Most Americans easily flip on the water tap to wash their hands or quench their thirst. If they pay their monthly bill, which ranks comfortably low when compared to much of the world, vital water simply flows.
Yet in Jackson, Miss., this week, and for the second time in a year, a weather-related disaster has shut off the water taps for much of its population of 150,000, before some improvement was reported Thursday.
Jackson is emblematic of a swelling water infrastructure crisis that many U.S. cities, suburbs and rural areas must prepare for, experts told MarketWatch.
“U.S. storm water infrastructure received an even lower mark than the nation’s drinking water infrastructure, with the engineer group warning that few systems could afford the high cost of retrofits.”
The plant had operated on backup pumps after its main pumps were damaged last month, the Wall Street Journal reported. A boil order has been in place for weeks simply based on poor quality. Now, supplies of bottled water risk running out.
Restaurant owner Derek Emerson told The Associated Press that water problems “are making it impossible for us to do business in Jackson.” Emerson owns the upscale Walker’s Drive-In, and he said they have been spending $300 a day for ice and bottled water in the past month.
Jackson isn’t the only locale increasingly relying on aging plants and pipes and yet wondering if severe weather will automatically mean assured catastrophe. Floods this summer have upended life in and around Dallas, California’s Death Valley, St. Louis, Yellowstone National Park and Appalachia — Kentucky in particular — leaving cities and rural areas dotted across the U.S. questioning their own safety and the function of basic services in a warming climate. Flooded water can contaminate safe water, and when drought sharply lowers water reservoirs, not only are supplies limited, but remaining low water can invite more bacteria or other risks.
As Jackson struggles, more Americans are wondering if water troubles could hit their own communities: Google
data reveals that Americans are searching for the term “water scarcity” 30% more in 2022 than in 2021.
The crisis in Jackson also highlights that it’s not just hot or cold, floods or droughts that are singularly worrisome. Each poses its own risks. Some Jackson residents went weeks without running water after winter storms last year impacted municipal facilities.
Injustice for the ‘plumbing poor’?
Jackson’s situation is an important climate-change test for demographic reasons. A majority Black city, its crisis swings attention to how environmental strains disproportionately impact the health, safety and monetary costs to people of color in the U.S. A 2019 study in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers found that Black, Latino, Native American and Alaska Native households are disproportionately likely to be “plumbing poor” with considerably less upgraded pipes or even water access than white households.
Like many cities, Jackson, faces water-system problems it can’t afford to fix. Its tax base has eroded the past few decades as the population decreased — the result of mostly white flight to suburbs that began after public schools integrated in 1970. The city’s population is now more than 80% Black, with about 25% of its residents living in poverty, the Associated Press reports.
“Underserved communities are taking the brunt of the effects of climate change. We’ve seen widespread suffering from flooding, heat, cold, and fires. Add-on effects from a vulnerable water system or other infrastructure are readily apparent too. Pile on that, the underserved areas have low local revenue from which to draw and often stressed management resources,” said Brian Svendahl, senior portfolio manager, U.S. Fixed Income at RBC GAM, adding that Mississippi’s drinking water state revolving fund is a relatively small $11 billion, looks complicated, and the need no doubt exceeds this number.
Svendahl agreed that lack of cohesiveness in financing and boosting infrastructure hurts those who need it most.
“The best market solutions are where risk is shared, funding is broad and solutions are uniform, much like the U.S. mortgage market, the world’s biggest and best functioning housing market,” he said. “Imagine if each state ran the mortgage market, and each local community had to fight for funding — that’s very much what we have in how infrastructure is financed with the most vulnerable boxed out altogether.”
For sure, some observers are quick to tie Jackson to the cost-cutting water scandal and legal fallout that hobbled Flint, Mich., some eight years ago. Residents there have received some restitution but stress that a settlement isn’t “justice.”
Last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law set aside more than $50 billion to the Environmental Protection Agency to improve our nation’s drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure — the single largest investment in water that the federal government has ever made. Mississippi, for one, is receiving $75 million to address water problems.
But for some, the catch-up spending feels late, and may still fall short. What’s more, the relatively cheap access to water may be vulnerable.
An average U.S. family of four pays about $72.93 for water every month as of 2019, if each person used about 100 gallons for drinking, washing and bathroom use per day. The price index of water and sewage maintenance has increased in recent years as infrastructure continues to age across the U.S., Commerce Department and EPA data show. By one measure, U.S. residential-water prices have grown an average of 5.5% per year since 2012 — faster than broader inflation until just recently. (Read more about EPA water data here.)
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