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US Water Systems Increasingly Endangered by Underinvestment

September 21, 2022 by Tom Ramstack
US Water Systems Increasingly Endangered by Underinvestment
Although the water now flows "just fine" from Charles McCaskill's south Jackson, Miss., home, on Sept . 7, 2022, he says he still won't drink it, noting the current state-issued, boiled-water notice. A boil-water advisory has been lifted for Mississippi's capital, and the state will stop handing out free bottled water on Saturday. But the crisis isn't over. Water pressure still hasn't been fully restored in Jackson, and some residents say their tap water still comes out looking dirty and smelling like sewage. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

WASHINGTON — Water resource experts told a congressional panel Wednesday that aging infrastructure and climate change are joining to ensure more crises with the nation’s water systems are just a matter of time.

In recent years, the crises have been caused by flooding in Jackson, Mississippi; lead and bacteria seeping into pipes in Flint, Michigan; and a hacker who changed the chemical mix for the water treatment system in Oldsmar, Florida.

The Jackson water crisis that continues this month brought the House Homeland Security Committee to call the hearing Wednesday as infrastructure engineers warned it was a sign of the times.

Contributing to flood water contamination this summer in Jackson’s drinking water was a decrepit filtration system built in 1914.

“This is more widespread than looking at what happened in Jackson,” W. Craig Fugate, former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told lawmakers.

Many of the nation’s water systems desperately need upgrades, he said. In addition, climate change is adding to flooding risks, such as from the hurricane that hit Puerto Rico this week and the typhoon that ravaged western Alaska last week.

“Building for climate resistance means you got to build for the future, not the past,” Fugate said.

Most water systems were built to withstand the kind of climate disasters found in the past century but not in anticipation of new global warming realities, he said.

The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, that President Joe Biden signed into law last November is supposed to address concerns about water systems.

It includes $11.7 billion over five years for the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds. The money would be distributed as 49% for principal forgiveness and grants and 51% for loans.

The Environmental Protection Agency would get another $55 million to enforce water quality standards.

Water resource officials who testified at the Homeland Security Committee hearing questioned whether the funding is adequate and whether it is being directed to appropriate needs.

David L. Gadis, general manager of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority, said the switch to automated treatment and pumping systems means cybersecurity is as important as protecting water pipes.

In the 2021 Oldsmar case, a computer hacker increased sodium hydroxide levels in the municipal water system to extremely dangerous levels by tapping into software used throughout the water treatment industry called TeamViewer.

The sabotage was stopped early when a water department employee noticed the cursor on his computer moving out of his control. The hacker changed the purification chemical sodium hydroxide from 100 parts per million to 11,100 parts per million, a level that would be harmful to human tissue.

The employee changed the chemical mix to its original level and notified the police.

Gadis oversees one of the world’s largest water and sewer systems with a roughly $1 billion annual budget and more than 1,200 employees. Located in the nation’s capital, it also is at heightened risk of sabotage.

He repeated warnings about overlooking the importance of water systems, saying, “I know today’s underinvestment is tomorrow’s crisis.”

Abre’ Conner, director of the NAACP’s Center for Environmental and Climate Justice, said water system failures — like the one in Jackson — often fall hardest on minority and low-income communities.

“Communities that are years or decades behind on infrastructure maintenance and repairs are ill-prepared for disasters to come,” Conner said in her testimony. “Failure to invest in Black communities and the ramifications that follow are rooted in a history of environmental racism that continues to this day.”

The Biden administration has set a goal of eliminating environmental injustices through its Justice40 Initiative, which would allocate 40% of some federal infrastructure investments to help disadvantaged communities burdened by pollution.

Tom can be reached at tom@thewellnews.com and @TomRamstack

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