The Clean Water Act At 50: How We Got Here And Where We Need To Go

Categories

Clean Water

by Mary Grant

On this day 50 years ago, Congress passed the Clean Water Act. This cornerstone environmental law of the 20th century aimed to eliminate all polluting discharges into our nation’s waterways. 

For many people, the 1969 fire on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River is the symbol of the pre-Clean Water Act era. More than a dozen fires had erupted on that one river. Many more rivers in cities from Buffalo to Detroit caught fire from industrial oil slicks and pollution.

And while the Clean Water Act has been instrumental in cleaning up these waterways and waterways across the country, much more work is necessary.

The Clean Water Act Brings A New Era of Federal Water Regulation

Historically, the federal government took a hands-off approach to water quality regulation. Restrictions on water pollution were left mostly to states and localities under a patchwork of weak regulatory regimes

That began to change in 1948, when Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. However, this first national framework for water quality regulation, fell flat because it failed to provide adequate federal oversight. 

The Clean Water Act of 1972 was a complete revision of that decades-old law. It had two major parts: 

  1. federal funding for publicly owned wastewater treatment plants, and 
  2. regulations to stop pollution discharges into waterways. 

The Clean Water Act emerged following an era of social change and activism amid the anti-war movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s movement, and a wave of environmental activism. Responding to popular pressure, on October 18, 1972, Congress overwhelmingly voted to override a veto from President Nixon, passing the Clean Water Act into law. 

Because of the Clean Water Act, the water quality of many of our nation’s rivers, lakes and wetlands has improved significantly. Wastewater systems now provide advantaged treatment for more than 16 times as many people as before the law passed. The regulations reduced most types of major water pollution, and more surface waters are now safe for fishing and swimming. 

The Clean Water Act proved a clear win for public health and the environment and enjoyed widespread public support at the time. So why did President Nixon oppose it? The funding. Nixon deemed the bill’s $24 billion price tag “unconscionable.” 

Clean Water Act Funding Sparks Battles For Decades

Federal funding has long been a key battleground in the fight for clean water. 

The 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act created an unsuccessful construction loan program for wastewater treatment facilities. In 1956, after it failed to spur construction, Congress replaced that loan program with a new construction grants program. These grants were wildly popular and demand quickly outpaced available funding. 

Over the following decades, Congress battled with Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon to scale up investments. In 1960, President Eisenhower, who wanted to eliminate the program, vetoed legislation passed by Congress that would nearly double the funding. He argued that water pollution was a “uniquely local blight” that shouldn’t be the responsibility of the federal government.

That November proved what we’ve learned since — elections matter for clean water. When John F. Kennedy became president, he signaled a renewed federal commitment to clean water. In his first year of office, he signed into law amendments to expand federal oversight and double the construction grants program. Kennedy recognized water quality as “a serious National problem requiring a strong National program.” 

The size of the construction grants program continued to grow in the years leading up to the Clean Water Act, which authorized a substantial increase in funding (about $175 billion in today’s dollars). Then, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed amendments that committed to further long-term funding for public sewage systems. 

From 1972 to 1984, the federal government provided nearly $41 billion in funding for wastewater infrastructure. It was the largest nonmilitary public works program since the Interstate Highway System. 

Source: Jonathan L. Ramseur, Congressional Research Service testimony to U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, March 2022.  

President Reagan Ended the Clean Water Act’s Construction Grants Program 

In the 1980s, President Reagan began targeting the construction grants program, seeking to eliminate it by 1990. His administration claimed that the program had accomplished its goal and that most remaining projects were insignificant because they were largely in small and rural areas. 

Congress responded to Reagan’s pressure with the Water Quality Act of 1987, which authorized a final $18 billion over 9 years to the grants program and to the newly established Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which replaced those grants. Despite winning his sought-for phase-out, Reagan vetoed the legislation, lambasting the additional funding as “loaded with waste and larded with pork.” 

But Congress once again voted overwhelmingly to override the veto. The construction grants program was phased out in 1990. Today, the Clean Water State Revolving Fund program provides low-interest loans to build and improve wastewater systems. 

The Path Forward, From The Clean Water Act to The WATER Act

From the start, federal funding has been a major political fault line in the fight for clean water. It is all too often on the chopping block during federal spending battles between Congress and the Presidential administrations.

That’s why Food & Water Watch, since our founding, has been fighting for a national trust fund to provide dedicated support for safe and clean water. 

Since peaking in 1977, federal funding for water infrastructure has plummeted 77% in real terms, or 84% on a per capita basis. But the EPA estimates our water infrastructure needs at least $744 billion in investment over the next 20 years, or more than $35 billion a year. 

We know the costs of inaction. We see it every day as our aging infrastructure breaks downs and fails. Climate change-fueled storms overload these faltering systems, and billions of gallons of sewage continue to spill into waterways every year. 

