By Rachel Koning Beals
Jackson is emblematic of a growing water infrastructure crisis that many U.S. cities, suburbs and rural areas need to prepare for, experts tell MarketWatch.
Most Americans easily turn on the water tap to wash their hands or quench their thirst. If they pay their monthly bill, which ranks comfortably low compared to most countries in the world, vital water simply flows.
Yet in Jackson, Mississippi this week, for the second time in a year, a weather-related disaster shut off water taps to much of its population of 150,000, before an improvement is reported on Thursday.
Jackson is emblematic of a growing water infrastructure crisis that many U.S. cities, suburbs and rural areas must prepare for, experts told MarketWatch.
This is all the more true as climate change, due to global warming, increases and intensifies the frequency and severity of floods, droughts and extremes of heat and cold which further threaten underinvested infrastructure. Even cities with deep pockets cannot ignore the costly devastation that could result from runaway climate change, observers say.
“In the past, it might have made sense to view a flood as a rare, random event – communities could simply rebuild. But the statistical distribution of weather events and natural disasters is changing,” says Richard Rood, a professor of climate, space science and engineering in the University of Michigan School of Environment and Sustainability, and a participant in Great Lakes Integrated Science and Assessment. “What could have been a 1 in 500 year event may become a 1 in 100 year event, on its way to becoming a 1 in 50 year event.”
Could water shortage happen to you?
For Americans, water shortages may seem like a problem the developed world doesn’t have to think about. Not true. Last year’s Hurricane Ida, for example, endangered water treatment facilities in suburban Philadelphia.
And now, “Jackson is a highly visible recent example, but it’s emblematic of a much larger pattern of deteriorating municipal water infrastructure in the United States,” said Travis Korte, associate director of research and data. on sustainability, at the investment company Ethic.
Federal funding for water infrastructure has been in decline since the 1970s, and while state and local funding has largely taken over, even that has declined since 2010, Korte pointed out.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2018 that $472.6 billion in investment would be needed over the next 20 years to maintain and improve the country’s drinking water infrastructure alone, not even counting investment. required for wastewater.
The federal government, in its Infrastructure Improvement Act last year, set aside what is considered to be the largest investment ever made in restoring the United States water system, at 50 billions of dollars. But for many observers, this is catch-up money that may fund overdue repairs, but may not yet go far enough to modernize and reinvent the way Americans get water and access it.
Sometimes potential fixes have been endorsed by the public and private sectors. And figuring out who is most responsible for water and sewer upgrades — cities, states, or Washington, DC — adds to the burden on officials and property owners.
Jackson, for example, could only prepare for the worst.
“I’ve said many times that it’s not about whether our system will fail, it’s about when our system will fail,” Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told a news conference. this week.
The American Society of Civil Engineers has raised serious concerns about the nation’s drinking water infrastructure, giving it a C-minus on its latest, closely-tracked report card. Citing aging and underfunding, the group said there is a water main break every two minutes and about 6 billion gallons of treated water are lost every day in the United States. That’s enough to fill over 9,000 swimming pools.
U.S. stormwater infrastructure received an even lower rating, with the group of engineers warning that few systems could afford the high cost of renovations to deal with climate change-related flooding.
Even with budget constraints, government officials may no longer be able to simply respond to emergencies. On the contrary, they must do more to avoid the damage. Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves and President Joe Biden have declared an emergency for the Jackson area after heavy rains submerged the Pearl River and threatened to flood the state capital. But the floods only added to the pressure on an already struggling treatment plant and created a drinking water crisis.
The plant had been operating with backup pumps after its main pumps were damaged last month, The Wall Street Journal reported. A boil order has been in place for weeks simply due to poor quality. Now the bottled water supply is in danger of running out.
Restaurant owner Derek Emerson told The Associated Press that water issues are “stopping us from doing business in Jackson.” Emerson owns the upscale Walker’s Drive-In, and he said they’ve spent $300 a day on ice and bottled water over the past month.
Jackson isn’t the only place increasingly reliant on aging factories and pipelines and wondering if extreme weather will automatically mean assured disaster. Flooding this summer has upended life in and around Dallas, California’s Death Valley, St. Louis, Yellowstone National Park and Appalachia – Kentucky in particular – leaving towns and rural areas strewn with across the United States to question their own security and the functioning of basic services in a warming climate. Flooded water can contaminate drinking water, and when drought drastically lowers water reservoirs, not only are supplies limited, but the remaining low water level can invite more bacteria or other hazards.
As Jackson struggles, more Americans are wondering if water issues could affect their own communities: Google (GOOGL) data reveals Americans are searching for the term “water shortage” 30% of more in 2022 than in 2021.
The crisis in Jackson also highlights that it’s not just heat or cold, floods or droughts that are singularly worrisome. Everyone poses their own risks. Some Jackson residents went weeks without running water after winter storms last year hit city facilities.
Injustice for the “poor in plumbing”?
Jackson’s situation is an important test of climate change for demographic reasons. A majority black city, its crisis draws attention to the disproportionate impact of environmental stresses on the health, safety and monetary costs of people of color in the United States. Alaska Native households are disproportionately likely to be “bad at plumbing” with significantly less improved pipes or even access to water than white households.
Like many towns, Jackson faces water system problems that it cannot afford to solve. Its tax base has eroded in recent decades as the population has shrunk – the result of the flight of mostly whites to the suburbs that began after the integration of public schools in 1970. The city’s population is now more than 80% black, with about 25% of its inhabitants. living in poverty, reports the Associated Press.
“Underserved communities are bearing the full brunt of the effects of climate change. We have seen widespread suffering caused by floods, heat, cold and fires. The additional effects of a vulnerable water supply system or “Other infrastructure is also evident. Underserved areas have low local revenues to draw on and have often strained management resources,” said Brian Svendahl, Senior Portfolio Manager, U.S. Fixed Income at RBC GAM, adding that Mississippi’s clean water state revolving fund is a relatively small $11 billion, seems complicated, and the need arguably exceeds that number.
Svendahl agreed that the lack of cohesion in funding and building infrastructure hurts those who need it most.
“The best solutions in the market are where the risk is shared, the funding is broad and the solutions are uniform, just like the American mortgage market, the largest and best-functioning housing market in the world,” he said. he declares. “Imagine if every state ran the mortgage market and every local community had to fight for funding – that’s pretty much what we have in the way infrastructure is funded, with the most vulnerable completely left out. ”
Of course, some observers are quick to link Jackson to the water-cutting scandal and legal fallout that plagued Flint, Michigan some eight years ago. Residents have received restitution, but stress that a settlement is not “justice”.
Last year’s bipartisan Infrastructure Act set aside more than $50 billion for the Environmental Protection Agency to improve our country’s drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure. – the largest investment ever made by the federal government in the field of water. Mississippi, for its part, is receiving $75 million to address water issues.
But for some, catch-up spending seems overdue and may still be insufficient. In addition, relatively cheap access to water can be vulnerable.
An average American family of four pays about $72.93 for water every month as of 2019, if each person uses about 100 gallons for drinking, bathing, and bathroom use per day. The water and wastewater maintenance price index has risen in recent years as infrastructure continues to age in the United States, according to Commerce Department and EPA data. By one measure, residential water prices in the United States have risen an average of 5.5% per year since 2012 – faster than broader inflation until recently. (Read more about EPA water data here.)
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