The Future of Water
Water is the lifeblood of our economy and our communities as well as playing a pivotal role in our health and well-being. This has become more apparent than ever during the public health crisis brought about by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Access to clean and affordable water services is vital to ensuring public health and thriving communities. Modern treatment processes are intended to ensure all viruses, including COVID-19, stay out of the water supply. The challenges facing water systems during a time of crisis will affect communities differently — those already in the midst of ongoing economic, environmental, and public health challenges may be the hardest hit.
There is responsibility at every level of government—local, state, and federal—to ensure everyone has access to clean water. It is critical that the systems delivering this essential resource are strong enough to endure economic challenges in the short and long term, and meet the needs of all communities along the way. This is a crucial moment for the United States to invest in a future where everyone can count on reliable and safe water service — now and for generations to come.
COVID-19 has made it clear that there is no public health without clean water for all. If one person or community does not have clean water, the health and well-being of everyone else is at risk. Curbing COVID-19’s spread requires people to increase handwashing, personal hygiene, and cleaning standards. But for the more than two million Americans who lack running water, indoor plumbing, or wastewater services in their homes and communities, these seemingly simple measures are out of reach. Many of those without access to water infrastructure are members of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities, live in rural or tribal areas, or are part of high-risk groups for COVID-19, including the elderly, disabled, homebound, people with preexisting conditions, and the unhoused.
To weather this global pandemic, we need immediate and sustained intervention to protect the health and well-being of all communities. But we must also begin planning for an economic recovery that leaves our communities and economy stronger and more resilient. If water infrastructure fails, it creates a domino effect across the economy and threatens our environment and public health. One-fifth of the US economy — including the agriculture, healthcare, manufacturing, and electricity sectors — would grind to a halt without a reliable and clean supply of water. Yet, we have chronically underinvested in water for too long. As a result, a water main breaks every two minutes in the United States. The American Water Works Association estimates the country must spend at least $1.2 trillion over the next two decades on our drinking water and wastewater systems.
One of the smartest ways to jumpstart economic recovery is investing in our nation’s water and wastewater infrastructure. As noted by Jane Kenny and Mark Mauriello in their NJ Spotlight op-ed, “Closing the water infrastructure investment gap would create more than 1.5 million American jobs, more than the entire employed workforce in 20 states. It would generate over $260 billion in economic activity annually, which exceeds the gross domestic product generated by 28 states.” Major investment in water systems is a smart and sustainable way to bring our economy back and build up communities so they can all thrive.
Despite the importance of keeping our water resources clean during this time, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced it is temporarily suspending enforcement action through the summer for many types of permit violations in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. This policy allows oil and gas companies, along with other polluting industries, total discretion to determine whether they will comply with monitoring and reporting requirements. EPA has not even required regulated entities to “catch up” with missed monitoring or reporting, so it will have no way of knowing whether its policy resulted in adverse impacts to imperiled species and their habitat or communities. EPA is essentially signaling that polluters shouldn’t worry too much about violations. This is dangerous to all communities — we should not be suspending the monitoring and reporting requirements for major pollution during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The good news is that this new policy doesn’t change how or when citizens can act. If, for example, a polluter reads the policy and decides not to comply with its permit, citizens could still enforce the permit requirements through a citizen suit. The memo also does not affect states’ ability to enforce violations of their permits, even under EPA-delegated programs. New York and North Carolina, for instance, have each said they are not suspending enforcement but will take all facts and circumstances into account when making enforcement decisions, which is in keeping with usual practice. Waterkeepers and their partners across the United States are reaching out to state environmental agencies to ensure that states maintain current enforcement levels. Under the Clean Water Act, Waterkeepers have been working with states to ensure critical protections for clean water remain in place.
Access to clean water is essential at all times, but its importance is heightened during public health crises! The effects of EPA’s temporary measure may be felt for decades: Once polluted, our water, air, and land can take generations to heal. Now is the time to take action—please write to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and say now is not the time for EPA to suspend enforcement. Our clean water resources depend on it.
Note to Reader: This is GreenMoney’s second article from Waterkeeper Alliance – the first was by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., A Bill of Rights for Clean Water
Article by Mary Beth Postman, who has fought and advocated for local communities around the globe to protect and preserve their quality of life. Mary Beth played a pivotal role in the formation of Waterkeeper Alliance and serves as Deputy Director and Secretary to the Board of Directors. Mary Beth provides organizational leadership and directs its development efforts and is responsible for carrying out overall growth and implementation of various strategic projects and programs.
Previously, Mary Beth was Chief of Staff to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. where she oversaw and facilitated all operations for Mr. Kennedy’s environmental work to hold polluters accountable for Hudson Riverkeeper, Natural Resources Defense Council and Waterkeeper Alliance. In addition, she managed all of Mr. Kennedy’s speeches, media appearances and publications as well as his weekly radio show Ring of Fire. Mary Beth also served as Administrator of the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic at Pace Law School where she worked with America’s brightest environmental law students year after year as they completed course work in an exceptional educational model. Mary Beth co-authored WATERSHED FOR $ALE: Explosive Development Threatens New York City’s Drinking Water Supply.