Congress in recent years has not really been in the business of solving core public welfare problems like safe drinking water. Today the Senate, however, has taken a major step forward by passing the 2016 Water Resources and Development Act, S. 2848. WRDA bills are the annual appropriations bills to shore up the nation’s water service infrastructure. The Senate bill would provide $9.4 billion for water projects, hydrology and flood control, including $4.9 billion to address aging municipal water systems.
By and large, Americans take for granted that their municipal water supply systems deliver abundant, wholesome and safe drinking water. Water borne illnesses are rare in this country, and the professionals I know that operate these systems take their jobs seriously and feel the weight of the responsibility. And yet, there are colossal failures putting public health at risk—like Flint.
The Flint debacle reflects a complete absence of professional water management. The problem there was a change in water supply, and the failure to add commonly available corrosion inhibiting chemicals to the water to prevent lead pipelines from leaching lead into Flint homes. What should have been an inexpensive operational measure became a billion dollar pipe replacement project. And that figure doesn’t include the long-term costs to address health effects of drinking the water, not to mention the cost of a different kind of corrosion, that of the public trust.
But even well-managed municipal water systems, including those that tout the high quality of the supply, can have serious lead problems. My town of Portland, Oregon, has one of the purest water sources in the country, the Bull Run water shed on Mt. Hood. The water is so soft, however, that it has a corrosive effect. Luckily, Portland doesn’t have lead service pipes like Flint, but many older homes have lead solder in their plumbing, resulting in Portland exceeding lead drinking water standards in high risk households and schools.
The Portland Water Bureau is taking steps to address the lead problem, like raising the pH level in the water to minimize lead leaching. But Portland’s water rates are among the highest in the country, and the cost of maintaining safe water supplies is only going up. There is a practical limit to how high water rates can go, and communities with fewer resources than Portland struggle to keep up.
This is where the federal government is supposed to step in, to address problems that exceed local capacities to protect the public. Although a little late in coming, S. 2848 is a mostly bipartisan bill, which if enacted could move the needle in the right direction. Let’s hope this bill gets through the House and to the President for signing without further delay.