The WATER Act is the only comprehensive approach to fund improvements to our drinking water and wastewater systems. It will create the much-needed trust fund, providing $35 billion in annual funding to update and repair our water infrastructure. And it will help achieve the vision of clean water in every community.  

Tell your congress members to cosponsor the WATER Act today!

We Have a Right To Water. The U.S. Has Not Delivered.

Categories

Clean Water

by Mia DiFelice and Mary Grant

Now more than ever, access to clean water is top of mind. Climate chaos continues to harm communities nationwide, disproportionately Black, Indigenous and other communities of color. It’s bringing droughts, floods, sewage spills, wildfires and destruction. For many, supplies are diminishing and water quality is deteriorating.

The devastating water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi has left the city’s 150,000 residents without water for a week and without safe water for months. As will happen in many other cities, the climate crisis collided with decades of intentional disinvestment and structural racism. 

But at the same time, Big Ag and Big Oil continue guzzling water and wreaking havoc on the climate. Corporations have used tons of toxic chemicals like PFAS that end up in our waterways. Such abuse to our water and water systems has led to deadly pollution and our nation’s current lead crisis. It has ruined water resources that everyone should be able to use and enjoy. 

Our access to clean, affordable water faces threats on so many fronts. And we have a framework to begin solving these problems, but our government has yet to use it.

The U.S. Shows The Consequences of Ignoring The Right to Water

Twelve years ago, the United Nations officially recognized the human right to water. The resolution, signed by 122 countries, changed the conversation for policymakers and activists around the world. Since then, 39 countries have enshrined the right to water in legislation or their constitutions. 

The United States has failed to follow suit. In fact, the U.S. abstained from the UN vote that made water a human right. It even argued that water was not a human right, despite being necessary for survival, health and human flourishing.

This bears out in our policies and our communities, and it must be fixed. 

Thanks to corporate greed, the prices of necessities are skyrocketing at record rates. The privatization of utilities will make matters even worse. The corporations capturing public goods and services have long put profits before public interest. As a result, folks with privately held water pay an average 59% higher bills than those with public providers. 

We are facing an affordability crisis that puts people’s right to water at risk. Millions in the U.S. struggle to pay their utility bills. For the low-income participants in one federal program, a third skip filling prescriptions or grocery store trips to pay for utilities. If families can’t pay, utilities can force people from their homes or cut off these essential services. 

The U.S.’s failure to recognize and fulfill our human rights to water and sanitation is connected to so many other problems we face. It’s connected to the climate emergency and the COVID-19 pandemic, our failing infrastructure and our country’s past and present of racial and economic injustice. 

The U.S. Must Recognize Water As a Human Right Now

On Thursday, Reps. Cori Bush, Rashida Tlaib and Jamaal Bowman introduced a resolution to recognize the human rights to water and sanitation. The resolution would also recognize our rights to other utilities essential to health, safety and human dignity. These rights include the right to electricity, heating, cooling, broadband communications and public transportation.

To protect people and planet, the resolution calls on the House of Representatives to commit to ensuring these rights. It lays the groundwork for utility services that are accessible, safe, sustainable, affordable and reliable for all. 

If passed, the resolution would commit the House to, among other things:

  • Guarantee service for all by ending violent collection practices, including shutoffs;
  • Support public control of utilities by banning water privatization and commodification, expanding public electricity and opening up broadband service to public providers; 
  • Provide grants to environmental justice communities and create well-paying union jobs;
  • Address our climate crisis with justly sourced renewable energy;
  • And ensure utility services are safe and accessible for all, including unhoused folks.

The Right to Water Will Have Tangible Benefits For Communities

When people have the right to water, they have legal support to claim that right and the government must respond. A legal right reaffirms that water is not a commodity on which big corporations can profit from. Rather, water is a natural resource that we are all entitled to access safely and affordably.

California was the first U.S. state to recognize the human right to water. Since passage in 2012, the law has begun working its way through state agencies, prompting studies and regulations.    

Last year, New York voted overwhelmingly to incorporate the right to water in the state constitution. We await to see how this affects state policy, but the state has taken other actions to affirm the right to water and protect water as a public resource. 

Two days after the vote, Governor Hochul established two public water authorities in Nassau County. The authorities replaced private company American Water, restoring water provision to the public trust.  

More than 200 organizations support the rights to water in the United States. Food & Water Watch will continue to fight, alongside our allies, for the right to clean, affordable and accessible water for all.

Our government must recognize our right to water and other necessities. Tell Congress to support the resolution recognizing our right to utilities. 

On Desalination And Drought With Activist Conner Everts

Categories

Climate and EnergyClean Water

by Leah Garland and Mia DiFelice

This May, a coalition of water advocates won a victory against the Poseidon desalination plant planned for Huntington Beach, California. As part of the 22-year effort, Food & Water Watch helped to shut down plans for the plant. If it had been approved, Poseidon would have wreaked havoc on marine life and driven up community water rates. At the same time, the plant would have bypassed more cost-effective, more sustainable and more just conservation solutions. 

