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US Infrastructure: Drinking Water and Wastewater Systems, by Dianne Feeley

Sandra Lindberg

This in-depth examination of US water systems is provided by Dianne Feeley, Associate Editor of Against the Current, Solidarity's monthly journal. You are probably aware of water issues in Flint and Detroit MI. Read here about the extensive issues confronting all of us in the US.

Infrastructure in 21st Century United States:

US Drinking Water and Wastewater Systems

by Dianne Feeley​

As it came into office the Trump administration announced a $1.5 trillion plan for rebuilding U.S. infrastructure over the next decade. Using the American Society of Civil Engineer’s 2017 Infrastructure Report Card to provide an analysis of the country’s infrastructure, it’s obvious that it is in serious disrepair. Evaluating 16 categories, the report card’s overall grade was D+. Bringing the country’s infrastructure up to code, the report concluded, would cost approximately $4.5 trillion in federal and state funding over 10 years. (See ASCE's 2017 American Infrastructure Report Card | GPA: D+)

That is, the Trump plan, if fully implemented, would only cover one-third of the cost. In actuality Trump’s idea is to cap the federal amount at $200-250 billion. States would then develop and finance specific plans, sweetening the pot in order to attract business. Therefore these public-private partnerships, with federal seed money, would be driven by market forces, not social needs. This will further reinforce the inequality that currently exists with some states having more resources than others.

Yet since 2003 state and municipal investments in infrastructure declined 55% while those of the federal government declined 19%. (See 21st Century Infrastructure Commission Report. Yet aging infrastructure is causing major problems, from lead pipes that contaminate water systems to natural gas pipelines that can cause fires and explosions. For example, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration sets standards that are enforced by various states. Added to this patchwork oversight is a lack of transparency on the part of utilities. The catastrophic explosions that rocked northeastern Massachusetts in October 2018 is the result of this “regulatory black hole” (“Blasts reveal dangers hiding in old pipes,” by Gregory Korte, Detroit Free Press, 11/2/18)

The ASCE report doesn’t really address the issue of climate change but this must be front and center. If we prioritize developing non-fossil energy sources, mass transit would be at the top of the list not building roads and pipelines. Even if some roads were built or repaired, without taking into consideration the “new normal” of flooding and drought, it is estimated that up to 70% of the costs would be squandered. A 2017 EPA report concluded that by the end of the century, $280 billion would be necessary for “pro-active adaptation” of roads and railways. Interviewed by the New York Times, Paul Chinowsky, professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder pointed out that asphalt streets in Denver will have to withstand much higher levels of heat within the next 25 years because its weather will become similar to Albuquerque’s climate. (See “Infrastructure Plan May Ignore Climate Change,”) If money is spent on infrastructure that does not place a priority on dramatically curbing climate change, this is takes us away from what should be the number #1: replacing fossil fuel as an energy source.

With that as prologue, this article will focus on the infrastructural needs of the U.S. drinking water and wastewater systems, which the ASCE report card assigned marks of D and a D+.

The State of Drinking Water

Over 90% of residents receive their drinking water from community water systems, whether through a department of the local government or a privatize utility. Although these systems have an economy of scale that allow for financial stability as well as a technical capacity, the pipes — sometimes lead -- were laid 50-100 years ago and have just about exhausted their life span. But it would take 200 years to accomplish at the current rate of replacement

Largely because of aging and leaking pipes, a huge amount of treated drinking water is lost every day—about six billion gallons! It is estimated that the daily wasting of 14-18% of drinking water could support 15 million households. Municipal water systems leak between 10-50% of their drinking water.

Lead pipes are unsafe, as Flint’s water disaster revealed. Lead is a harmful toxic metal, particularly for children under six. Even at relatively low levels of exposure, children can develop learning problems, delayed growth, anemia, hyperactivity and impaired hearing. Adult lead exposure can lead to kidney problems, high blood pressure and greater risk of cardiovascular death. Water systems, such as Detroit's extensive system that services over 150 communities, uses corrosive controls in order to keep the lead pipes from contaminating the water. Just replacing Flint’s 20,000-25,000 lead pipes and improving its water system will cost more than $150 million. One factor that inflates the cost is that the city’s cold climate necessitates pipes that are buried three and a half feet below the surface. (See “Replacing Detroit’s lead pipes could take decades,” by Jonathan Oosting, Detroit News, 3/9/17.)

