Nearly universal access to safe drinking water is one of the great miracles of modern society. Americans have taken it for granted for over half a century, though mostly unjustified fears of municipal water supplies have led to increased resort to much more expensive and usually no safer bottled water.
The growth of environmentalism has stimulated fears that various pollutants—mostly from industrial and agricultural sources—threaten to subject millions of Americans to unsafe drinking water. That’s a shame, since the treatment methods used by good municipal water systems are capable of removing those so completely that they pose little to no risk.
What isn’t adequately appreciated, however, is the expense of running public water supply systems. They require expensive, technical equipment that must be maintained and repaired or replaced from time to time. They also require skilled operators. Both of those cost money—lots of it.
The federal EPA recently reported that millions of Americans have consumed, or are at risk of consuming, unsafe drinking water through local water supply systems, and in most cases the cause is the difficulty of paying the cost of maintaining and operating those systems properly. And it’s a growing problem as more and more water systems reach the end of their useful lives and will need major overhauls.
In the twenty years from 2011 to 2031, the District of Columbia, for instance, is projected to need to spend about $1.6 billion, or $2,700 per capita ($135 per person per year), to keep its water safe—the highest per capita cost in the nation. Arkansas will need to spend about $2,100 per capita ($105 per person per year), the highest of any state. The lowest per capita cost is expected for Rhode Island, at about $141 per capita (an amazingly low $7 per person per year). A rough average around the nation would be about $1,300 per capita ($65 per person per year).
Even the highest of those per capita costs seem amazingly low for something as essential to life as safe drinking water. But one thing’s clear: the richer a community is, the more easily it can afford pure drinking water—and the poorer it is, the more difficulty it will have.
That’s what lies behind one particular part of the story: the declining water quality of communities impoverished by the collapse of the coal industry, driven partly by Obama-era federal policy (the “war on coal”) and partly by the declining price of natural gas, which has led to less demand by energy utilities for coal as an electricity source. The Texas Tribune reports:
The crash of the coal mining industry in southern West Virginia has left hundreds of residents in charge of their own small water systems—some of which date to the Civil War. Residents in the mountains of Wyoming and Fayette counties say they are getting too old to maintain water treatment plants and pipes, and they lack funding to carry out proper treatment on the water, which comes from springs in old coal mines.
Ironically, the very next paragraph in the Tribune‘s report quotes Natural Resources Defense Council health program director Erik Olson as saying,
What is pretty clear is that a lot of these small communities, especially in lower-income areas, have a real problem ensuring compliance or even treating the water. A lot of these smaller communities, they don’t even have the wherewithal to apply for available funding.
The irony stems from the fact that NRDC was one of the leading voices for closing down coal mines and coal-fired electric generating plants. Its own policies helped create the poverty that threatens to subject millions of people in what was once economically vibrant coal country to unsafe drinking water.
Pure water, like everything else in life, including a clean, healthful, beautiful environment, is a costly good. Wealthier people can afford more of it than poorer people. Environmental policies that impoverish people will impoverish the environment as well. Preventing both of those kinds of impoverishment is one of the Cornwall Alliance’s main tasks.