New Report Finds That 'Race Is Still Strongest Determinant' When It Comes to Access to Clean Water

A new report released by a clean water non-profit revealed that “race is still the strongest determinant” when it comes to having access to safe potable water. Dig Deep - a non-profit “that works to ensure that every American has clean running water forever” - along with the U.S. Water Alliance, found that more than 2 million Americans live without running water or basic indoor plumbing.

The report, released in November, found that Native Americans were 19 times more likely to lack indoor plumbing than whites. Meanwhile, Latinx and African Americans were twice as likely to lack indoor plumbing.

Dig Deep CEO George McGraw, who co-wrote the report, calls the lack of potable water a “silent crisis,” NBC News reported. Dig Deep did not immediately respond to The North Star’s request for comment.

“Americans without access to running water and wastewater treatment, face almost unimaginable challenges in everyday life that are difficult to convey using data,” the report stated. “Living without water and sanitation access makes it difficult to stay healthy, earn a living, go to school and care for a family.”

Why It Matters

The report found that six communities, in particular, around the U.S. still lack proper access to clean water: California’s Central Valley, the Navajo Nation, the Texas colonias, rural areas in the South, Appalachia and Puerto Rico.

Many of these communities have populations that are overwhelmingly non-white. California’s Central Valley and the Texas colonias have a 96 percent Hispanic/Latinx population, while Puerto Rico is 99 percent Hispanic/Latinx. The Navajo Nation is 90 percent Native American. The population in rural areas in the South were divided 73 percent Black in Lowndes County, Alabama and 74 percent white in Bibb County. Meanwhile, Appalachia, which is 90 percent white, has a poverty rate of 35 percent.

Other areas in the country were also affected, with Alaska leading the country with the highest proportion of the population lacking access at 5.75 percent.

“These communities did not receive adequate water and wastewater infrastructure when the nation made historic investments in these systems in past decades,” the report said. “That initial lack of investment created a hidden water and sanitation crisis that is still felt today.”

In rural communities in eastern Puerto Rico, residents must deal with wastewater overflowing into bathtubs, showers, yards and into the streets when it rains, the report stated. The report noted that impacted communities are forced to use septic systems, which are not compatible with local environmental conditions, because they’re far from a sewer line.

The issue in Puerto Rico has been aggravated by the island’s poor infrastructure and a series of debilitating hurricanes. The report found that there are remote areas in Puerto Rico that lack water and wastewater infrastructure entirely.

Report By The Numbers

  • 1.4 million people in the U.S. don’t have access to indoor plumbing, plus 553,000 homeless people who may lack equitable water and sanitation access. In Puerto Rico, that number stands at 250,000 people without access.

  • 17 percent of people in rural areas report experiencing issues with safe drinking water and 12 percent report issues with sewage systems

  • More than 44,000,000 people are served by water systems in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

  • 23 percent of private wells tested by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) showed contaminants such as arsenic, uranium, nitrates and E. coli.

Flint Water Crisis Update

Poor or non-existent access to safe drinking water in areas with populations consisting primarily of people of color is not a new phenomenon in the U.S. Five years ago, the city of Flint, Michigan was shoved into the spotlight as residents were forced to deal with lead-laced water.

On April 25, 2014, Flint, which has a 53.9 percent Black population, switched its water source from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River. Soon after, Flint residents complained to elected officials that something was wrong with the water, but were told the water was fine.

Flint officials failed to add corrosion controls to the Flint River water, which researchers later discovered was corroding pipes, causing bacteria levels to rise. Thousands of men, women and children were left with no access to clean water.

Lead-laced water can have detrimental effects on people’s health, particularly the health of young children. High levels of lead exposure can attack children’s brains and central nervous systems, according to the World Health Organization. Lead exposure can also cause anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity and toxicity to the reproductive organs.

The crisis prompted the state to commit more than $350 million to the city of Flint along with $100 million from the federal government. The state says the money has gone to help with water quality improvements, pipe replacement, healthcare, food resources, educational resources, job training and “creation.”

At the height of the water crisis, the homes with the highest levels of lead tested at 20 parts per billion on average, according to Michigan Radio. Federal action is triggered at levels of 15 parts per billion. In January 2018, test results showed that lead levels had dropped to four parts per billion in the 90th percentile of the highest risk homes.

Michigan now says Flint’s water is currently testing at six parts per billion, lower than the federal requirement. “Flint’s water continues to test the same as or better than similar cities across the state and country,” the state says.

The drinking water crisis in Flint is hardly over, despite the state of Michigan claims. This past spring,The New York Times reported that Flint Mayor Karen Waver has vowed to replace Flint’s lead and galvanized-steel service lines. By April, more than 8,000 service lines were replaced. As of 2018, Michigan no longer distributes bottled water to Flint’s residents. However, residents have been urged to continue using water filters provided by the government until the replacement work is finished, Michigan Radio reported.

What Can Be Done

Dig Deep’s report provides a donation link that will support community-led projects across the country. You can donate here. The organization RCAP Solutions in Puerto Rico, which works with communities on water issues, also accepts donations here.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia, Australia and the Americas.