The first things that come to mind at the word “infrastructure” are roads and bridges. But access to clean water is one of the most important infrastructural resources needed to sustain human life and develop large population centers. However, many voters don’t consider clean water access or other related environmental issues, with the exception of well-publicized disasters like the Flint water crisis, to be of any real concern. Polling reports on the most searched topics going into the 2016 election cycle show that the issue of water safety has not truly entered the mainstream of American consciousness. Despite this apparent lack of interest and the sporadic coverage of tragedies like the on-going water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a significant structural water crisis pervades throughout the United States.

In the United States, lead water pipes are polluting the drinking water that millions of Americans use. Data from the Environmental Protection Agency  indicates that only nine states had safe levels of lead in their water supply from 2012 to2015. Overall, 18 million Americans live in areas that fail to meet this standard either because their water systems contain levels of lead above the safety threshold or they live in municipalities that fail to adequately test their water systems for lead contamination. On the more extreme end, there are eight water systems in seven different states and territories with lead levels above 1,000 parts per billion; as well as 25 water systems with lead levels above 200 ppb—well above the 15ppb threshold of safe lead levels.

Many of these instances can be linked to the use of old lead pipes to transport drinking water. A study from the American Water Works Association found that samplings of water that had been sitting in lead pipes had elevated levels of lead in 70.5 percent of water systems. As the study found, the corrosion of the lead pipes often leads to polluted water. This is exemplified by an episode in Brick Township, New Jersey in which corroded pipes led to a substantial increase in the lead concentration in the water over a three year period.

In addition to lead, many water sources are polluted with trace chemicals, some of which the EPA hasn’t studied or regulated. This has caused a lot of uncertainty, as many water systems draw from rivers loaded with sewage runoff and nitrates from fertilizer. This issue is compounded by the fact that a byproduct of nitrate removal from finished water is the toxic nitrosamine, a supposedly cancer-causing product found in bacon. Unfortunately, the uncertainty surrounding these pollutants can prove to be detrimental. In Toledo, Ohio, 500,000 residents were ordered not to use tap water after toxins were found in a city water treatment plant. In addition to toxic pollutants, nonpoint pollutants flushed down sewage drains can cause pollution problems as well. These include variants of estrogen, birth control pill compounds, and medications found in water that may not be too dangerous on their own, but pose a large risk when combined. According to a National Water Quality Inventory report, a lot of this pollution comes from agricultural nonpoint pollution. The issue of pollution is a very pertinent one in many communities, but it is extremely important to discuss pollution particularly as it relates to water safety.

The issue of poor water quality is even more dire because it disproportionately affects those living in impoverished, predominantly minority areas. About 188,000 Native Americans live in households that are in need of improvements to their water-treatment facilities and that face constant contamination risks, as revealed most recently by the atrocities at Standing Rock. This need is especially large for members of the Navajo reservation in the southwest, where, many tribal members have to rely on surface water and shallow aquifers. However, much of this surface water has been contaminated by the uranium mining conducted in the area. In addition, in the Coachella Valley of southern California,, it is common to see many impoverished and undocumented workers who have to drink from wells, among other frequently-contaminated sources of water. These cases are not isolated instances: up to half a million American homes lack  access to running water. Many of these “water islands” exist in various rural areas of the nation. In these parts, the problem is not a damaged water infrastructure, but a lack of basic water infrastructure.

Now that President Trump has begun to unroll his national agenda, talks will begin on the infrastructure plan he proposed during the campaign. When potential negotiations begin with the possibility of  bipartisan appeal, the rhetoric will most likely revolve around rebuilding many crumbling roads and bridges around the United States. While concerns about our roads are certainly valid, political leaders shouldn’t forget about the need to revitalize, and in some cases create the infrastructure necessary to give people access to our most fundamental resource: water.

Image Credit: Flickr/Vic Brincat

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