Editorial

The Observer-Reporter building in Washington

Journeying to a creek to get water for drinking and household needs.

That’s something our ancestors once did, right? Or something that people have to do in places that Americans rarely think about or venture to, like Eritrea or Bangladesh?

Not so fast. Believe it or not, in 2021, there are still many Americans who do not have running water or indoor plumbing. There are, in fact, 2 million of them, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. Water Alliance and Dig Deep, two nonprofit organizations that focus on water-related issues. To put that in perspective, 2.3 million people live in the Pittsburgh metro area.

And some of these Americans don’t live all that far from this region. On Monday, The Washington Post published an eye-opening story on how a substantial portion of residents in McDowell County, W.Va., located on the border of Virginia and West Virginia and one of the poorest counties in the nation, have to go to a creek and fill containers with water and lug them back home. Once there, they pour the water into cisterns, use bleach to sanitize it and pump it into their homes.

There are parts of McDowell County that do have a water system, but it’s so decrepit and in need of repair that residents have to grapple with frequent outages and boil advisories. Officials in places like McDowell County yearn for an economic shot in the arm, but how can you draw people and businesses if you don’t have reliable and safe drinking water?

Aside from pockets in West Virginia, the 2019 report from the U.S. Water Alliance and Dig Deep also said Americans living in isolated parts of Alabama, Texas and California were having to fend for themselves when it came to getting water. Those most commonly affected were those scraping by with small incomes, tribal communities and people of color. It also found that the number of people without access to complete plumbing in their homes had actually gone up in six states. In addition, there are 44 million Americans who get their water from systems that violated parts of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The report calls this “a hidden water and sanitation crisis that continues to threaten the health and well-being of millions of people today.”

“Most people in the United States never give their water and wastewater systems a second thought,” according to the report. “But people living in communities without safe and reliable infrastructure have to think about water and sanitation all the time.”

Part of the solution is simply making investments. For decades, the lion’s share of capital spending for water and wastewater systems came from the federal government. More recently, it has spent just 9%, leaving costs to local and state governments. The infrastructure plan that President Biden and Congress are haggling over contains billions of dollars for water infrastructure, including money to replace potentially hazardous lead pipes that are present in older communities in the Midwest and Northeast. In his April address to Congress, Biden called them “a clear and present danger to our children’s health.”

In a country as rich as ours, everyone who wants to have safe drinking water should have easy access to it. It’s as simple as that.

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