Although Flint is 70 miles northeast of Detroit, the city agreed to join the expanding Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in 1964. DWSD provided Flint with wholesale water from that point until 2013, when Flint was in serious financial shape. Having lost a number of key GM plants and half its population, it had been taken over by a governor-appointed Emergency Manager who had complete financial control over its finances and resources. The Emergency Manager and city officials, including the City Council, agreed that Flint should join with other suburban towns in Genesee County to construct an alternative system, the Karegnondi Water Authority. KWA would pump raw water from Lake Huron and Flint would update its old treatment plant, saving considerable money.

Before the new system would go online, Flint officials decided to upgrade the plant and use the Flint River that had been its water source earlier. However inadequate preparation produced contaminated water from the very beginning. While residents protested by bringing yellow and brown bottled water to City Council meetings, both local and state officials refused to admit there was a problem. Residents were complaining about the water’s smell, taste and the rashes it caused. They never suspected they were being poisoned by the lack of corrosion control that could have coated the pipes, as the DWSD water did for a mere $60 a day.

It would take almost two years of protesting and a series of tests to force state officials to admit they were lying when they claimed corrosion controls were being used. Even today, as DWSD water runs through the pipes again, residents don’t allow their children to drink the water.

The majority of lead pipes are located in the Midwest. Detroit has approximately 125,000-150,000 pipes. The city’s water department uses phosphate corrosion control to coat the pipes, protecting the water that runs through them. This keeps the presence of lead to well below the 15 parts per billion that would necessitate taking action, but it is a band aid. Replacing Detroit’s lead pipes alone will run an estimated $600-750 million; the DWSD director stated this would probably take 20 years. The reality is that few cities have replaced and updated their water infrastructure. While individual homes can install WNSF53-certified lead-cleaning filters, this is an individual solution to a public health problem.

Nationally it is estimated that there may be 6-10 million lead pipes carrying water to homes, schools and businesses. USA Today reported that 2,000 systems covering six million people encountered cases of lead exposure over a four-year period. These included Milwaukee, Chicago, Baltimore and Cleveland, cities where a significant portion of the population is Black or Brown. As with incinerators and other heavily polluting industries, people of color communities are more likely to suffer from the illnesses these cause, thus reinforcing the discrimination they already suffer in housing, education and jobs. Although big cities with Black and Brown populations are often where lead pipes are concentrated, one elementary school in small-town Ithaca, New York was discovered to have a lead concentration of 5,000ppb! (“Beyond Flint,” by Alison Young and Mark Nichols, 3/27/17)

The latest expose is the story of Newark, a city of 285,000, and like Flint a poor and largely Black city. A 2016 study of 14,000 of the city’s children under the age of six revealed a quarter had elevated lead in their blood. The city administration, under Mayor Ras Baraka, claimed the problem is 15,000 service pipes and would take eight years to replace. But according to a new study it seems that lead is leaching into the water from one of the city’s two treatment plants, meaning inadequate corrosion control. Forty thousand water filters are now being distributed. (“In Echo of Flint, Mich., Water Crisis Now Hits Newark,” by Liz Leyden, New York Times, 10/30/18)

While the city administration minimized the problem, half of all Newark schools have been identified since 2012 as tainted with high lead. Generally schools do not have service pipes so the cause is either the lack of corrosion control in the water or plumbing problems at individual schools. Since 2016 the school superintendent shut off drinking and cooking water in half of the schools, providing bottled water. (“Drinking Water in Newark Schools Known to Have Lead Problem at Least 6 Years Ago,” by Patrick McGeehan, New York Times, 4/8/16)

Replacing Water Pipes

Water pipes are in two sections, the main truck and the service line, which crosses at some point onto the homeowner’s property. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that when only part of a lead service line is replaced, children are twice as likely to have elevated blood lead levels than if no work was done. That is, a partial-line replacement can actually increase the lead level picked up by water for an indefinite or prolonged period. During the prolonged crisis of lead pipes in Washington DC (2004-2010) the problem of partial-service line replacement was discovered.