Our Manger of Individual Philanthropy Leah Garland sat down with Conner Everts, long-time water activist and consultant. They discuss the Poseidon fight, the dangers of desalination and the future of water in California. This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Activist Conner Everts and interviewer Leah Garland.

Laying The Groundwork Against Desalination

You have been Food and Water Watch’s Water Consultant since we were founded in 2005. How did you become a water consultant?

I think of myself more as an elder advisor on water because I’ve been doing it for so long. And I come from it the old-fashioned way. I was a fisherman, and so I loved rivers, and I could see the impact of what was happening. So I decided to focus on water back in the ‘80s.

When Wenonah Hauter started Food & Water Watch, I began consulting with them. The two issues I focused on were Cadiz, a desert-mining water project in the Mojave, and desalination, not just with Poseidon but with all the plants up and down the coast.

We hear a lot about how desalination is good for other places, like Israel, to provide clean water in dry areas. So why is desalination not good for California?

In California, it’s a case of “technological fix.” The water industry and cities are asking, “How can we maintain our level of water waste and our lifestyle without changing it?” 

But before Israel, Spain or Australia did desalination, they got their per capita water use down to 40 gallons a day. In California, we’re at about 80-90 gallons in residential areas. Instead of conservation, much of the state’s basic water management policy is to pray for rain at this point.

We over-allocate the amount of water we have at least five times. And that was before climate change. Water is a finite resource. Until we treat it like that, we’re not dealing with reality. 

A Hard-Won Victory Against Desalination in Huntington Beach

How did the campaign find success in its most recent battle with Poseidon?

When Poseidon started in Huntington Beach, they found a lot of political resistance. So they went to San Diego and managed to get the Carlsbad plant through, in the midst of fires and a dry time. 

But that plant has provided less water than they would have by reducing their demand, at a far greater cost. And Poseidon got a take or pay deal, meaning that whether people need the water or not, they’re going to pay for it. And that made it good for Poseidon, but not the ratepayers whose water rates went up and up. 

So when Poseidon came back to Huntington Beach, opposition against them had grown. We had all the resources we needed from tribal and environmental justice groups, and a UCLA report calling for a human right to water — affordable, safe and clean water for all.

I think that was a key issue: Can a private company essentially industrialize the ocean and make a profit off of it, while ignoring the public trust?

Poseidon said they weren’t going to take any public money, but they went for money that should have been going to affordable housing through state agencies. We found we were part of a much more complicated financing issue, where corporations take money that’s available — that should be used for pollution control and affordable housing — and they try to apply it to a private project. We gave them a lot of heat for that.

The fight ended with a unanimous decision against the plant, from the now majority-women Coastal Commission with tribes and environmental justice organizations leading the way.

What has Food & Water Watch’s role been in the movement against desalination?

For a long time, Food & Water Watch was the only one fighting desalination work. And they don’t mind going after the Governor, or making the connection between energy and water. Some groups are more siloed, but Food & Water Watch wasn’t. 

The model we used was working with local groups, helping them build up their own capacity. We were able to mobilize people and bring them together. Food & Water Watch had a big voice there. It wasn’t an “It takes a village” moment, but rather “it takes a large regional metropolis” to find solutions because water should be a regional issue. 

It shouldn’t be dictated by state policy or water agencies. It shouldn’t be dictated by engineering firms or private speculators like Poseidon. It should be dictated by all the people impacted. 

Continuing The Fight For A Better Water System

What does California need to do to protect its water considering our water situation right now and the worsening effects of climate change?

We’re faced with these, what I call, “zombie boondoggle water supply” options. They’re these pipe-dream fantasies of how we’re going to provide water. Yet we know we can do more with less water if we use it efficiently.

But if you really want to have equity in water, those who use the least should pay the least. That would support the human right to water. 

Also, desalination plants need power, and if you’re running a power plant on the coast 24 hours a day, that impacts the air quality of the people living inland. But desalination benefits coastal development, like beachfront roads and hotels. Expanding that is going to raise water rates. And that’s going to impact people who can’t afford water, who live in hotter inland areas. 

At the same time, are we going to allow the extinction of salmon, steelhead and sturgeon? Those fish are the bottom of the food chain, and those are dying off. That impacts fish, seals, orcas and the salmon runs. And that impacts Indigenous communities, who are dependent on the salmon runs in their culture, not to mention for their food. 

If you get into the details of water, it’s not as simple as “Well, just build a desal plant.” But it can be simple if we continue to reduce our demand and acknowledge the people who need it most. We can reduce our use. We can break the cycle of repeating these issues over and over again. 


