How Climate-Fueled Storms and Floods Threaten Our Clean Water

Published Oct 16, 2023


Climate and EnergyClean Water

To protect our precious water resources, we need to invest in infrastructure and fight the industries driving climate disasters.

To protect our precious water resources, we need to invest in infrastructure and fight the industries driving climate disasters.

In August 2022, more than 150,000 residents in Jackson, Mississippi lost access to clean water. The city’s main water treatment plant failed after heavy flooding. Families had no option but to use bottled water for everything from drinking, to bathing, to even flushing their toilets. 

Major storms led to this most recent crisis, but it’s part of a pattern Jackson residents know well. Boil water advisories have been distressingly common for years. Storms left residents with unsafe or no water in 2010, 2014, 2018, and 2021. 

The ongoing water crisis in Jackson is a product of many factors. Systemic racism has long caused neglect of and intentional disinvestment in the majority-Black city’s infrastructure. And Jackson’s water system, including century-old pipelines, has needed improvements for decades. 

These improvements grow even more dire as the intensity and number of climate-fueled disasters grow to new heights. As the climate emergency worsens, cities and towns across the country face or will face similar problems.

Our access to clean water depends on a variety of infrastructure, like water and sewage treatment plants, storm drains, and huge networks of pipelines. But while floods, hurricanes, and other extreme weather events grow, these systems are under attack — and so is our access to safe, affordable water.

How Flooding and Storms Threaten Our Water Resources

Climate change has led to more intense storms with higher winds and floodwaters. Currently, 14.6 million homes in the U.S. have a substantial level of flood risks. 

These risks aren’t evenly distributed: they’re currently concentrated in poor white communities, and climate change will disproportionately increase risks for Black communities.

Besides damaging homes and businesses, floods can worsen the quality and safety of our water resources. Floodwaters often contain bacteria, viruses, and other nasty pollutants that can threaten our health. 

Moreover, the growing presence of toxic chemicals in daily life is increasing the toxicity of floodwaters in the U.S. Flooding spreads these contaminants and can pollute drinking water sources.

Storms also put stress on our water systems or completely shut them down. Notably, they threaten the treatment plants that clean our water before it reaches our faucets and clean sewage before it’s discharged to our lakes and rivers. 

Storms can flood these treatment plants or cause power outages that grind operations to a halt. Heavy rain and snowfall can overwhelm outdated stormwater collection systems and infiltrate old sewage systems, causing overflows. This will further threaten drinking water and public health.

For example, in 2020, record rainfall contributed to sewage overflows in Jackson, Mississippi. These overflows dumped nearly half a billion gallons of untreated sewage into the nearby Pearl River, which the city draws on for drinking water.

Oil and Gas Worsen Climate Change While Polluting and Abusing Our Water 

Several industries are working double duty: they’re worsening our climate crisis, leading to more storms and floods, and they’re threatening our water quality directly. At the same time, these industries are themselves more vulnerable to climate disasters. 

Take the fossil fuel industry. Fossil-based energy is both a huge polluter and user of water. Fracking and its waste have polluted numerous groundwater and surface water resources across the country. 

Recently, the New York Times reported that fracking operations are using more and more of our non-renewable groundwater resources. The proportion of “monster fracks” using more than 16.8 million gallons has grown from around 0% of projects in 2015 to 60% this year.

And that’s just the drilling stage. Compared to renewables like solar and wind, burning fossil fuels to generate electricity requires a lot of water. Already, many power plants are struggling to secure the freshwater they need for cooling.

At the same time, fossil fuels are more vulnerable to outages from climate disasters. Transitioning to renewables not only helps us to fight climate change and protect our water supplies from disasters — it also helps keep the lights on and vital infrastructure, like treatment plants, running.

Factory Farms Spew Water and Climate Pollution

Similarly, factory farms worsen climate change while being very vulnerable to climate-fueled disasters. Such disasters will add to factory farms’ existing threats to human health.

One of the most dire is their water pollution problem from generating and storing so much manure. Factory farms store this waste in open pits, or “lagoons,” which can and have overflowed during storms and floods. 

Such spills pollute waterways and groundwater with pathogens such as E. coli, agricultural chemicals, and pharmaceuticals. 

In 2018, Hurricane Florence caused millions of gallons of waste to spill from lagoons at factory hog farms. These spills contaminated many North Carolina waterways with hog waste, making them unsafe for swimming.

To make matters worse, additional pollution heightens the costs of infrastructure and services that make water safe for drinking. These costs will make water bills even more unaffordable than they already are.

We Need Resilient Food and Energy Systems and Public Investments in Protecting Our Water

Major storms and flooding disasters underscore just how fragile and vulnerable these industries are. We need more resilient systems to grow food and make energy; ones that don’t also imperil our water resources. 

Shutting down industries like oil and gas and factory farming will also help stave off the worst of the climate crisis — and the worsening flooding, storms, and other disasters that it will bring. 

Moreover, we need to strengthen our water systems to handle our climate-changed reality. We’re going to continue to see more and stronger storms and floods. We need resilient infrastructure that can ensure everyone has access to clean, safe, affordable water and sanitation. 

In 2021, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law sent $55 billion to upgrade our country’s water and sewer systems, but it’s not enough. The Environmental Protection Agency has found that we need more than $896 billion over the next 20 years just to make the improvements needed to comply with existing law. 

On top of that, the water and wastewater industry estimates that the cost to adapt our water systems for climate change will reach up to $1 trillion by 2050.

But we have a policy solution in Congress right now. The WATER Act will provide the funding we need to repair our water infrastructure and make it more resilient to climate change. The WATER Act also provides funds to address other major threats to clean water, like lead in pipes and PFAS contamination.

Without fast, transformative action, we will continue to see water crises like that in Jackson in communities across the country. To ensure that everyone has access to clean water, we need to repair our infrastructure and take meaningful action to fight climate change. 

Want to join our fight to ensure clean water and sanitation for everyone? Tell your members of Congress to support the WATER Act.


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