Originally the Safe Drinking Water Act required water utilities to replace all lead lines — including the section of the service line that went into privately owned homes and buildings. But after some utilities claimed they didn’t have the “right” to replace lead pipes on private property and sued, the EPA was forced to amend the act. This created a patchwork system whereby homeowners must pay thousands of dollars to replace water pipes, typically ranging from $3,000-7,000. Here are a few ways cities have attempted to deal with the problem:

  • In 2000 Madison, Wisconsin’s Common Council passed an ordinance requiring homeowners to replace the lead services on their property within 10 years. The utility agreed to reimburse homeowners for half the replacement costs or up to $1,000. In the end there were 5,800 reimbursements averaging $700. The city also offered a 5-year loan to help homeowners.
  • Lansing, Michigan, which owns the Board of Water and Light, replaced its 14,000 pipes over a 12-year period. In The Poisoned City author Anna Clark outlines how it financed its $42 million project by raising rates, but invented a tool that was able to replace them efficiently. (199-200)
  • In the District of Columbia, homeowners could elect to pay in four monthly installments. If income-eligible, they could apply for a grant up to $5,000 from the DC Department of Housing or obtain a low-interest bank loan.
  • In Philadelphia, the utility replaces private lead service lines at no cost when replacing water mains. But they won’t replace lines for free at the request of a homeowner. In 2017 the Detroit Water and Sewage Department began a $100 million project to replace main lead pipes. It has since received a small state grant for emergency lead service replacement in those areas where the main line is being replaced.
Given the Trump administration’s views on regulations, it is doubtful that the Safe Drinking Water Act can be amended to insure that all lead service pipes be replaced without causing low-income homeowners extreme hardship.

Since the act was passed in 1974 and amended in 1986 and 1996, thousands of new chemicals have come onto the market. For example, in early 2011 the EPA determined that perchlorate, used in jet fuel, meets the criteria as a contaminant and was placed on the list for further study. The chemical, which has been found in public drinking water systems, is known to disrupt brain development in children and interfere with thyroid glands. California and Massachusetts have passed enforceable standards and 12 other states have non-enforceable advisories. Meanwhile the EPA is still reviewing data. At the federal level perchlorate remains unregulated.

The ASCE report notes that 17% of the nation’s water systems serving 8% of the population in the more rural areas have problems meeting the Safe Drinking Water Act. Private wells serve 43 million people living in rural areas, with one in five contaminated. The New York Times reported that in Wisconsin about six percent of the wells exceed the federal health standard for nitrates (10 ppm), which come from fertilizer use and spreading manure. Nitrates have been linked to severe blood problems in infants and increased cancer risk in adults. (“Rural America’s Own Private Flint: Well Water Too Polluted to Drink,” by Jack Healy, 11/4/18) Native Americans living on reservations have an eight times greater risk of toxicity in their drinking water than the general population. (“Navajo Water Supply Is More Horrific than Flint, But No One Cares Because They are Native Americans,” by Justin Gardiner, 1/31/16).

Treating Water

Seventy-six percent of the population relies on the almost 15,000 different wastewater treatment plants operated by their public water department or local utility. And within the next 15 years more than 55 million people will move from using private septic tanks to water systems. Yet the treatment plants that normally discharge their recycled water into lakes cannot handle the increasing number of storms. Although storm water doesn’t need to go through a treatment plant, it must do so if it flows through sewerage pipes. (See: https://www3.epa.gov/region02/water/sewer-report-3-2011.pdf) In addition to increasing treatment costs, excess storm water causes overflows and pours untreated wastewater into lakes. In 2014 alone 22 billion tons of untreated wastewater ends up in the Great Lakes Basin. Agricultural runoff adds to the toxic mix, endangering our health and creating “dead zones.” This is particularly true in Lake Michigan and Lake Erie.

