One of the wealthiest counties in the world, the United States of America, has third-world water supply issues in rural, low socioeconomic, and tribal communities.
A 2019 report was done by several researchers, funded by the Robert Woods Johnson, United Methodist Committee on Relief, and the Water Foundation. The report stated that more than two million Americans are living without running water and basic indoor plumbing. Tribal communities travel hours to get clean water, and there are places in the American South were people drink from polluted streams. There are areas where water access is so poor it could be a fire hazard.
This report also analyzed water quality and wastewater issues by race and found that Native Americans were nineteen times more likely than whites to have lack of access to plumbing. African-Americans and Hispanics were twice as likely to have issues when compared to whites, and the combination of these populations, adding Pacific Islanders, had the highest percentage of homes lacking complete plumbing. “Another report from the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE) and Columbia University, which compiled data from other studies to analyze the human rights impact of lack of basic sanitation, cited that between 1.4 and 1.7 million Americans do not have a toilet, tub, shower, or running water. One in five American homes are not connected to municipal sewer lines.”1,2
In July 2021, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced it was making a $307 million investment to help modernize drinking and wastewater in 34 states and Puerto Rico. This money will replace lead pipelines, service lines, and help address issues in communities who are highly affected in rural areas. States that will be included in this investment: Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Puerto Rico.3
Many communities in the U.S. are suffering from unclean water situations. In rural Alabama and Mississippi, the Black Belt Region with its dark clay soil has many water problems, as the soil doesn’t allow drainage. A county in Alabama runs its wastewater into a lagoon. When it rains it can be a disaster to the health and well-being of this community. Wastewater runs through yards from the lagoon’s overflow. In Lowndes County, Alabama, another rural county of 10,311 people, only 20% of the homes are connected to a sewer system.4
Colonias, unincorporated housing developments located on the Texas-Mexico border, still have families that lack safe drinking water. Water is stored for days in tanks before being used, which can result in contamination and disease. In 2020, a professor from The University of Texas at El Paso received a border grant to work with these communities. Dr. Santiago and her team worked to find solutions to this unsafe problem. Point-of-use water units were installed and Community Health Workers were used to educate the colonias’ residents about water safety. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is also working in this region to help residents have access to clean water. A USDA news release issued on 11/19/21 stated that Texas will get $1.4 million in rural community infrastructure to help people in the state.5,6
In 2019, an article published by the VTDigger reported that two-thirds of rural Vermont villages and downtowns are without a public wastewater system.7 It appears that a community in every region of America has a problem with water supply or wastewater. Minnesota has water issues, Pennsylvania as well due to abandoned coal mines. In other areas water supplies in farming communities often have harmfully high levels of nitrates, which seep into the groundwater from fertilizer and manure. Dos Palos, California with their high volume of toxic chemicals contaminating its water, and the well-known story of Flint, Michigan are a few examples.8,9,10
Unclean water, sewer problems, and water contamination cause many health-related problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “The presence of contaminants in water can lead to adverse health effects, including gastrointestinal illness, reproductive problems, and neurological disorders. Infants, young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people whose immune systems are compromised because of AIDS, chemotherapy, or transplant medications, may be especially susceptible to illness from some contaminants.”11 Bacteria, parasites, and viruses are outbreaks that occur from poor public water systems. Toxic waste, pesticides, and other material found in drinking water also presents a health hazard.
The new $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, passed by Congress and the president last week, will help to provide clean water, sewer maintenance, and better health to these underserved and rural communities. With the new funding stream, multiple states now have the power to improve the water supply in many of their rural areas, and in turn improve the health of their residents, regardless of living or income situation.