Renewed Public Investment in Water Infrastructure Promotes Equality

Evan Isaacson

May 18, 2016

Clean water: We can't take it for granted, as the people of Flint, Michigan, can attest. And they're not alone. In too many communities across the nation, drinking water fails to meet minimum safety standards, forcing consumers to buy bottled water and avoid the stuff coming out of their taps.

We cannot say that we didn't see this coming. Part of the problem is that, as a society, we have always undervalued clean water. Municipal water rates only pass along a fraction of the total cost – the true cost – of the enormously complex endeavor of inserting ourselves into the natural hydrologic cycle. Nature does not recognize the distinction between "drinking water" and "wastewater." Expecting safe and clean drinking water when you put your glass under a tap requires the expensive task of managing water from source to tap to toilet and back.

For much of modern American history, obtaining clean water in sufficient quantities was the principal mission of an army of local, state, and federal officials (literally an Army, in the case of the Corps of Engineers), in part because it allowed for growth. So, we subsidized water rates, invested in water infrastructure, and – eventually – recognized that rapid growth in population and industrialization required regulation of water beyond merely keeping waterways navigable.  But that is ancient history.

The infrastructure of yesterday is aging and needs to be replaced at the same time that many of our public officials have decided it is time for our government to play a smaller and less hands-on role in our lives. So, even as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and American Society of Civil Engineers have regularly reminded us of our ever-growing water infrastructure needs, backed up by additional studies conducted by the Government Accountability Office, Congressional Research Service, as well as the private sector, trade groups, and international nongovernmental institutions, policymakers have continued to allow public investments to decline.

Good governance means accepting sound analysis, debating reasonable courses of action, and enacting needed policy changes. Bad governance denies science, dismisses the repeated warnings of experts and advocates, disclaims responsibility for providing basic needs and public goods, and offloads obligations wherever possible to the free market, whether it's a workable strategy or not. And so has dawned the age of the water crisis.

But crises of the Flint variety, those brought on by negligence and an obsession with short-sighted cost cutting, tend to disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in society. Flint's disproportionately low-income residents generally aren't rich enough to load up on bottled water while the government undoes the damage it helped cause to the water supply and infrastructure. It's worth noting, too, that the overall cost of fixing the infrastructure will likely exceed $100 million, a monstrously large sum given that the crisis was triggered by state-appointed emergency managers' efforts to save $2.5 million by cutting corners.

Not only do environmental crises disproportionately affect the most vulnerable people, but they also keep those people vulnerable. The lead in Flint's water, like so many chemicals and toxic pollutants, produces long-lasting health effects that impoverish and alter the course of peoples' lives. Lead, for example, has been linked to everything from learning disabilities to higher crime rates in areas with higher rates of poisoning. In this way, pollution and other environmental harms lead to an inequality of opportunity. 

Of course, these problems are not inevitable. They were created by intentional decisions made by people, and people can come together through government to address and fix them. Just as a strong financial commitment to public school systems can promote greater equality for people of diverse backgrounds and socioeconomic status, a strong investment in environmental and other forms of public infrastructure can level the playing field and provide a solid and equal foundation for everyone.

For example, the end of the 20th century saw a substantial decline in industrial pollution brought about by the creation of basic permitting and regulatory regimes and backed by enforcement sufficient to deter shortcuts, which led most companies to internalize more of the cost of pollution control as part of the cost of doing business. Creating the incentives to internalize environmental externalities, as economists would call them, has proven to be much more cost-effective through prevention than cleaning up after spills, reacting to disasters, and trying to restore degraded environments. 

Moving forward, good governance will require not only a recommitment of focus on regulatory protections in a way that reduces the environmental impact and costs for those most affected by that burden, but also supporting an adequate baseline level of funding for water and other infrastructure that ensures that all Americans – not just the wealthy – can once again rely on basic public goods like clean water.

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