We’ll Break The Cycle With Your Help

The battle against desalination is far from over. In August 2022, Governor Gavin Newsom announced a new water plan that includes measures to grow and fast-track desalination in California. 

In the months ahead, the state faces additional desalination proposals in Orange County and Monterey. Meanwhile, Newsom has pushed to reopen the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant with desalination infrastructure. 

California doesn’t need desalination. It needs water conservation, a fast transition off fossil fuels and a system that guarantees safe, clean and affordable water for all. We have the power to push for the sustainable and equitable future of water we deserve.

Everyone must know: California deserves better than desalination!

On The Right To Water With An Activist On The Front Lines

Categories

Clean Water

by Mia DiFelice

This week marks the 12th anniversary of the United Nations’ recognition of the human rights to water and sanitation. To commemorate the anniversary, Digital Copywriter Mia DiFelice sat down with Maude Barlow, FWW board member and long-time international water rights activist. In this interview, Maude talks about her experiences fighting for the right to water, the current challenges we face and her hopes for the future. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The Journey To The United Nations

How did you come into the water movement?

I came out of the women’s movement here in Canada, and I came into water absolutely by accident. Back in 1985, Canada negotiated a free trade agreement with the U.S. I was concerned about its effects on social security for women. All these goods would be subject to new rules of trade that basically said, “Government is hands-off, the corporations get to decide.” But when I read the annex at the back of this agreement, it listed all of the goods under the new rules, like running shoes, cars and so on — and there was water in all its forms.

I remember thinking, I don’t understand this at all, how is water a tradable good? Water is a public trust! And that’s what set me on a journey. I realized that there were corporate interests that recognized before most of us that the planet was running out of clean, accessible water. They saw we were taking it for granted, we weren’t treating it well. They saw that anyone who controlled it was going to be both powerful and potentially wealthy.

In the run up to the UN’s recognition, you were the Special Advisor on Water to the President of the UN General Assembly. What were the high and low points of that experience? 

In 2008, Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann took over as president of the UN General Assembly. He called me and said, “Come work with me, we’re going to do this together. We’re going to make water and sanitation a human right.” We put our heads together with other activists and put the question to the General Assembly on July 28, 2010. I honestly didn’t think we were going to make it. My country [Canada] was leading the fight against the human right to water. The U.S. was opposed, Great Britain was opposed. The World Bank was opposed, all the big water companies were opposed, etc.

But during the campaign, we brought people in to tell their stories to the United Nations. When Pablo Sonam, the ambassador to Bolivia, stood before the General Assembly on July 28, 2010, he had a report in his hand from the World Health Organization. He read from the report, which said that every three and a half seconds, somewhere in the Global South, a child dies of waterborne disease. And he held up one finger. And then another. And another, and then just half a finger — and you could have heard a pin drop in the General Assembly of the United Nations. It was so powerful. 

The Importance Of The Right To Water

How has the UN’s recognition of the human right to water changed the playing field for activists, especially here in North America?

The right to water matters, even though some people say, “Well, everything didn’t change the next day.” Because rights turn it into an issue of justice, not charity. 

Since 2010, over four dozen countries have either amended their constitution, or introduced new legislation to guarantee the human right to water. Once it’s in the constitution of a nation state, it becomes the right of the citizens of that state, and those citizens can use it in legal cases. I’d like to see it more widely understood and widely used. But it was a really important beginning. And I consider it an evolutionary step forward for humanity.

In Canada, we launched this Blue Communities project where municipalities pledge to protect water as a human right, to not allow privatization and to start phasing out plastic bottled water on municipal premises. That’s been tremendously exciting. It’s now hit 337 municipalities around the world, including big ones like Berlin and Paris. 

Los Angeles became a blue community a couple of years ago. And you might think, Well, Los Angeles is so wealthy, why would they need to do this? But in the Greater Los Angeles area, there are a million people without proper access to water and sanitation. So people who think this is just an issue in the Global South are wrong. I want to disabuse us of this notion that it’s only in some poor countries, although, of course, the crisis is much more stark in some places than others. 

The Fight Ahead For The Right To Water

What do you see as the next steps and challenges in the fight?

I worry about the financialization of water, which is something Food & Water Watch is leading the fight against with legislation and with public outcry. I worry about the commodification of water in different ways. For example, in the Western United States, water markets are opening up and farmers can sell their excess water, like a cash crop. 

We are facing what I call “the perfect storm” of declining water sources, either polluted or decimated. We’re pulling water faster than it can be replenished by nature. The demand for water on our planet is going straight up and the supply is going straight down. It is absolutely startling. There’s also growing inequality within and between countries. And then there’s the rising cost of water, particularly when it’s privatized. 

Protecting and restoring watersheds, forest soils and wetlands is absolutely crucial. Yet we continue to take those forests and wetlands down as we build more stuff and we trade more stuff. We have this notion of unlimited growth. But we don’t yet understand how sacred water is and that water is life and that we’re part of water, we’re part of nature, we’re not separate from it.