Since 2002 fertilizer runoff produces “algae” (cyanobacteria) blooms on Lake Erie -- the source of water to more than 11 million people in the Toledo, Cleveland and Buffalo areas. For three days during the summer of 2015 nearly 500,000 people were advised not to drink the water because of the concentration of microcystin, a toxin produced by the blooms. Microcystin can cause nausea, vomiting and liver damage if ingested, and has been known to kill dogs and livestock that drink water contaminated with it. Additionally, people are warned not to boil and then drink the water because that only increases the concentration of toxins. True, Toledo is building a $15 billion basin to store the overflow and farmers are being educated about the need to reduce fertilizer runoff, but the reality is that the combination of industrial agriculture and climate change highlight the need for better stewardship of clean water.

Another toxic chemical, PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), is also contaminating the country’s water. Approximately 110 million people face the risk of exposure. PFAS is a compound used in several non-stick and waterproofing substances. Manufactured by DuPont, 3M, Teflon and Scotchguard, it is helpful in snuffing out explosive oil and fuel fires. As a result, it has been used particularly at military bases and airports. Research suggests PFAS compounds, at certain concentrations, can be dangerous in water. Studies link some of the chemicals to cancers and birth defects, yet state and federal agencies as well as the Pentagon have been slow to study its effects.

Currently the health advisory level for PFAS is set at 70 parts per trillion but it can cause risks to human health at lower levels. Yet the 70ppt reading does not trigger any action. Michigan alone has 35 confirmed sites including four public water systems. Near Van Etten Lake, formerly owned by the air force, people have been advised when swimming to be careful and not ingest any bright white foam. In many areas on the Great Lakes people are advised not to eat the fish. (“Mich. Activist urges faster action on PFAS taint,” Melissa Nann Burke, Detroit News, 9/27/18)

There are approximately 4,700 variants of PFAS, with PFOS quite common. Merely setting and enforcing a mandate for PFAS would be an inadequate solution. Current non-binding health advisory standard set by the EPA in 2016 is 70ppt, but Michigan 2018 Health and Human Services' assessment stated that PFAS can cause risks at lower level. So there are many different variants; some states are adopting various standards. Effective July 13, 2018, the California State Water Resources Control Board’s Division of Drinking Water established drinking water notification levels of 14 ppt for PFOA and 13 ppt for PFOS, and a combined PFOA/PFOS of 70. (See: California Ramps Up Regulation of PFAS Compounds | The Nickel Report.)

One might ask why the federal government orders municipal treatment plants to bring their technology and processing up-to-date but provides no funding. Austerity at the federal and state level along with, in many cases, impoverished cities like Detroit and Flint with a shrunken tax bases have the highest water rates. If industry and agribusiness is the source of the pollution, why aren’t they ordered to stop fouling rivers and lakes and clean up their messes?

Similarly, as storms have become more intense, cities like Detroit have begun to charge homeowners, landlords, businesses and churches run off fees. On its website, DWSD cites an annual cost of $150 million for transporting and treating the drainage. It announces “Costs for this service must be fairly and equitably recovered from all property owners.”

Additionally DWSD is investing $15 million in 17 drainage sites along the Rouge River in order to reduce 2.8 million gallons of storm water flow. It plans to invest $35 million more by 2029. Much of this is caused by climate change. Shouldn’t the federal government develop a comprehensive plan for pour high levels of radioactive cesium in the water,

The Great Lakes constitute 21% of the country’s drinking water, yet as we have already noted, dangerous industrial pollutants threaten it as a source of drinking water. One additional pollutant that threatens the lakes is the storage of more than 60,000 tons of highly reactive spent nuclear fuel on four of its shores. Although three of the 15 nuclear power facilities are shut, in the event of an accident a spent fuel pond fire could contaminate the drinking water for 40 million people, destroy prime agricultural land and endanger fish, wildlife and people—as the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters reveal. But even if all nuclear power plants are shut down, and no more built, no “safe” storage plan for the nuclear waste exists. (See “Nuclear Wasteland,” Keith Matheny, Detroit Free Press, 1021/16)

Trump’s EPA

Instead the federal government denies that there is a problem with US drinking water. In January 2018 the EPA suspended the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule for two years. This 2015 rule expanded the definition of federally regulated waters under the Clean Water Act. WOTUS restricted the use of chemical fertilizers in roughly 60% of the U.S. waterways, including the streams, tributaries and wetlands that feed into bodies of water such as the Chesapeake Bay, Mississippi River and Puget Sound. The American Farm Bureau Federation responded that this gave the federal government “sweeping new authority to regulate land use, which they may exercise at will, or at the whim of a citizen plaintiff.” The Edison Electric Institute claimed that WOTUS “would create impediments to the electric power sector’s ability to build and maintain cleaner and renewable energy technologies.” The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Golf Course Owners Association opposed the rule. Early in his administration, Donald Trump called WOTUS "a horrible, horrible rule" and asked the EPA to replace it.

