Authors: Chad Seidel/David Garabrant
In April, the U.S. Senate Environment & Public Works Committee met to examine the challenges facing drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. Water utilities, trade associations and others provided testimony, all pointing to the need for increased funding to meet the obligation of safe and affordable drinking water for all. President Biden’s “American Jobs Plan” proposes $111 billion in clean water and drinking water investments.
But funding alone is not a silver bullet, especially if the resources are not directed towards the challenges that present the most serious threats to public health. The list of possible threats to our water quality is long, and the pool of resources to address them is limited. Even the proposed funding in the American Jobs Plan may not be enough to address all current challenges and the new issues that arise almost daily. Tough choices and important priorities will need to be set using science-based risk- and cost-benefit analysis.
Putting health risk in perspective
As Americans are aware, all public health risks are not created equal. COVID-19 has killed about 600,000 Americans and trillions of dollars have been pumped into the U.S. economy to put this painful experience behind us. And we are not there yet.
Over a century ago, cholera, typhoid and dysentery were the scourges of public health taking thousands of American lives before improved water treatment was widely embraced.
These experiences make crystal clear the necessity of prioritizing the risks that present the greatest danger to public health. Today, water utilities are asked to provide a safety net against hundreds of contaminants in drinking water. And, as laboratory instruments become more powerful, they are detecting new contaminants and identifying compounds at levels that were not previously detectable.
How do we set priorities and allocate resources where they can have the greatest impact and provide the safest water for Americans?
Understanding relative health risk
Allocating limited government resources so they provide the greatest good requires a careful risk- and cost-benefit analysis. Doing so requires a comprehensive understanding of the contaminants found in drinking water supplies; however, no single source of such data exists to support such analysis. We’ve collaborated with several stakeholders (e.g. Federal, State, and NGO) to coalesce what we believe to be the largest and most up-to-date single database of U.S. national drinking water quality data, measuring regulated and unregulated chemical and microbiological drinking water contaminants across water systems in the U.S. using publicly available data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other national, state, and local databases. Tools like this database equip policymakers to analyze relative risks from different contaminants and targeted state and federal investments toward the highest risks to public health.
This isn’t new to policy makers, but it’s certainly worth being reminded yet again. In the wake of rising public concerns about drinking water health risk from the Flint water crisis, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued their report (Science and Technology to Ensure the Safety of the Nation’s Drinking Water, December 2016) acknowledging the need to compare the magnitude of different environmental risks with each other, as well as against absolute values to make sensible decisions about risk management and regulation.
New contaminants are identified regularly. We must be equally vigilant evaluating these risks to determine how they should be ranked with those that we’ve already identified and prioritized. New contaminants’ health risks must be substantiated if they are to take resources away from long-standing contaminant risks. Replacing aging infrastructure isn’t glamorous and doesn’t have the allure of addressing a contaminant with a pseudonym in air quotes, but it is critical to protecting drinking water and public health in the long term.
An Important Path Forward
An important example of relative health risk is the California Statewide Drinking Water Needs Assessment. In California alone, $10.3 billion is needed over the next five years to implement short- and long-term solutions to address the needs of failing and at-risk water systems and domestic wells. These resources are needed to address deficiencies in the state’s ability to provide safe tap water – defined by current regulations – to its nearly 40 million residents. This doesn’t consider the additional costs that would come from potential upcoming regulatory priorities including hexavalent chromium, PFAS, microplastics, or the new issue of the day that grabs everyone’s attention.
As the American Jobs Plan moves through Congress, we must ensure that the level of funding is tied to the risk (the number of people affected and the severity of the adverse effects) and ultimately, the level of potential public health benefit of these investments. The current Biden proposal on infrastructure includes $45 billion to remove lead service lines and $56 billion in grants for clean water infrastructure. Unfortunately, even this historic investment may not be enough to fix the backlog of water infrastructure issues. The bill also includes $10 billion to monitor and remediate one specific class of emerging contaminants, PFAS, that has received a lot of recent media attention. While funding for this specific contaminant is a good thing, we should prioritize use of our resources towards the greatest risks that we know and can address today.
This is one reason we joined the Water and Health Advisory Council. Our members have more than a century of experience and insight about the greatest health risks in water. We must remain vigilant protecting communities from exposure to these contaminants – including those we’ve known about for more than a century and those we’re encountering in more recent history.
At the end of the day, we must put our limited resources where we are certain there will be a public health benefit – and ideally where there will be the most benefit.
About the Water & Health Advisory Council
This council was formed to provide leaders and decision makers in drinking water & public health with the resources they need to help navigate difficult choices necessary to deliver safe, clean and affordable drinking water. This includes context and clarity around complex emerging contaminants and perspective about the risks that present greatest threats.
Read more about our member and work at wateradvisory.org