What has helped you persist in what looks and feels like a very uphill battle?

The wonderful people in our movement, including Food & Water Watch and the leadership of Wenonah Hauter and others, gives me tremendous hope. And meeting young people from around the world who care and are doing something. 

I’ve just finished a new book called Still Hopeful: Lessons from a Lifetime of Activism. In the book, I share that you never know where the wind is going to come from. As Rebecca Solnit wrote, “History is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways.” 

We can’t control the outcomes. But my definition of hope is a commitment to protecting all that is good for future generations and the planet, knowing that you can’t control the outcome. But you have faith that what you do matters. So you put your hand out and you touch the web of the universe, wherever you are. You can’t control everything else, and you’re not sure what others are doing. But you have to have faith that others are doing something. And that together, you’re moving forward. 

That’s the definition of what American spiritual leader Joan Halifax calls “wise hope.” I love the concept of wise hope. It’s not, “Everything’s fine. Don’t worry, be happy.” No. Having wise hope means knowing we have serious problems. But we look them in the eye, and we deal with them. 


What You Can Do: Volunteer To Turn Your Community Blue!

Hearing from Maude makes it clear how important it is for everyone to act locally to protect their resources. Communities around the world have passed local resolutions pledging to promote the human right to water and sanitation. These blue communities reject water privatization and promise to keep water in the public service. They also say “no” to bottled water in public buildings and events. With every blue community, we come closer to realizing our human right to clean, affordable water.

Learn how to advocate for your community to turn blue!

We Need To Get The Lead Out. Now.

Categories

Clean Water

CC BY-NC-SA 2.0© Theen Moy / Flickr.com
by Mia DiFelice and Mary Grant

We’ve heard this story so many times, it’s lost its shock. Lead found in our cities, our neighborhoods, our schools, our plumbing. Since the scandal in Flint, Michigan came to light in 2016, lead in our water has been a running story in our newsfeeds. And no wonder — every state in the country has lead service lines. 

A reminder: there is no safe level of lead in drinking water, and it’s especially dangerous for children. It can lead to developmental disorders, damage to the nervous system and blood cells, and more. In 2021, out of a million children in the U.S. tested, half showed detectable levels of lead in their blood. Lead exposure is much more likely for poorer children and children of color, reinforcing historical inequities. 

Replacing lead lines is a human rights issue, a public health issue and a social justice issue. Yet, our elected officials have dragged their feet on full funding to fix this problem. Meanwhile, corporations are targeting municipal governments for privatization — which only stands to worsen the crisis.

The Link Between Lead And The Loss Of Local Control 

Flint’s lead crisis began when a state-appointed emergency manager took control of the city and changed its water source, supposedly to cut costs. Then-Governor Rick Snyder used the state emergency manager law to strip majority Black cities of democratic decision-making. This put money for bondholders before the health and wellbeing of residents. Immediately after the switch, residents raised the alarm about the gross, discolored water. The state emergency manager’s response? To repeatedly insist that the water was safe to drink. 

In 2014, Veolia, the world’s largest water corporation, was hired to study Flint’s water system and offer advice. It told the city that the water was safe. Now, the company faces a lawsuit from Flint children who were poisoned. It wasn’t until October 2015 that public health community organizing and advocacy got the emergency manager to switch the water supply back.

After Flint’s crisis came Pittsburgh’s. Pittsburgh also relied on a deal with Veolia that failed to protect public safety. As in Flint, the City was strapped for cash. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated the City needed billions of dollars to get its water system up to snuff. So Pittsburgh called on Veolia to cut costs and manage the system. 

Veolia’s contract with Pittsburgh, as with many of its other clients, paid the company a percentage of the savings it touted. This explicitly incentivized Veolia to cut costs as much as possible. One of the items on the chopping block during its tenure was water treatment. The system switched to a cheaper corrosion control chemical — a change made without necessary state approval. And the consequences, as in Flint, were dire. Lead contamination surpassed the EPA’s action levels, or the level at which water systems must take action. It blew past the level of contamination deemed safe by public health officials — that is, zero. 

We Need Clean And Affordable Water

Nationally, privatization is wreaking havoc on our water supply. On average, utility bills are 59% higher for those on private systems versus public. At the same time, the incentives for quality plummet. Cutting costs for profit means cutting corners. Ultimately, residents pay the price.  

This summer, Rep. Rashida Tlaib led a tour of Michigan for the “Get The Lead Out” Caucus. The caucus is digging deeper into the issue of lead in our drinking water through research and conversations with residents on the ground. As they prepare recommendations for the House, we need to make clear our demands for clean, affordable, lead-free water. 

