America’s Water Infrastructure Is Falling Apart

Is anyone going to fix it before the next crises hit?

It only costs $2.45 to have the privilege of baptizing your throat in the refreshing purity of our president's official beverage at Trump Tower. “It’s low-sodium,” Donald Trump told New York magazine in 2003 when explaining the deliciousness of Trump Ice, searching for anything exciting to say about water. “In fact, it has no sodium.” Right now, the water is only available at Trump properties — not including the White House — and sporadically on eBay, where photos of the luxurious plastic bottles' packaging confirms that the water is, in fact, sodium-free. It has also made at least one appearance as an accessory during official executive business.

TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Trump Ice might seem like one of the lesser footnotes of the president's failure-spackled career, but the fact that even the leader of the free world is in the bottled-water business hits home the role of these plastic potables in America. Water is now visible in culture as a vehicle for profit that leaves many Americans behind, instead of something easily found for free. As James Salzman points out in Drinking Water: A History, new buildings are rarely built with the expectation that water is a public good. Stadiums and airports expect you to pay the market rate for something humans can't live without. And they know you'll pay a lot — bottled water costs more than gasoline. “One gets the sense that drinking fountains are following the path of public phones,” Salzman writes, “more of a historic curiosity than a given.” As Trump assumed long ago, there is money in bottled water.

Water infrastructure in America is falling apart — mostly because much of it is even older than our president, who happens to be the oldest one ever elected. Updating all of it would cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years. Despite the fact that “infrastructure” is one of Trump's favorite government-related words, his administration hasn't done much to start any projects generally related to it quite yet. And since his discussions of infrastructure have mostly been framed around transportation, there’s little hope that he’ll do much for the old pipes and WWI-era water treatment plants about to fall apart. On top of that, there’s also Trump’s expectation that private investors will foot much of the bill for these infrastructural projects. What company is going to invest in a city that's been shedding citizens for decades and has few economic prospects, like Flint, Michigan, or Buffalo, New York? Or a rural area that people keep leaving, like Ranger, Texas?

Even before Trump took office, the EPA didn't have enough money to properly enforce the Safe Drinking Water Act or the Clean Water Act — the two pieces of legislation most responsible for making sure you won't regret drinking the water in your faucet. Given that the agency would suffer the biggest slashes under the White House's proposed budget — a 31 percent cut — it seems unlikely that its struggles to adequately do its job will change in the near future. Congress just passed legislation to repeal the Stream Protection Rule, and let the Drinking Water Security Grant Program expire. Trump signed an executive order ensuring that the Clean Water Rule would never go into effect. Regardless of what Trump says about how much he loves “crystal clear, clean water,” talking doesn't do much if the federal government isn't fronting money so states can do much-needed upkeep and updates. States already need at least $240 million more a year to obey the Safe Drinking Water Act.

At the same time, the EPA's job is probably just going to get harder. Around the country, a quarter-million water mains break every year. Replacing century-old lead pipes is expensive, and local municipalities aren't doing it fast enough. “That's going to catch up to us,” says Erik Olson at the National Resources Defense Council. “It's already catching up to us.”

Reuters just released a report last week noting that there were at least 449 places around the country with high lead counts, many of which have yet to be addressed — and we haven't yet finished fixing the ones that already bubbled up. Sounding the alarm was only the start. These problems have deep roots.

This month marked the third anniversary of Flint starting to get its municipal water from the Flint River. That new corrosive water leached lead from the aging pipes in the city, which is 57 percent black and has been shedding residents for decades, and right into its residents' bodies.

Public water has always held a large place in the imagery of institutional racism, the ubiquitous black-and-white photos of water fountains labeled "WHITE" or "COLORED" peering up at countless students as they first learn of the civil rights movement. Racism obviously hasn't disappeared in the years since, only grown more adept at hiding. Now it's hard to even find working drinking fountains anywhere; inequality instead manifests itself by barring people from public water entirely. Many locals are still driving to pick up water bottles once a week, and some will probably always be afraid to drink the water coming out of their faucets. “I don't blame them,” says Andrew Highsmith, an assistant professor of history at UC Irvine who wrote a book on the deep, structural problems that led to the disintegration of the rust-belt city. “I go back there and don't drink the water. It's going to take a long time to regain that trust.” The racist policies that led to housing segregation, white flight, and the economic collapse that eradicated the tax base paying for services aren't as easy to fix — but are just as responsible for this crisis and the ones following in its wake, as Highsmith noted in a Los Angeles Times op-ed.

It's not much easier to get quick change in rural areas, which also struggle with enforcement — and often don't have to deal with as much enforcement as larger cities, because of their assumed lack of resources. One expert told USA Today that those getting water in the middle of nowhere are often treated like “second-class citizens” when it comes to H2O.

“Accidental activist” Michelle Baker, who lives in Hoosick Falls, a town on the Vermont border in upstate New York that was once home to Grandma Moses, spends about three hours a day actively advocating against perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, outside of her day job in commercial plumbing. Two years ago, residents learned that the man-made chemical was in their water at dangerously high levels. It was in their blood, it was in their children's blood, and their web sleuthing found that symptoms of PFOA exposure were legion among locals. PFOA is used to make Teflon, which is often used to make products at a nearby plant that has been targeted in a class-action lawsuit filed by locals, including Baker. After the contamination first went public, Baker thought her water was safe, as it came from a private well instead of the town. She was wrong, and her home, which had briefly become a hot spot for teenagers who wanted to take long showers without worrying about breaking out in a rash, was no longer an oasis.

Other towns close by in New York and Vermont began testing their own water, and found they were at risk too. Baker and fellow moms — as well as their teenage kids — have won a few victories, particularly the Clean Water Infrastructure Act in this year's state budget, which sets aside $2.5 billion for water emergencies and infrastructure. They're still waiting for more answers about why the state and federal government were so slow to respond — and whether the town will ever get a new alternative water source. The EPA hasn't been as responsive to residents' queries lately, Baker says, and it's unclear what will happen to the town's proposed inclusion on the federal Superfund list.

Baker just got back from vacation in Hollywood, Florida, with her mom and daughter. One night, at an expensive restaurant, the waiter asked them the seemingly rote question, “Do you want bottled water?” Baker responded in the negative, emphatically. “He just looked at me,” she says, and then he asked if they wanted tap water.

“Bring it to the table,” she said, gleefully. “He must have thought I was nuts.” For her, though, drinking tap water was priceless, a luxury that she may never get to do worry-free in her home again.