In January 2018 the EPA under Scott Pruitt suspended WOTUS until a new regulation could be developed. But in their hurry to overturn the regulation, the Trump administration failed to solicit public comments. In August Judge David Norton of the U.S. District Court for South Carolina overturned Pruitt’s suspension. His ruling restores WOTUS in 26 states. Meanwhile work on a more industry-friendly replacement is proceeding.

“Safe” Pipelines?

The Great Lakes represents 20% of the world’s surface freshwater and provides for almost 40 million people living in the United States and Canada. The Science Advisory Board of the International Joint Commission released an October 1, 2018 report, “Potential Ecological Impacts of Crude Oil Transport in the Great Lakes Basin” that identified 15 areas of “higher ecological vulnerability.” Most are near pipelines or rail corridors, five are near refineries. (See “Potential Ecological Impacts of Crude Oil Transport in the Great Lakes Basin”)

Perhaps best known of the 15 is a pipeline that runs underground through the Straits of Mackinac. This is Enbridge Energy’s Line 5, a 65-year old pipeline that carries 540,000 barrels a day of light crude oil and natural gas. A state-ordered risk analysis revealed that a leak could release a spill of between 32,000-58,000 barrels of oil, putting 60,000 acres and 47 wildlife species at risk. Cleanup and restoration costs could amount to $1.9 billion. During the winter, when lakes are frozen, a spill would be extremely difficult to find and repair in a timely manner.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder decided that a utility tunnel 100 feet below the water’s surface could protect the pipeline. Before he left office at the end of 2018, he named a three-person authority to oversee Enbridge’s construction and operation of the tunnel. Estimated to take seven to ten years to complete, the tunnel would cost Enbridge approximately $350-500 million. Meanwhile Line 5 would continue to operate. Given that the incoming governor opposed this plan, environmentalists hope to prevent the tunnel decision from becoming a reality.

Over the years Enbridge failed to report problems with its Line 5. And in 2010 Enbridge’s Line 6B contaminated Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River in western Michigan, spilling hundreds of thousands of gallons of tar sands oil. The EPA ordered Enbridge to dredge the submerged oil and oil-contaminated sediment from the river. From 2010 to 2014 over 1.2 million gallons of oil were recovered. As the worst inland oil spill in U.S. history, the Line 6B incident resulted in a $177 million federal fine and $75 million settlement with the state of Michigan. (“Study outlines risks of Line 5 spill,” Bath Leblanc, Detroit News, 8/20/18)

Despite the colossal Line 6B spill, Snyder is happy to do business with Enbridge. Eighty-seven percent of Michiganders, according to opinion polls, are worried about the safety of Line 5; more than half say it should be shut down. Indigenous communities in the area strongly oppose the pipeline and have carried out a series of demonstrations against it.

Is There a Human Right to Water?

In spite of contamination of municipal drinking water, both drinking water and wastewater infrastructure are primarily financed by a local rate-based system paid by residents. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that rates not exceed 2.5% of the area’s median income. In Detroit households the average monthly bill is $80 a month for a combined water and sewerage bill. For the 37% of the city’s poor, that can amount to more than 10% of their income.

The ASCE report notes that funding for water and sewerage has been inadequate for decades. In fact state and local governments reduced their already meager funding 22% between 2009-2014. While there is a variation in the average monthly water/wastewater bill (ranging from $14.74 in Memphis to $61.43 in Seattle for water; from $12.72 in Memphis to $149.35 in Atlanta for wastewater), the report suggests that there needs to be public assistance for low-income populations.