Get the lead out in…

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

In 2016, 17% of Pittsburgh houses were turning up with lead contamination above the EPA’s action level. Since then, the local water authority has replaced 52-miles-worth of public and private lead service lines. However, the City has much more work ahead of it. About 8,000 service lines still need to be replaced, with aims to finish by 2026. Meanwhile, about 400 children are diagnosed with lead poisoning in the City each year.

SCROLL SIDEWAYS TO NAVIGATE

The Wet Well is where all of the wastewater enters the plant. CC BY-SA 2.0; 90.5 WESA, Flickr
Get the lead out in…

Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C.’s lead crisis began in November 2000 when the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority changed a water treatment chemical. Lead rose to dangerous levels among the city’s 25,000 residences with known lead service lines. The DCWSA tried downplaying the risks of lead. They knew the lead levels were elevated in 2002, but the public didn’t know until the Washington Post published an exposé in 2004. By failing to properly notify the public, DCWSA violated our national lead-in-water rule. Now, twenty years later, NRDC estimates that D.C. has almost 32,000 lead service lines. The District’s officials and utility company have taken little action to address the ongoing threat.

Construction workers check on progress inside a CSO tunnel for the Clean Rivers Project in D.C.
Get the lead out in…

Benton Harbor, Michigan

Since 2018, lead testing has revealed dozens of homes in Benton Harbor with dangerously high levels. Last fall, a coalition petitioned the EPA for emergency action to bring those levels down. In response, the Governor signed an executive order to give residents alternative water and filters. It will cost $30 million to replace the City’s service lines, as nearly all were confirmed to have lead or could possibly have lead in 2020. By June 2022, two-thirds of the city’s lead service lines had been replaced. Residents continue to call for a stronger response to the crisis, including faster assistance to replace all lead service lines.

Get the lead out in…

Flint, Michigan

Eight years have passed since Flint’s water crisis shone a national spotlight on the lead in our pipes. Yet, Flint residents still struggle with untrustworthy water and unaffordable water bills. In 2015, tests showed that Flint’s water exceeded 25 ppb of lead in most samples, with some reaching over 100 or even 1,000 ppb. City and state officials repeatedly insisted the water was safe to drink, but local organizing forced the emergency manager to switch back water sources. Flint is aiming to finish all lead service line replacements by September 2022. 

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; George Thomas, Flickr

A Strong Lead-in-Water Rule

By October 2024, President Biden’s administration has promised a stronger Lead and Copper Rule. For years, community groups have urged action to fix the broken lead-in-water regulation. Our government needs to lower the action level as close to zero as possible, improve sampling and require full lead service line replacement within a decade. These changes will help ensure that we get lead out of our water. 

At the same time, communities must get the funding they need to ensure everyone can access clean water — water that isn’t poisoned by lead.

A Solution In The WATER Act

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill directed $15 billion a year for lead service line replacements. It distributes about half of that through loans instead of grants dedicated to disadvantaged communities. This is not enough. In fact, it’s only a quarter of what the water industry says we need to replace every lead service line in the country. 

We have another option — the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability Act led by Reps. Brenda Lawrence and Ro Khanna and Sen. Bernie Sanders. This legislation has more than 100 cosponsors in the House of Representatives and 6 in the Senate. The WATER Act would dedicate $35 billion each and every year to update our water systems, including replacing lead service lines. It would send $1 billion a year specifically to schools to improve water pipes and fixtures. And, the WATER Act is the only water funding proposal that explicitly calls for water to remain in public hands.

Call on Congress to support the WATER Act.

Announcing 100+ Sponsors for the WATER Act

Categories

Clean Water

by Mary Grant

More than eight years ago, millions of people watched the water crisis in Flint, Michigan unfold on national television. An entire city was poisoned when decades of federal disinvestment in water infrastructure collided with a racist emergency management regime imposed by former Governor Rick Snyder. Justice was denied to Flint on June 28, 2022, when the state supreme court threw out charges to hold Snyder accountable based on a technicality. 

In early 2016, driven by the crisis in Flint, Food & Water Watch worked with our allies on a pivotal piece of legislation: the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability Act — the WATER Act. This month, we reached a major milestone in this six-year campaign. Since it was introduced by Rep. Brenda Lawrence, Rep. Ro Khanna and Sen. Sanders, more than 100 representatives and 6 senators now officially support this legislation. With more than 550 endorsing organizations, we are continuing to grow support in Congress to pass the WATER Act as the landmark water law of the 21st century. We have a lot more work to do to ensure water justice.

A Permanent Water Solution 

The WATER Act is the only comprehensive approach to improving our drinking water and wastewater systems. It will create a trust fund to provide funding to meet the level that the EPA says is necessary to update and repair our public and household water systems. To do that, the Act will provide $35 billion annually to restore the nation’s public water infrastructure, including: 

  • $15.2 billion a year to the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund to upgrade and improve public drinking water systems (including lead pipe removal and treatment for PFAS contamination); 
  • $15.7 billion a year to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to pay for publicly owned wastewater system upgrades;
  • $1.1 billion a year to fix drinking water infrastructure in schools, including replacing lead pipes and fixtures; 
  • $1.2 billion a year to help update and install household septic systems and wells;
  • $1.4 billion a year to protect drinking water sources from pollution; and
  • $349 million a year for technical assistance to rural, small and Indigenous wastewater and drinking water providers. 

