did, communities in the Central Valley are too cash-strapped
to readily fix the problem themselves. There are federal
resources available, but the application process and requirements for securing them are difficult, if not prohibitive.
THE POLIC Y MAZE
In the U.S., public drinking water is governed by both federal and
state laws. The principle federal law, the Safe Drinking Water
Act passed by Congress in 1974, authorizes the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) to create and enforce regulations to
achieve the Act’s goals. The EPA sets standards for drinking
water quality and has universal jurisdiction over the states,
localities and water suppliers implementing those standards.
The EPA is also responsible for overseeing the implementation of two State Revolving Funds, or SRFs, which are federal
loan funds meant to help states pay for their water systems.
To qualify for financing, each state has to develop and submit
to the EPA an “Intended Use Plan,” which is a list of water
projects, in order of priority, for which the state needs a loan.
The EPA delegates authority to the states to decide who is
eligible to propose projects for SRFs, so the rules vary widely
across the country. In Hawaii, for example, only county governments can apply for SRFs, whereas in California, local governments can also apply for them, which widens the potential
number of applicants and spreads the potential liability of a
community that is unable to repay its loan.
California’s SRF policy might seem more egalitarian than a
place like Hawaii, but in reality, many poor communities simply
do not make bids for SRFs. “If you take out a loan, you have to
have some sort of income to pay it back, and county taxes only
go so far,” says an EPA official who requested anonymity for this
article. “That plays a part in low-income communities not [apply-
ing] for such funds, and so pots of money just sit in the bank
because the community can’t or won’t take on any more debt.”
Complications with SRFs could be playing a part in St.
Joseph, La., a town of 1,100 residents where water the color
of chocolate milk has been running from the taps for the past
several years. The town’s water infrastructure is over 90 years
old and cracks have allowed iron to seep into the water supply.
But federal funds to address the problem are being withheld
until St. Joseph’s mayor turns in a mandatory financial audit.
TECHNICALLY, THERE’S NO PROBLEM
Often where public services do not or cannot fill a need, either
the private sector or the communities themselves will try to find
solutions. Kadir notes that there are many models at play, in
the U.S. and abroad, for private infrastructure development and
management. There are examples in the U.S. of private utilities
managing and running infrastructure that is community-owned,
for instance. In other parts of the world, socially driven entrepreneurs have built businesses around fulfilling unmet community
needs, like Sarvajal, in India, which installs pay-as-you-go drinking water ATMs that are locally owned and operated.
But Kadir cautions that communities should be skeptical
of private sector intentions. “[Most of] these questions about
privatization usually come from the idea of private businesses
[doing] things more efficiently. They do that by cutting out
people who aren't profitable,” he says.
Of course, the residents of Flint could reasonably argue that
their public representatives treated their health and well-being
with a similar level of irreverence. Officials in Flint made a decision about a functioning but costly water system as a band-aid
to the city’s financial crisis. And whether out of ignorance,
negligence, or insufficient resources, experts agree that officials did not do the necessary logistical or environmental due
diligence, with devastating results.
“We’ve been doing this kind of treatment for 100 years. In
a water treatment plant, the first thing you do is adjust the
chemistry so the water is not corrosive. That should have been
known by everyone involved [with the disaster],” says Daniele
Lantagne, an assistant professor of civil and environmental
engineering at Tufts University.
“The story is not just about failing infrastructure—it is also a
political [story],” she adds. “It is the sort of thing we hear about
corrupt governments in other parts of the world, not the U.S.”
Worryingly, the problem may extend well beyond Flint: an
investigation by the Guardian found that over the past decade,
at least 33 U.S. cities used testing methods that could under-
estimate the amount of lead found in drinking water, despite
warnings from regulators and experts.
That politics are often so intertwined in infrastructure
decisions is the reason both successes and failures cannot be
viewed through a technical lens exclusively, says Kadir. “That
story, from a technical standpoint, doesn't really tell us what's
happening. The social story tells us a lot more.” •
ADRIENNE DAY is a Berkeley, Calif. based freelance writer and contributing
editor for Demand.
Often federal money allotted for
infrastructure loans sits in the bank unspent,
because low-income communities cannot or
will not take on the debt.