Americans may finally get safer drinking water after years of GOP stonewalling

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Up to 10 million Americans are still getting their water through lead pipes — and Republicans have refused to do anything about it.

Long-awaited clean water reform could finally be coming to American cities after years of Republican stonewalling, thanks to President Joe Biden's American Jobs Plan.

And because Senate Democrats have been given the green light to use the process of budget reconciliation to pass the upcoming infrastructure bill, it could happen without a single Republican vote. That could be critical, as Republicans in the Senate have already said they will try to block the legislation.

The $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure package contains several allocations specifically designated for water reform, to the tune of $111 billion.

First, it provides $45 billion in grants to replace lead pipes throughout the country, reducing toxic and dangerous lead exposure not only in American homes whose water is still siphoned through lead pipes, but in 400,000 U.S. schools and daycare centers too.

It's is one of the most critical issues addressed in Biden's infrastructure plan. Many homes built before 1986 are fitted with lead pipes, and water traveling through older, corroded pipes can become contaminated with the toxic metal. In adults, lead poisoning can cause high blood pressure, miscarriage, premature birth, and memory loss. Since children absorb more lead than adults do when this occurs, lead exposure is particularly harmful to infants and young children, often leading to hearing loss and severe developmental delays.

Though the instance was far from isolated, the risks of lead pipes came under national scrutiny in 2014 when citizens of Flint, Michigan, started complaining of murky-looking water in their homes — and adverse health outcomes. The city had stopped piping treated water to residents and instead supplied them with corrosive, untreated water from a nearby river, resulting in severe lead contamination when pumped through Flint's aging lead pipes.

Local citizens and activists ultimately sued the city of Flint for its failure to deliver clean water. In 2020, the state settled a class-action lawsuit, agreeing to create a $600 million fund so Flint residents whose health was harmed by the lead-contaminated water could file for compensation.

Biden's infrastructure plan also provides $56 billion in flexible loans and grants specifically intended for modernizing American drinking water and wastewater systems, as well as its stormwater systems, with a special focus on small water system upgrades in rural areas. Outdated modes of water delivery can present both crisis-level water shortages as well as major health and sanitary issues, with failing septic tanks and contaminated water endangering the health of Americans. The U.S. Water Alliance estimates dangerous contaminants like arsenic and uranium are found in 23% of rural private wells.

While Republicans continue to falsely claim that Biden's bill contains too many line items extraneous to infrastructure, which they are incorrectly defining as "roads and bridges," and have slammed it for containing water and energy infrastructure funding.

But according to data from the U.S. Water Alliance, more than two million Americans live without running water and flushing toilets, including 1.4 Americans whose homes lack water access, 250,000 Puerto Rico residents and 553,000 homeless Americans.

Many inequities in water access — racial, socioeconomic, and geographic — continue to affect the country, with indigenous Americans 19 times more likely to lack indoor plumbing, 17% of rural Americans having trouble accessing clean running water, and 23% of private wells polluted with dangerous chemicals like arsenic, E. coli, and uranium.

The U.S. Water Alliance also notes that in 1977, most funding for water and wastewater systems — 63% — came through the federal government. Currently, that number dwindles below 9%.

And the issue is urgent, with up to 10 million Americans still getting water through lead pipes, and thousands of regions across the country suffering detrimental health impacts as a result. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes that there is no safe, acceptable level of lead in human bloodstreams, and that it's particularly dangerous for children.

"Infrastructure is not just the roads we get a horse and big across. Infrastructure is about broadband," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at Monday's press briefing. "It's about replacing lead pipes so people have water. It's about rebuilding our schools."

Nevertheless, Republicans have pledged to vote against the infrastructure bill, claiming it contains wasteful line items.

"I’m going to fight them every step of the way, because I think this is the wrong prescription for America," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said of the bill in a news conference last week.

"President Biden's infrastructure plan looks more like the Green New Deal than a serious plan to fix our roads and bridges," Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) tweeted. "Reckless spending financed by trillions of dollars in tax hikes is one heck of a way to 'build back better.'"

Republicans have been squashing efforts by Democrats to enact clean water legislation for years.

In 2020, Democrats in the House of Representatives passed an amendment to an infrastructure bill that would have disbursed $22.5 million to replacing lead pipes and service lines.

The bill was blocked by McConnell, who called it "pointless political theater."

Senate Democrats also introduced legislation in 2016, which would have addressed water infrastructure problems, replacing lead pipes, and stronger protections for drinking water. That bill died in committee.

On Monday, Vice President Kamala Harris toured a water plant in California with the state's Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, to tout the benefits of the $111 billion allotted to clean water reform in Biden's American Jobs Plan.

"Drinking lead will kill our children — literally," Harris told listeners at the plant.

She added, "For years there were wars fought over oil; in a short time there will be wars fought over water. We must address inequities in access to clean water, at local state federal levels. Understanding opportunities to build back up infrastructure around water."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.