The WATER Act will help prevent another water crisis like Flint by restoring federal funding to safe water. And it will ensure local communities have the support they need to provide every person access to clean water. 

Deepening Water Crises 

Many of the water and sewer pipes under our streets were built in the years immediately following World War II. They are outdated and wearing out. Since that era, we’ve learned about many new toxic chemicals that their treatment systems aren’t built to remove. On top of that, they were not built for today’s climate reality. 

For many, the signs of our aging water systems erupt to surface in the form of water breaks and sewer overflows. Each year, we waste 2 trillion gallons of drinking water from hundreds of thousands of water main breaks. And in a dire threat to public health, more than 850 billion gallons of raw sewage spills into basements, homes, roads and waterways.

For some communities — disportionately Black and Indigenous communities and communities of color — the harm has been more profound. Communities like Flint and Benton Harbor, Michigan face toxic lead poisoning, while communities like Jackson, Mississippi and Puerto Rico have faced climate change-fueled catastrophic system failures. 

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Fell Short 

When President Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure package into law last year, it provided a downpayment on our water improvements. But it falls far short of what our water systems and our communities desperately need. 

According to the EPA’s latest assessments, our water systems require at least $744 billion in investment over the next 20 years. That’s more than $35 billion a year — just to comply with existing federal law.  

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provided only 7% of the funding that our communities require to meet existing water quality standards. Congress needs to hear that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law cannot be the end of support to fund clean and safe water for everyone. 

We need a permanent water solution. We need the WATER Act.

Tell Your Congress Members to Cosponsor the WATER Act Today!

PFAS: No Sticking, No Staining … And Not Going Anywhere

Categories

Food SystemClean Water

By Mia DiFelice

The story begins in 1938, with the accidental invention of Teflon. Made famous by the miraculous “nonstick” cookware, Teflon flooded American kitchens in the 1960s. But Teflon’s stick- and stain-fighting power comes from the chemical PFOA. As Teflon sold the miracle of PFOA to consumers, new, similar chemicals flooded the market. Those chemicals, called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are showing up in our baby clothes, our burger wrappers, our blood. And they’re not going away any time soon.

Is That a Bad Thing?

Very — and PFAS manufacturers have known this for a long time. In 2005, the EPA fined Dupont, the maker of Teflon, $16.5 million. The fine penalized Dupont for covering up decades of studies that linked PFOA to cancer, birth defects and liver damage. Dupont and 3M, the maker of another PFAS chemical, knew back in the ’60s that these substances could be dangerous.

Now, we see studies linking PFAS to thyroid disease, decreased fertility, endocrine disruption, cognitive problems and immune system impacts (for example, reduced response to vaccines). There is even evidence linking PFAS exposure to greater risk of COVID and more severe COVID symptoms.

Despite this research, the U.S. still lacks federal regulations for PFAS. Chemical companies can keep information on PFAS close to the chest, so we often can’t know if a product we purchase contains the chemicals. Our federal government does not regulate all industrial PFAS wastewater discharges, either. On top of that, it has not designated PFAS as hazardous substances, which would help clean up contamination sites.

Where Do We Find PFAS?

In short, everywhere. If a product is labeled non-stick, stain-resistant or water-resistant, there’s a good chance it contains PFAS. And once PFAS are in the environment, they spread and persist. When we toss garbage with PFAS in it, the chemicals leach from the landfill into our air, water and soil. Then they can get into the groundwater. Scientists have even found PFAS in places thought to be undamaged by humans, like the Arctic and the deep ocean. In the U.S., researchers estimate they’re in 97% of people’s blood.

And PFAS, also called “forever chemicals,” are nearly impossible to get rid of. If a manufacturer stopped using PFAS right now, they could still find traces in products coming out of that plant a decade later.

The Stuff We Buy

Stain-resistant and water-resistant fabrics usually have PFAS. For instance, a recent study found 60% of fabrics used in children’s products labeled “waterproof” or “stain-resistant” contained PFAS. When PFAS-treated upholstery or carpeting wears down, we inhale the dust. We can eat PFAS when they slide off our water-resistant food packaging. They’re also in our cosmetics and our toiletries, where they are most likely to get into our systems through our eyes.

The Food We Eat

When we flush products with PFAS down the drain, the chemicals build up in our sewers. Many wastewater treatment plants filter out the solids and clean the water. But those solids have to go somewhere, and often, they go to farms. Farms have long-used sewer sludge as fertilizer. As a result, the Environmental Working Group estimates that 20 million acres of US cropland could be contaminated with PFAS. The chemicals now appear in the crops of PFAS-affected farmland — and in the meat and milk of animals that eat those feed crops.