Given the need for DWSD’s $1 trillion water maintenance and upgrades over the next quarter century with an additional $271 billion for wastewater, it is unrealistic to assume that this money can be financed from household budgets. Many water departments are already overburdened with debt, particularly coming out of the 2008-09 recession. The Detroit water department foolishly gambled on meeting its debt through interest rate swaps. Currently it is forced to pay a greater portion of its annual budget to meet debt payments (nearly $430 million) than it pays for operational expenses ($380.6 million.)

Back in 2005 the Michigan Poverty Law Program, Michigan Legal Services and Michigan Welfare Rights Organization supported the water affordability plan developed by Roger Colton, a consultant working with municipalities to develop low-income programs. A 44-page plan was presented to the Detroit City Council on April 11, 2006.

Initially the plan was to be funded at $5 million annually through a check-off program for commercial and residential accounts. It would specifically exempt those making “reasonable progress” on back bills from water turn offs. The City Council passed a truncated version but the water department claimed it could not adopt the plan because it said that the Headlee Amendment to the state Constitution barred a bill based on affordability. (“Is Water a Human Right in Detroit?” by Dianne Feeley.)

During Detroit’s forced bankruptcy, the emergency manager directed the water department to shut off water to households three months or more behind in water bill payments. Demonstrations and direct actions opposed these shutoffs. Several organizations distributed gallons of water to churches, community centers and even individual homes for those without water. (Water bills were once added to the property taxes, compounding the number of foreclosures.)

The Colton plan has since been successfully implemented in Philadelphia. Yet this mild reform has been ridiculed by Detroit’s Mayor Mike Duggan as a demand for “free water.” “Affordability,” not “free” is the demand. Having clean water and sanitary disposal of wastewater is a public health issue and solving the problem collectively seems reasonable.

The shutoffs in Detroit continue. By the beginning of the last quarter in 2018 more than 23,000 Detroit families had been warned that their water would be terminated within the week; half had been shut off. By DWSD figures 2,763 remained without water as of October 2018. At least 1,568 are occupied homes, 900 of which have been without water for more than three months.

DWSD does have a Water Residential Assistance Program that nonprofits contribute to, but as DWSD Gary Brown notes, “many of these issues go beyond water and are about deep poverty. I can help you knock $25 a month off your bill. But for so many people, that won’t do a thing. (“In Detroit, surviving without running water has become a way of life,” Joel Kurth, Bridge magazine, 10/24/18)

Anyone who attempts to re-hook up their water is subject to being arrested for a felony. And families without water can be subject to having their children removed. These attempts to criminalize poor families totally ignore the trauma of poverty compounded by racism.

While an affordability plan for residents is painted as an outrageous demand, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality approved a $200 permit for Nestlé Waters North America so they could increase the amount of water withdrawn from Michigan’s groundwater table from 250 to 4000 gallons per minute. This is its total annual fee. After all, a MDEQ spokesperson maintained, with a straight face, that the permit met the requirements of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act. (“Michigan OKs Nestlé permit for increased water withdrawal for bottled water plant,” Kathleen Gray, Detroit Free Press, 4/2/18)

Currently engineering firm, AECOPM is carrying out a $57 million five-year long analysis of the city’s water and sewer system. It is intended to help prioritize repairs, but officials acknowledge it may lead to the city offering to pay residents to move out of “sparsely populated neighborhoods.” Overall six percent of Detroit is classified as “low density,” according to a Detroit Future City report. But such a plan is controversial where previous “relocations” displaced thriving Black and working-class communities of Black Bottom, Paradise Valley and Poletown.

Lead in Schools?

While there is no federal mandate for schools to test for lead in their water system, and the testing is only a requirement in six states, just a week before schools opened for fall 2018, Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced that the drinking water in 106 schools would be turned off. More than half of the schools tested revealed excessive lead levels. (“Acute water toxin levels at some Detroit schools,” Jennifer Chambers, Detroit News, 10/9/18).

Since the schools have no lead pipes and Detroit’s water department tests the water hourly, it seems the problem may vary by site. It may be caused by a building’s plumbing, specific faucets or, in the case of older schools where the student body has been vastly reduced, the water flow may be too slow.

