The citizens of Flint, Michigan are in their third year without adequate drinking water, and it could be another two years or longer before it's safe to drink. But, as the woeful results of the American Society of Civil Engineers' 2017 Infrastructure Report Card show, Flint is not unique. Contamination and burst pipes across the US earned the country a 'D' grade on its water infrastructure. Overall infrastructure fared only slightly better, with a D+.
"As watersheds continue to be impacted by shifting migration patterns, land use changes, consumption trends, and extreme weather, water infrastructure upgrades will be required to meet new demands," they wrote.
The Infrastructure Report Card analyzes the condition and performance of American infrastructure and doles out letter grades, focusing on a wide range of sectors, like roads, bridges, and waste removal. These all, in turn, contribute to the country's overall score. A committee of 28 volunteer civil engineers from the ASCE, the oldest engineering society in the country, issue the report card every four years.
A couple sectors have seen incremental improvements—rail infrastructure notched the highest score, getting a B—but several others, including drinking water, declined or remained unchanged since the last report came out in 2013. (That year, water infrastructure earned a D as well.)
This doesn't come as a surprise. Over the last 15 years, the country has struggled with major lead contamination crises in Washington, D.C. and in Flint, but the problem of lead is far larger than that. In fact, 3,000 communities (from rural Missouri and Pennsylvania, to pockets of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Cleveland) have four times the amount of lead in their water as Flint, according to a Reuters examination of lead testing results across the country.
Even though Congress banned lead pipes over 30 years ago, millions remain, especially in older homes. Many of these old pipes, laid in the early to mid 20th century, are at risk of leaking or bursting. The report found that 240,000 water main breaks occur every year, wasting 2 trillion gallons of drinking water.
More disconcerting is the current administration's apparent disregard for access to clean water. Trump's latest budget proposal suggested slashing the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency by billions of dollars. The EPA is the leading enforcer of safe drinking water laws. Even with its current funding, it hasn't been able to adequately do this job.
The President also signed an executive order last week ordering the EPA to begin dismantling the Waters of the United States Rule, which added protection of small bodies of water, like streams, to the existing Clean Water Act. 117 million Americans get at least some of their drinking water from streams.
If Trump's administration truly wants to help American infrastructure, then it should start by taking care of access to water.
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