The Water We Drink

In 2021, EWG found PFAS contaminants in the public and private water of all 50 states. We might drink from the tap several times a day, so if PFAS are in the water, our bodies are continuously contaminated. Researchers have found PFAS in the drinking water of towns near factories that work with the chemicals. They’ve found the chemicals in the drinking water of towns near military bases, which use PFAS-laden firefighting foam for training exercises. We depend on water to survive — our government should not allow it to be laced with toxic forever chemicals.

What Can We Do About PFAS?

Many companies have voluntarily phased out PFAS, especially in the last twenty years as their dangers came to light. However, the EPA has not set a legal limit for PFAS in drinking water, nor required manufacturers to help clean up contamination.

In 2021, the agency released its “PFAS Strategic Roadmap,” committing the agency to several measures to combat PFAS in the next few years. And just this week, it designated $1 billion of Infrastructure Bill funds to help local communities address PFAS. In the same announcement, the EPA published health advisories on four major PFAS chemicals — but this is out of thousands in the family.

While these are important steps in the right direction, the advisories aren’t enforceable, and communities have already waited decades for action. There is so much more work to be done. 

Food & Water Watch calls for:
  1. PFAS to be regulated as a class of chemicals, not on an individual level. Much of the work on PFAS so far has focused on PFOA and PFOS, allowing dozens of other PFAS to come onto the market with little scrutiny. When PFOA came under fire, Dupont was quick to replace it with GenX, shorter-chain compounds that share many of the same toxic traits as its sibling chemicals. But GenX may be even more toxic and could be more difficult to remove from drinking water. Without addressing PFAS as a category, the EPA will continue playing whack-a-mole with the thousands of varieties.
  2. Enforceable national drinking water limits, not only for legacy PFAS chemicals but all the chemicals in the family.
  3. Hazardous substance designation under the Superfund law for PFAS as class to jump start the cleanup of contaminated areas. 
  4. Passage of the WATER Act, which provides greater support for local water systems to test and treat for PFAS in drinking water and wastewater systems. This support must reach both public water utilities and household wells. If remediation isn’t possible, Congress must provide support to connect communities with contaminated water  to new, clean water sources. 

We need more funding and better policy for PFAS. Tell Congress to pass the WATER Act!

How Big Ag & Aging Infrastructure Are Blighting Our Beaches

Categories

Clean Water

by Michael Doerrer

For many families, summer means time at the beach! Streams, rivers, lakes and oceans are huge recreational draws — and they should be. They’re a natural resource we should all be able to enjoy. But broken wastewater infrastructure and giant corporations are bringing on summertime sadness. Beach closings are on the rise.

From Bathrooms to Beaches

We all know sewage spills hurt the environment. They pollute rivers, streams and other waters. Their toxins and pathogens endanger our health. Toxic overflows destroy aquatic ecosystems, kill fish and close shellfish harvesting areas. And as we try to enjoy the summer season, sewage spills have made many waters too polluted to swim, boat or fish in. Over the last five years, about a third of U.S. beaches have had at least one advisory or closing each year. 

Aging and poorly designed sewage and stormwater systems lead to closures. Sewer spills led to nearly 15% of beach closing and advisories with known causes. Many more with unknown causes were certainly related to wastewater events.

Big Ag’s Waste Coming Ashore

Pollution from industrial agriculture and other sources leaves two-thirds of U.S. estuary waters at greater risk for harmful algal blooms. And that means more unhealthy and even dangerous waters and beaches. For example, less than a third of the shoreline along the Great Lakes is in good biological condition. A third is in fair or poor condition.

Agricultural pollution wreaks havoc on all types of water bodies and waterways. More than 50% of rivers and streams, 40% of lakes and 20% of coasts are polluted with excess nutrients that cause algal growth and fish kills. On top of that, more than 70% of wetlands have lost plant life, stressing the ecosystems there.

How You Can Help Protect Our Beaches

The handful of giant multinational corporations that control U.S. agriculture care more about profit than human health. They brazenly pollute, while would-be government regulators do little to stop them. 

But we can step in to defend our beaches. We can demand funding to improve wastewater systems and address stormwater. And we can stand up for commonsense policies and legislation like the WATER Act to help save our water and our beaches. 

Food & Water Watch is fighting to spread the word about this landmark legislation — the bill already has more than 100 co-sponsors in Congress! It’s the best way to start restoring federal support for water protections. At the same time, we’re standing up to the corporate polluters ruining our beaches and waterways.

This summer, as millions of us head for the sand, let’s remember that our waterways need our help. Our beaches — and our summertime traditions — depend on our action. 

Help save our shores. Tell Congress to support the WATER Act!