Bridging the Water Access Gap Through COVID-19 Relief

Residents of Newark, New Jersey, receive free water after lead was found in the tap water in August 2019.

As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb, guidance around how to control the virus’s spread has become a steady drumbeat: Wash your hands, wipe down surfaces, and stay home. Implicit in these recommendations is the assumption that households have safe and clean running water and indoor plumbing. But for more than 2 million people across the United States, that basic human right remains out of reach. As Congress negotiates the latest installment in a string of COVID-19 relief packages, investments in addressing the inequitable access to safe and clean drinking water should be among its highest priorities to protect the health and well-being of all communities.

Insufficient water and sanitation services are most prevalent among the same populations with the highest infection and fatality rates from the virus—namely, those in low-income communities, tribal communities, and communities of color. A report by DigDeep and the US Water Alliance found African American and Latinx households to be nearly twice as likely to lack complete plumbing compared with white households. Native American households are 19 times as likely to lack complete plumbing. Long before the pandemic, clean drinking water and sanitation services were widely understood to be at the foundation of public health; in the absence of equitable water policies, however, they have become defining factors between those who can protect themselves from COVID-19 and those who cannot.

A legacy of water injustice

The unequal distribution of water and sanitation services originates from a history of environmental racism, including discriminatory practices in the development of water infrastructure. In Ohio, for example, the city of Zanesville and Muskingum County were found guilty of racial discrimination for denying public water service to citizens in predominantly African American neighborhoods for more than 50 years. In the San Joaquin Valley of California, redlining also excluded low-income and rural Latinx communities from the provision of municipal services and limited the funding they received to build water infrastructure. Now, the San Joaquin Valley has the highest rates of drinking water contamination in the state.

Native Americans have been subjected to water injustices for decades through the chronic failure of the U.S. government to honor treaty obligations. For the Navajo Nation, the struggle for equitable access to safe drinking water dates as far back as 1863, when the U.S. government launched a “scorched earth” campaign that forced the Navajo people from their lands and destroyed their water sources. Today, some families in the Navajo Nation have to drive for hours to haul water back from designated watering points. Others risk drinking from unregulated springs and wells that, while closer to home, may be contaminated by the more than 500 abandoned uranium mines on the reservation.

The issue of impaired water quality is as pervasive throughout the United States as it is dangerous. Flint, Michigan, captured the attention of millions when cost-cutting measures resulted in the lead-poisoning of drinking water predominantly provided to low-income communities and communities of color. But research points to the existence of and potential for thousands of similar cases across the United States. More than 9 million homes still receive their water through lead pipes. And a 2016 Reuters report found that 3,810 communities in the United States had lead-poisoning levels that were at least double those at the height of the crisis in Flint. Exposure to unsafe drinking water can cause a number of health issues—several of which, such as increased blood pressure, put individuals at a greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

The increasing challenge of water affordability

Even if households have access to safe drinking water and sanitation services, they still may not be in a position to afford them. Before the pandemic, an estimated 13.8 million U.S. households—or about 12 percent of all households in the country—struggled to pay their water bills. The financial resources of these households have been further strained by COVID-19 and the pandemic-induced economic recession. Water rates are also rising; on average, they have increased by 41 percent since 2010. At that pace, the number of households unable to pay their water bills could triple within the next five years, reaching upwards of 40 million.

One of the primary drivers behind rising water rates is aging and overburdened water infrastructure. The costs of leaking pipes, clean-up projects, and water contamination often fall on the same communities being directly affected by these problems. When households cannot pay their water bills, utilities reliant upon their rate revenue then struggle to safely maintain their services. Without other financing options, utilities may have to raise water rates further to compensate for the lost revenue of those who are unable to pay—and so the cycle continues.

Due to the intertwined nature of water rates and aging water infrastructure, entire communities—as opposed to just one or two households in an area—lack the ability to access or afford water and sanitation services. The American Water Works Association has reported that it will cost at least $1 trillion dollars over the next 25 years to maintain current water service levels, repair existing water systems, and build new infrastructure to service the growing number of people in need. Much of the cost of this investment will also be shifted back on to the rate payer, exacerbating the financial burden already placed on low-income households.

As Michele Roberts, co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, shared with the authors:

Access to clean water is a basic human right that must be protected for all children and families. Congress must prioritize investments in communities that are affected daily by inadequate, harmful, and health-impairing water infrastructure to ensure that all communities have access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water.

Policies necessary for water justice and immediate COVID-19 relief

The urgent need to provide access to affordable clean water and sanitation is reflected in the COVID-19 relief letter written by Reps. Donald McEachin (D-VA) and Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) to leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. Their priorities are shared in a similar letter that co-authors of the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform (EJNCP) wrote to Congress in March. As Congress finalizes its next COVID-19 relief package, it must take the following immediate actions to provide life-saving access to clean and safe water.

National moratorium on water shut-offs and $100 million to utilities to restore all residential water services nationwide

At one point, as many as 26 states and Washington, D.C., had mandated suspensions on utility shut-offs for nonpayment due to COVID-19. Five of these state suspensions expired at the end of July, and 10 others are set to expire in August. People’s ability to wash their hands during a pandemic should not be contingent on the state in which they live. Congress must enact a national moratorium on water shut-offs, as recommended by Reps. McEachin and Grijalva and the EJNCP co-authors. This moratorium is included in the House of Representatives’ HEROES Act, and it should be supplemented with $100 million to ensure utilities are able to restore water services.

$45 million to begin removing lead from drinking water

Funding should be allocated for grants and technical assistance to replace household plumbing and lead services lines. As recommended by Reps. McEachin and Grijalva and EJNCP co-authors, this funding should prioritize the households with plumbing systems that have been corroded by municipal drinking water systems, as in Flint, Michigan.

Low-income household water assistance

Funding should be dedicated to customer assistance programs to support low-income households in paying their water bills. The House of Representatives’ HEROES Act includes a provision for $1.5 billion in water bill assistance grants to states and tribes. Congress should include this provision in the final version of its stimulus package and look to establish a permanent low-income water assistance program, akin to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

To comprehensively address water access and affordability issues will require of Congress far more than a one-time stimulus package. Significant, long-term investments are needed to improve water infrastructure and support equitable water financing. These investments should include, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Small and Disadvantaged Communities Drinking Water Grant Program; the Reduction in Lead Exposure via Drinking Water Grant Program; the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund; and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. Additional funds are also needed for disadvantaged communities to support the capacity building and technical assistance necessary to apply for these federal funding opportunities. In the face of the worsening pandemic, however, the people having to haul water, endure water shut-offs, and drink from compromised pipelines cannot afford to wait.

Elise Gout is a research associate for Energy and Environment at the Center for American Progress. Cathleen Kelly is a senior fellow for Energy and Environment at the Center. 

The authors would like to thank Michele Roberts of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform as well as Tricia Woodcome of CAP for their contributions to this column.