According to a district report released early in the summer, 45% of the schools are rated as being in unsatisfactory and poor condition with more than plumbing problems. $500 million will be needed to bring them up to code. The schools, though under state control for a decade to improve their financial numbers, were returned to Detroit’s control with serious debt to address. (“Detroit schools set to shut off drinking water,” Jennifer Chambers and Karen Bouffard, Detroit News, 8/30/18) Vidi has recommended that the Board of Education spend $2 million for water hydrogen systems that other schools – including Camden, NJ and Royal Oak, MI -- have adopted. Installation would begin this fall with a station per 100 children plus ones for the gym, teacher’s lounge and kitchen (lunches are not cooked on site). Meanwhile the Detroit schools are supplying students and teachers with bottled water.

A Note on Who Gets Water and Who Pays

Particularly in western United States for more than a hundred years fierce water wars have been waged. Perhaps the most widely known is the aqueduct built to bring water from the Owens Valley in eastern California to Los Angeles. Depicted in the classic film “Chinatown,” Los Angeles agents bought up almost all of the water rights and in less than 20 years the valley dried up. Streams feeding nearby Mono Lake were the next target, and the lake dropped 40 feet.

The Colorado River, 1450 miles long, is another case where politicians fought over control for a variety of purposes. By the time the river reaches the Gulf of Mexico it has become a trickle in all but the wettest of years.

Who benefits from these water diversions? Generally it is industrial agriculture rather than the small farmer. But even in the case of providing water for cities such as Phoenix and Los Angeles, the diversions are unsustainable. They also result in the deterioration of the natural habitat, especially birds and fish, with the land polluted by toxic runoff, or, lacking water, desertification. (See Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner, 1986)

Even as some western states suffer years of drought, corporations are still taking water resources. Nestle’s bottled water division continues to take 80 million gallons annually from the Sacramento, California area. Their plant in Michigan, paying only $200 a year for a permit from the Department of Environmental Quality, takes 400 gallons a minute from the aquifers that feed Lake Michigan. To locate their plant in Michigan they received $13 million in tax breaks. During their first 15 years of operation in the state they produced four billion gallons of bottled water, sold at a hefty profit.

Dam Safety: When Water Isn’t Just for Drinking

A group of researchers from Oxford University analyzed 245 dams built between 1934 and 2007 in 65 different countries. They found the average cost overruns were 96%. Patrick McCully, director of International Rivers Network in the United Kingdom, pointed out that the combination of corruption and the power of the big-dam lobby has resulted in feasibility studies that regularly underestimate costs and exaggerate the benefits.

But dam building has more problems that simply being sources of massive corruption. Currently 400 dams are planned or under construction in Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan with at least 100 more in Tibet. Touted as bringing water to population areas that need it, providing electricity and bringing irrigation to industrial agriculture, these large dams present three major problems.

First, they often provide one set of users with water while another set loses out, thus dam building becomes a zero-sum game. This is a particular problem across national borders.

Second, the region transformed by the construction usually means displacement of indigenous and rural populations. In India alone, the displacement is estimated at somewhere between 16-40 million people. Biodiversity is also threatened with the submersion of forests and the animals that are displaced.

Third, dam projects have their own problems, whether from potential collapse from earthquakes or floods, significant leakages and silting. Climate change will intensify these issues. (See “The Race to Dam The Himalayas,” by Sunil S. Amrith, New York Times, 12/2/18)

Dams are a particular problem if their purpose is to hold toxic waste water from nearby mines and they are breached. Two recent disasters, one in Canada (2014) and another in Brazil the following year, spilled over. They destroyed crops, land, and fish; in the case of Brazil, 1,200 people were left homeless and 19 died. Both mining companies had ignored inspections that reported problems and neither had adequate emergency procedures in place. (“Tailings Dam Spills at Mount Polley and Marianam” by Judith Marshall, The Bullet, 11/13/18)

The United States has 90,580 dams; their average age is 56 years. Of the total, 15,500 are classified as “high hazard,” meaning that dam breach would result in loss of life. Another 11,882 have “significant hazard potential.” While they may not result in loss of life, they would certainly involve economic loss.

