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Equitable Water Infrastructure in the COVID-19 Crisis

With the COVID-19 pandemic front of mind, protecting public health is the priority. This includes our newest lingo, social distancing, as well as lots of really good handwashing. But – what if you don’t have running water in your house? How do you wash your hands and stay healthy? (Note that COVID-19 has NOT been detected in drinking water and conventional drinking water techniques should treat for viruses so it’s okay to continue to drink the water from your tap).

Over a million Americans lack access to indoor plumbing and many millions more have had their water shut off for late or non-payment. In both cases, these impacts disproportionately affect low-income and communities of color, exposing the water-equity fault lines that underlie our water infrastructure investment and policies. The good news right now (and we’re all looking for some!) is that many water systems across the country are suspending water shutoffs during this crisis – from Detroit to Atlanta to St. Louis. It’s estimated that at least 90 cities and some states are prohibiting any further water shut-offs – less clear is whether water service will be restored to all homes that have already had their water shut-off. When I contacted my local leaders here in North Carolina, I found that water shut-offs are being suspended but I couldn’t get a response as to whether service was actually being restored. River Network urges all water systems to protect all members of our communities, especially the most vulnerable, and restore water service, in addition to adopting longer term affordability solutions.

In cases where water service is resumed after a period of disconnection, it is also imperative that households receive information on precautionary steps to take to ensure their water is not contaminated with harmful toxins such as lead. Frontline organizations like We The People of Detroit and Junction Coalition in Toledo, OH have been pivotal in advocating for the restoration of water services and moratorium on future shut-offs. These organizations have also been leading the effort to communicate precautionary measures to communities in need, often phone banking and utilizing virtual platforms to keep their communities informed at a time when face-to-face contact is not recommended. Junction Coalition has also created and distributed bilingual fact sheets about these precautions at local corner stores to reach additional individuals.

While COVID-19 is exposing some of the inequities related to water and health, they’ve been with us for a long time and have deep historical roots. In addition to the general state of water infrastructure (much is old, not enough money is being invested, systems are taxed further by climate change, etc.), the practice of “redlining” neighborhoods by race, for example, has further caused health and water problems for African American communities. Research led by scientists at the Science Museum of Virginia show the disparities in high temperatures within cities corresponding with these redlines. This urban heat island effect, which poses health and air quality threats, is more pronounced in low-income and minority areas due to increased impervious areas (roads, rooftops, etc.) combined with a lack of investment in parks, trees, and other greenspace, following historic underinvestment and lack of access to capital in poor and minority neighborhoods. Our colleagues at Groundwork USA take this a step further in their Climate Safe Neighborhoods project to analyze and show the relationship between redlining and increased vulnerability to extreme heat and flooding in four cities.

This is but one example of disparities in water infrastructure related to race and income in rural and urban areas. How do we reverse these impacts and advocate for policies and practices that are centered on equitable outcomes for clean and safe water?

As a member of PolicyLink’s Water Equity and Climate Resilience Caucus, River Network supports the Caucus’s policy recommendations. We’re also continuing work to support our network to understand these issues and develop strategies to address them. What are your thoughts about equitable infrastructure investment – what are the processes and policies at the local, state, and federal levels that we must address? Email us your ideas.

While we navigate our way through COVID-19, we must also continue to address the underlying issues of water, equity, and infrastructure that this crisis is helping to further bring to light.

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