1994, 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images

Jackson, a black-majority city, is one of a number of places across the country struggling with aging infrastructure and water access, issues that have disproportionately affected communities of color. As reported by the Christian Science Monitor, a 2019 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that, “Drinking water systems that continually violate federal safety standards are 40% more common in places with a higher percentage of colored residents occurrence".

City officials are now placing their hopes on the congress infrastructure plan. The $ 1 trillion bipartisan proposal, passed by the Senate on Aug. 10, pending a vote in the House of Representatives, includes approximately $ 48 billion in new spending on drinking water and sanitation projects. It wouldn't necessarily solve all of the city's challenges – Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba estimates repairs and maintenance could cost up to $ 2 billion – but there could be a boost that has been needed for years.

Whether the money has this effect, however, depends heavily on whether the funds from the bill actually arrive in the city.

Jackson's water infrastructure is just too old

Many cities are navigating a shrinking water infrastructure, from pipes in Atlanta that haven't been replaced in decades to service lines in Chicago that leach pollutants into the water.

Jackson's recent water failure, despite being one of the most extreme and noticeable failures in the US water system, is an indication of this broader problem. The February closure – which lasted almost a month for some residents – was the longest the city has ever seen, but similar failures followed in 1989, 1994, 2010, 2014 and 2018.

As in other places, the problem Jackson faces has long been the same: his infrastructure is just too old.

Jackson, Mississippi is facing water shortages 3 weeks after winter storms

Jackson workers are making repairs on a water break on East Pascagoula Street.

Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images

"In some areas we have 100-year-old pipes," says Charles Williams, former head of the Jackson Public Works Department. "They have been in the ground for a very long time, and we patched the system due to a lack of funds."

As a result, problems such as water pipe ruptures, which lead to business interruptions and cracks that make it easier for contaminants to get into the water, have become more common. Williams estimates that there have been more than 100 water pipe breaks in the past year alone.

Equipping municipal water treatment plants – including Machines from O.B. The Curtis water treatment plant, which froze over during the winter storm in February, is also old, adding further delays in ensuring clean and potable water. Much of this equipment was also not properly weathered and is therefore particularly susceptible to cold spells.

"If you don't do the critical upgrades and maintenance you want, it'll break," says Williams.

While the EPA has made Jackson's water safe to drink as long as there is no evidence of boiling water, it is also calling for major repairs to their treatment facilities to better address potential contaminants. In 2015, annual water reports showed that lead levels in the city's water were nearly 50 percent above acceptable standards, the Clarion Ledger reported. Government analysis in June 2016 also found that more than a fifth of Jackson homes had water in excess of the federal government's “action” target, according to the Guardian.

Earlier this year, city officials put forward a plan to increase the workforce at the sewage treatment plants and repair machinery. The estimated cost includes $ 70 million to maintain two sewage treatment plants and $ 100 million to repair the distribution system – although Williams notes that the full price of a water overhaul will likely be much higher. (Lumumba's estimate of $ 2 billion for full repairs to Jackson's water and sewer systems slightly dwarfs the city's annual budget of $ 300 million.)

One reason the city couldn't solve its water problems is because it just didn't have the resources to do it. Over time, the city has reduced its population and tax base, which has significantly reduced its revenue for utilities and other services, as the Christian Science Monitor explained:

As in other major cities across the country, the integration of schools led to white exodus, and in later decades other factors, including rising crime rates, led to another exodus into the suburbs of Jackson's white and black middle classes alike.

With them went much of a tax base on which Mississippi's largest city historically depended.

Federal funding for water infrastructure has also declined sharply since the 1970s, forcing states and municipalities to close these gaps. (According to the U.S. Water Alliance, federal funds accounted for 63 percent of capital spending on water infrastructure in 1977, a number that has since shrunk to less than 10 percent.)

To raise more infrastructure funding, Jackson previously introduced a 1 percent increase in sales tax in 2014, which brings in around $ 14 million a year. In early 2021, the company also received $ 47 million under the US rescue plan, part of which will be allocated for water-related repairs. And state lawmakers awarded Jackson $ 3 million to repair water systems.

However, these measures are still not enough to solve Jackson's water problems. And in the face of funding constraints, the city has focused on using its limited water budget to contain the damage, rather than largely repairing it.