Dams have been built for many purposes: drinking water, irrigation, hydropower, flood control and recreation. The American Society of Civil Engineer’s 2017 Infrastructure Report Card does not examine these categories nor analyze who benefits and who loses from the dams. Although the report mentions that dams could be removed, it mostly deals with repairs and upgrades, citing a figure between $22-45 billion to fix the current number of high-hazard dams. To rehabilitate the total number, would cost an estimated $64 billion.

More than half of the country’s dams are privately owned! The federal government owns 3,381, the ones most likely to be inspected. However few states devote sufficient regulation and resources -- nationally each state employee is responsible, on the average, for 205 dams! Alabama is without a dam safety regulatory program, yet it has 676 high-hazard and significant hazard dams. Only 50 of the Alabama dams have even an emergency action plan in place. Some states such as California, Colorado, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have less than 135 dams per staff member. The California Division of Safety of Dams, a robust state dam safety program with regulatory oversight over many of the nation’s most consequential dams, assigns only 20 dams per staff member.

Yet even in California, where inspection is on the high end, a February 2017 rainstorm caused the lake on the Oroville dam to overflow and release water to its spillways. This forced 180,000 people out of their homes. As the tallest U.S. dam it could have sent a 30-foot wall of water into the Feather River below, flooding communities downstream. The collapse of a concrete weir never occurred, but the main spillway suffered significant damage. Records revealed that the dam had not been inspected on a yearly basis.

About half the states provide low-interest loans to dam owners “to assist” them in their capital expenditures. The ASCE reports that state dam safety programs spent $49 million in 2015 in overseeing regulations.

Currently 77% of the high-hazard dams have Emergency Action Programs in case of dam failure or the uncontrolled release of water. However the report does not examine how climate change has already impacted dams. In both Houston and New Orleans, homes were built in areas where it was clear that dams could breach. Yet developers made money by building in watershed areas.

In 2017 Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston, a city with no zoning rules. In order to prevent two dams from collapsing, there was a “controlled release” into nearby communities built in the watershed areas. Every petrochemical plant in the area was breached, sending chemical seepage to join with raw sewerage. Hurricane Harvey will impact air, water and land for years to come (“A Catastrophic Neoliberal Legacy,” Jennifer Wingard)

On the first anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, the New York Times carried a featured story on how those living in the poorest neighborhoods were not living in safe conditions. (See “A Year After Hurricane Harvey, Houston’s Poorest Neighborhoods Are Slowest to Recover,” Manny Fernandez, New York Times, 9/2/18). In fact, given that four out of five homeowners had no insurance, investors are able to sweep in and buy up the damaged homes for resale. (See “Real Estate Investors Rush to Buy Houston Homes Damaged by Flooding”)

While the ASCE recommendations about dams call for more money to be allotted to regulation and repair, there is little attention to a) examining dam infrastructure in an era of climate change, and making decisions about which dams are needed and which should decommissioned; and b) ending the private ownership of dams. Dam projects are expensive even when the social and environmental costs are not considered. Instead we need water security through regulation and coordination of groundwater use and a policy of recharging depleted aquifers. In this process, it is necessary to get rid of “plantation agriculture that sucks up so much water.” As described by Carey McWilliams’ 1939 Factories in the Fields, industrial agriculture is profitable for the few while it impoverishes and poisons its workers.


An examination of some of the country’s water issues reveals that deteriorating infrastructure threatens our health and safety. As long as the military expenditures devour 40% of the US budget and most municipal budgets devote 40% of their funds to police and private developers set community agendas, the necessary resources and political will needed to reverse impending climate change catastrophe will be missing. Expecting for-profit companies to drive the infrastructure upgrades is a pipe dream. Instead unions, civil rights and community organizations need to demand the right of the U.S. population to safe and affordable water systems, along with other infrastructure projects that take into account the need to drastically reduce and end dependence on fossil fuels. Repairing the country’s infrastructure must be designed to mitigate the impact of climate change and move us to a sustainable planet.

Dianne Feeley, who lives in Detroit, is an editor of Against the Current and wears many hats, including being a member of Solidarity's Ecosocialism Working Group.