Zulay Valencia Diaz
Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2024
As the summer came to an end, headlines about thousands of residents losing access to water swept the nation. The news came first out of Jackson, Mississippi. But although the southern city’s complete loss of access to water dominated the new cycle, it was far from the only place dealing with this issue. A few days later, reports of boil water advisories in Baltimore and NYC hit the news cycle. Unfortunately, these are only the latest instances in a long string of issues with access to safe and clean drinking water across the country.
Throughout August, Jackson and the rest of central Mississippi were plagued by heavy rainfall causing the Pearl River to flood and leading the governor to declare a state of emergency over concerns that more than a hundred homes would be affected. A second state of emergency was declared on August 29. This time, it was because the O. B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant had failed. O. B. Curtis is one of the two water treatment plants in Jackson, so when it flooded, the system became overwhelmed and pressure was lost. This left about 150 thousand people without water for weeks. The governor deployed the state’s National Guard to help distribute bottled water to fulfill people’s basic necessities.
Around the same time, residents of the Jacob Riis Houses, one of NYC’s biggest public housing complexes, also found themselves without safe drinking water for over a week. New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) officials issued a boil water advisory after tests revealed arsenic in the water supply at levels above the permitted federal standard. These tests were only conducted after various complaints from residents about the tap water being cloudy and brown. For days, the thousands of people living in the Jacob Riis Houses were unknowingly exposed to the dangerous toxin because NYCHA officials didn’t inform residents of the high arsenic levels in the complex’s water supply until two weeks after they received the results.
A long-standing issue
Sadly, impoverished Black communities are not strangers to ongoing issues of access to safe drinking water. The most notorious case in recent history is that of Flint, Michigan. In 2015, news of the disaster afflicting Flint broke nationwide.
Flint’s issues began in 2014 when, in an effort to save money, the emergency manager, appointed by then-governor Rick Snyder, made the decision to switch the city’s water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River. The water was inadequately treated and infrequently tested, so issues with its quality arose and residents began experiencing health issues. Tests later revealed that there was an astronomical increase in children’s blood lead levels. The switch in water supply also coincided with one of the largest outbreaks of Legionnaire’s Disease this country has ever seen. Between June 2014 and October 2015, at least 87 people got sick and twelve people died. Residents’ numerous complaints were ignored as city and state officials—as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—failed to take action. It wasn’t until activists’ sustained efforts brought media attention to the crisis that government officials finally listened to their concerns. And although significant steps have been taken throughout the years to resolve this public health disaster, the Flint water crisis and its fallout are still not over.
After the latest water shutoff in Jackson, the Justice Department (DOJ) has threatened to pursue legal action against the city itself. For years it has been in violation of both the federal and state Safe Drinking Water Act. The water is often contaminated with pollutants well above the permissible federal standards. The DOJ has suggested alternative solutions, like moving the water management to a third party, in order to avoid a lawsuit. However, Chockwe Antar Lumumba, Jackson’s mayor, is opposed to turning water management over to a private company for fear that water prices will increase exponentially.
This would not be the first time that Jackson ran afoul of the EPA’s water regulation. In 2012, the city entered into a settlement with the federal government after it was found that its wastewater treatment processes violated the guidelines set out by the Clean Water Act. It was supposed to implement more effective techniques for dealing with sewage and wastewater. Unfortunately, ten years later, the city has still not satisfactorily updated its practices.
Other afflicted cities are also facing legal consequences for their failure to comply with water management regulations. Two of the water treatment plants owned and operated by Baltimore are being sued by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) after several inspections revealed numerous violations of MDE policies, including failing effluent (liquid waste or sewage discharge) limits and inadequately staffing and operating water treatment plants. The latest issue occurred several weeks ago when West Baltimore was placed under a boil water advisory after e. coli was found in a few neighborhoods’ water samples. In Flint, residents took city officials to court and won hundreds of millions in damages. The city also had to replace the lead pipes in a timely fashion and implement a plan to distribute bottled water to residents who couldn’t make it to water distribution centers.
Looking to the future
As climate change worsens, water crises like the ones that overwhelmed the country this summer, will only increase. Given the trend of past events, it is clear that marginalized communities are the most vulnerable to these crises. Impoverished, majority Black cities like Flint, Jackson, and Baltimore are perfect examples of what happens when the government disinvests and lets infrastructure crumble. Scientists have already declared that it is too late to reverse many effects of climate change. Instead, it is crucial that the government implement solutions that will mitigate the conditions that are sure to come. Investing in and rebuilding infrastructure so that systems are not overwhelmed by floods or freezing temperatures is key. Additionally, there is a need for more stringent regulations on water quality so that people may drink, cook and bathe without becoming ill. Although having bottled water distribution services is important for those unavoidable times, it should not be the principal answer to this crisis. America has a serious problem on its hands, and it is imperative that it be fixed before doing so becomes impossible and more people are harmed.