More federal funding could help the city cope with the overwhelming expense it still has if properly targeted. "This kind of federal government package really is our only hope," Jackson City Council President Virgi Lindsay said recently.

The Infrastructure Act may not be targeted enough to be effective

The much-needed funding for Jackson will depend on how Mississippi ultimately spends its infrastructure funds.

The EPA operates two programs to send state funds to repair their water systems: the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. But the amount they usually distribute is small compared to the scale of needs in a city like Jackson. Under the infrastructure plan passed by the Senate, much of the federal money for water systems would go through these programs, which are administered by the states, rather than going directly to needy cities and towns.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba addresses the city's water issue during a March 8 press conference.

Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images

In 2021, the federal government sent $ 1.1 billion to the states through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) and another $ 1.6 billion through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF). Mississippi received approximately $ 26 million of these funds, which it distributes in the form of loans and grants to local governments. (Also, because of the way the state revolving funds are set up, they contain more money than the annual federal grants received. For example, the Mississippi Drinking Water Fund has about $ 37 million to distribute in total in 2021.)

According to the Associated Press, "Jackson received nearly $ 20 million in the past four years and is seeking an additional $ 27 million (in 2021)" from DWSRF.

In the past, local residents and organizers have raised concerns about whether Jackson's water needs were adequately addressed by the state government: During the February water crisis, Mississippi officials moved slowly to issue a disaster declaration or offer additional assistance to the black-majority city.

And while Jackson received $ 47 million in federal funding from the US rescue plan, the state approved just $ 3 million of an additional $ 47 million in funding the city asked for to recover from its water emergency , a situation that has led some residents and activists to question whether racial prejudice played a role in the way some officials treated the city. Previously, the state legislature had sunk another proposal for a sales tax increase in order to procure more infrastructure funds.

"If it were a mostly white city of the same size, I don't think people would numb their feet to help," says Bertram Roberts. The governor's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Mississippi Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann pointed out how much federal money the city would receive when he talked about the state's decision to provide just $ 3 million earlier this year.

The money from the DWSRF and CWSRF, meanwhile, is segregated from state and federal government support that Jackson received after his water emergency, and is allocated through state agencies.

Jackson, Mississippi is facing water shortages 3 weeks after winter storms

Charles Williams (not pictured), former head of the Jackson Public Works Department, estimates there have been more than 100 water pipe breaks in the past year alone.

Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images

According to data from the EPA's Project Benefits Reporting System, passed on to Vox by Katy Hansen of the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, Jackson received approximately $ 20.2 million of the $ 253.9 million in funding between 2010 and 2020, that were allocated through the DWSRF, about 8 percent of the total pot money. Jackson's 170,000 residents also make up about 6 percent of the state's total population of 3 million, although factors other than city size, such as a location's reliance on inexpensive funding, contribute to the need for these funds. (Data from the Mississippi Department of Health also showed that initial lending for the city was $ 23.8 million between 2010 and 2020, in addition to an emergency loan of $ 467,000.)

Whether the money from the Infrastructure Act will actually be distributed to those in need like Jackson is an open question. Jim Craig, director of health protection for Mississippi, noted that state legislation would ultimately determine how the process would work, adding that officials have approved previous loans to the city that exceed the maximum loan amount set for the program of $ 5 Exceeded $ million.

A report from the Environmental Policy Innovation Center (EPIC), co-authored by Hansen, a senior water consultant at EPIC, previously examined the allocation of DWSRF funds by 10 states and found that several states were struggling to provide this aid fairly : Smaller towns and towns with a higher percentage of people of color have received less money from the program in the past, both because they had fewer resources to pursue this funding and because much of it was given out as loans rather than grants. The study did not include Mississippi, although Sri Vedachalam, EPIC's water director, noted that the dynamics of the report are likely to be relatively consistent across states.

"We see this pattern where money is given to certain types of communities while others struggle to secure that type of money," says Vedachalam. Because states have significant control over where that money goes, the increase the law offers doesn't necessarily guarantee Jackson will get enough extra cash.

