A Vision for Clean Drinking Water in the US and Beyond
We see a future with clean drinking water for all. In the United States, there is an opportunity to address water contamination, transform industry and infrastructure, and drive innovation that will enable the world to transcend water scarcity and pollution. From tap water at home, to parks and schools, we can and must focus on our most basic human need of clean water. This LIGHT CoCreative Point of View will explore the many complex challenges and interdependencies of our water system in the US. Our intention is to inspire awareness and positive change. May the problem definition, top solutions and ecosystem leaders we’ve identified refresh your imagination and vision for what’s possible in the near future.
Problem Story: The Water Reality for Flint and Millions More
For years every drop of water has reflected a daily struggle to stay safe and healthy for the residents of Flint, Michigan. Imagine that from showers to drinking water, bottled water being your only access to clean water. Nearly 30,000 schoolchildren have been exposed to lead in their drinking water, correlating to rising requests for special education and behavioral interventions in Flint. The percentage of students in Flint who qualify for special services has nearly doubled within a year of this lead exposure. Children are now facing lifelong consequences because of this exposure to unsafe drinking water. It’s time for more actionable suggestions and uncovering opportunities for change.
To better understand the current challenges for Flint residents we need to look at the challenges and missteps of local leadership. Recently, in an effort to cut costs and ease the financial crisis the city of Flint was facing, financial emergency managers appointed by the state decided to temporarily source water for the town from the Flint River as opposed to Lake Huron, the more expensive option. The water from the Flint River is not inherently dangerous, and would have been potable if it was treated properly to control corrosion as the water moves through the city's aging lead pipes. However, the city did not treat the water, a process that would only cost $80 to $100 a day, neglecting to ever install the pump needed for the treatment process.
The consequences of this decision primarily affected Flint’s children, exposing thousands to high levels of lead through their drinking water. Lead poisoning has long-lasting effects on children’s cognitive development, resulting in drops in the IQ of a population and increasing the number of children who need special education services. Lead poisoning in children has been linked to impulsivity, increasing the likelihood of conditions like attention deficit disorder and even violence and criminality.
The water crisis in Flint is one of the most notable examples of the dangers of toxic drinking water, but throughout the United States, millions of people are exposed to harmful chemicals in their drinking water. It is important to note that eighty percent of the unsafe drinking water violations in the U.S. are in small, underfunded water systems, further reflecting environmental injustice and systemic nature of the problem.
Although the EPA estimates that over 60,000 chemicals found throughout U.S. drinking water systems are unhealthy to consume, only 94 contaminants are regulated by the SDWA.
Furthermore, the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) is not sufficiently enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) across the entire nation.
Reframing Our Systemic Water Problem
In order to shape a shared vision and understanding for solutions, we need to explore several of the factors that contribute to the unsafe drinking water problem in the United States, including; aging infrastructure, fractional leadership, pollution, industrial waste, and education.
Most of the water infrastructure in the U.S. was built in the early to mid 19th century with an intended lifespan of 75-100 years. As pipes age they are increasingly susceptible to corrosion, resulting in lead or heavy metal poisoning of the water supply. Federal funding is based on the value of current assets, as opposed to need, resulting in increasing rates to repair water infrastructure which disproportionately affect low-income Americans.
Eighty eight percent of the population is served by decentralized water systems managed by local or state governments. Each locality is governed by its own board, resulting in vastly different systems, funding levels, rules and regulations across the country. The decentralized nature of these water systems makes it increasingly difficult to scale innovations across the country as they must be tailored for each utility. Smaller water systems are considerably disadvantaged in that they have less funding and less experience, making it difficult for these systems to afford and utilize new technology.
The water industry is also a tightly regulated, risk-averse market. As such, utilities are wary of experimentation with new technologies in favor of reliable service.
Pollution and Industrial Waste
For decades, local manufacturing plants, mining sites, and waste disposal companies have contaminated drinking water with harmful chemicals. There is little transparency about the effects of these chemicals on public health, as polluting companies are hesitant to share such information. As a result, there is little government regulation of chemicals that are not publicly disclosed as being harmful.
Consumer Perceptions and Education
Options for clean water can be expensive for consumers, particularly if they have little access to clean tap water. Bottled water and specialty water filters can cost over $100 per month, excluding lower income Americans from these markets. Water affordability and transition programs are in place in certain at risk communities, such as the January 26, 2021 settlement agreement for Newark residents – including free water testing to residents, as well as free filters and replacement cartridges. However, they require extensive public education to emphasize the importance of properly installing, using, and replacing filter cartridges given the health risks of using expired or improperly installed cartridges.
While drinking recycled water is a potential solution, it is often hindered by consumer biases creating a “yuck” factor. While countries like Singapore consume recycled water, American farmers won't even use recycled water for their produce. Education around water issues is severely lacking in the U.S., leaving the public highly unaware of water issues that are likely impacting them.
A Call for Positive Change
It is imperative to address our clean drinking water problem in the U.S. to ensure that all Americans have access to safe drinking water. Raising awareness of our drinking water issues can facilitate relationship building between policy makers and advocates, and will allow communities to continue improving their living conditions and receive political support where needed.
Rebuilding aging infrastructure will have notable economic advantages through job creation, reduction in healthcare costs, increasing workforce productivity and the overall value of vulnerable cities. Environmentally, access to safe tap water might enable consumers to move away from single-use plastic water bottles, reducing plastic consumption and pollution.
Due to the intersectional nature of the problem, solutions must be collaborative and considerate of the interests of multiple stakeholders, including the private sector, local, state, and federal governments, non-profits, entrepreneurs and particularly historically marginalized communities.
In the following section, we have identified a set of top solutions, concepts and organizations for further investment and urgent acceleration.
Given the sensitive and potentially triggering nature of this content, we are placing an opt-in button below to deep-dive into the problem areas. Please feel free to continue into the Solution, Resources and Ecosystem Leader sections of this POV.