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Turning A Blind Eye to Drinking Water Risks

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Drinking water contamination in Flint, Michigan, has garnered nationwide attention, but it is neither isolated, nor a primarily urban problem. As Madeline Kane explains in the April issue of ELR—The Environmental Law Reporter, a hidden water crisis is straining thousands of smaller communities that share Flint’s risk factors—shrinking populations, social marginalization, and deficient funds.

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency broad authority to develop and implement regulations protecting public drinking water quality. EPA accomplishes this vast mandate, which today extends to some 50,000 public community water systems supplying more than 300 million consumers with water, through (1) “state primacy” (delegated oversight and enforcement), and (2) “fiscal federalism” (relying on states to distribute federal funds and on state and local authorities to contribute toward assessed need).

Sadly, explains Kane, the SDWA’s increasingly decentralized monitoring and funding scheme has drained communities of the capacity to deliver safe water. Delegation of oversight and enforcement has been “plagued by reporting and enforcement failures at every level, which leave the full extent of America’s water problems invisible and unchecked.” Meanwhile, “fiscal federalism” has made states and localities responsible for the majority of infrastructure funding, which has widened the funding gap, particularly in the neediest areas.

Kane argues that the federal government's “deliberate and inadvertent blindness” to small systems' needs has left them in disrepair and unable to access assistance. “With their needs obscured by poor monitoring and enforcement, small systems are trapped in a cycle of noncompliance,” she writes. “They escape or actively evade government oversight—but without federal support, they are too underfunded to comply.” As a result, small systems are left with a Catch-22.

But Kane is not without hope, proposing a series of solutions to restore small systems’ viability and visibility: (1) smart pricing, (2) renewed federal investment, (3) capacity development, (4) consolidation, (5) community engagement, and (6) enforcement.

In the end, to restore small systems’ viability we must “harness the ingenuity and community pride it took for past generations to build them.” Instead of balking at our funding needs, we should “emphasize the health, employment, and economic dividends our infrastructure investments will yield. Only then might our most challenged water systems be viewed as assets, rather than liabilities, once more.”

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