How the infrastructure bill could help

The bipartisan infrastructure plan includes approximately $ 48 billion in new funding for water-related repairs. As detailed by the US Water Alliance, the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund is $ 11.7 billion for five years, $ 11.7 billion for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund over five years, and $ 15 billion intended for addressing leading service lines over five years, which are distributed via the drinking water fund. In addition, there is another $ 10 billion focused on emerging pollutants.

Overall, Mississippi is expected to receive $ 429 million over five years for water infrastructure when Congressional legislation becomes law, the Clarion Ledger reported.

Although the federal government still gives states significant leeway to determine how drinking water and clean water funds should be aligned, there are some provisions in the law that facilitate access for "disadvantaged communities" that are in Mississippi as having a lower level Median income are classified.

Almost half of the funds for the Drinking Water Fund and the Clean Water Fund are made available as grants, which could mean that these funds are more accessible to places that cannot borrow, including lower-income cities, for example. In the new draft law, 49 percent of the new funds are available in both cases as loans or grants for the release of capital. In addition, the bipartisan bill would require that a larger portion of the drinking water fund's resources go to disadvantaged communities.

A breakdown of US Water Alliance water funding in the bipartisan Infrastructure Act.

US Water Alliance

The amount of money in the bill – which every year more than 2 billion enormity of the problem.

For example, the NRDC estimates the cost of replacing lead service lines alone at up to 45 billion US dollars, so that the 15 billion US dollars in the bill only address this problem. For water infrastructure in the broader sense, the costs are also likely to be significantly higher than the approximately $ 48 billion in new funds contained in the bill, notes Scott Berry, director of politics and government at the US Water Alliance.

States also still have fairly wide discretion in determining which projects to prioritize. While Mississippi prioritizes projects based on a number of criteria, including compliance with drinking water regulations and a cost-benefit analysis, there is a relatively wide range of what this could mean. This prioritization, depending on how it's applied, could leave Jackson behind without the required funding, with state officials instead channeling federal funds to other water projects in the state.

Nevertheless, this would be one of the largest investments by the federal government in the water infrastructure in decades and what political experts see as an important “down payment” for necessary repairs.

"It's one of the, if not the largest, single investment in water infrastructure in 50 years," Berry told Vox. “That's not nothing. Will it solve all of the country's water infrastructure problems? Expressly no. "

The cost of not addressing America's water struggles

The consequences of not addressing this issue are devastating.

Without access to clean water, Jackson residents are forced to seek alternative sources of water while continuing to pay sometimes exorbitant water bills. It also means depriving people of a resource that is fundamental to their daily lives, a stark reality in a developed country like the United States.

"It was definitely shocking to know that we didn't have clean drinking water to cook with just to take care of our families," said Cassandra Welchlin, head of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable, of Jackson’s water freeze in February.

And even if access to water is safe, there are other concerns people have about drinking contaminated water. For example, lead in drinking water can lead to high blood pressure, brain damage and kidney problems. Several studies have shown that the health risks posed by lead contaminants can also have serious effects on children's growth and reproductive health.

In March, a water and food distribution point was established at the Jackson, Mississippi planetarium. There are still 2 million people in the US who do not have access to clean running water.

Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images

According to the NRDC, up to 20 million people likely get some of their water from lead pipes, along with others who get their water from very old equipment.

In 2016, Pittsburgh noted high levels of lead in its water, prompting the city to replace the thousands of lead lines that remain in place. In 2021, New Orleans is still grappling with aging infrastructure and repairs to a water treatment plant that opened more than 100 years ago. In 2019, Newark also noted elevated levels of lead in its drinking water, forcing the city to replace its pipes with new copper ones.

Across the country, the scale of the problem is alarming: According to a report by the US Water Alliance, there are still 2 million people in the United States who do not have access to clean running water, a problem that disproportionately affects “people on low incomes in rural areas, colored people, tribal communities and (and) immigrants. ”A 2018 study led by water economist Maura Allaire at UC Irvine also found that“ in any given year from 1982 to 2015, between 9 million and 45 million Americans got their drinking water from a source that violates the Safe Drinking Water Act. “Science reported.

The bipartisan Infrastructure Act has the potential to distribute much-needed funds across the country, but accurate implementation will be critical to ensure different locations really benefit from it.

“I am confident that the federal government's infrastructure funding will meet our needs. It absolutely has to, ”says Welchlin. "We can't afford another water crisis."

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