America’s Coming Water Affordability Crisis

Yves here. We’ve mentioned off and on of all natural resources, potable water will come under pressure first, with the situation become acute by 2050. That is before you get into the infrastructure-related issues that the post below highlights. And please do not tout desalination as a solution: that requires energy, another resource coming into stress. And desalination won’t solve the problem of decrepit municipal systems either. Food, water, and energy needs increasingly need to be addressed as connected problem, yet no one seems to be doing that.

By Farron Cousins, executive editor of The Trial Lawyer magazine and a contributing writer at He also hosts the weekly DeSmogCAST and serves as co-host for Ring of Fire on Free Speech TV. His writings have appeared on Alternet, Truthout, and The Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter @farronbalanced. Originally published at DeSmogBlog

On January 16, 2016, President Obama declared a federal emergency for the city of Flint, Michigan, over the contamination of the city’s drinking water.

One year later, not only is the city still struggling to provide clean sources of water to the Michigan city’s population, but the plight of residents in Flint has opened up the conversation about a water crisis in the United States that very few people even knew existed.

The sad story of Flint, Michigan, gained national attention because it was a crisis that was entirely avoidable, at least for the time being. Republican Michigan Governor Rick Snyder was looking for ways to cut costs, so he hired an outside manager to come up with ideas on how to do that. Unfortunately, one of the ideas that was put into action was to change the source of Flint’s drinking water from the Detroit water system to the Flint River, which was known to be heavily polluted. When that contaminated water hit the city’s aging water delivery infrastructure, the chemicals interacted with the lead pipes, causing dangerous levels of lead contamination for residents who did not have water filters.

The problem with Flint, and the problem with many water delivery systems throughout the United States, is that lead pipes are time bombs.

Like most metals, lead will break down over time, especially when it is exposed to corrosive water throughout its existence. When you have close to 1.2 million miles of lead pipes for water delivery in America — pipes that only have a lifespan of about 75 years and many are reaching that age — you have a recipe for disaster that experts warn will cost close to $1 trillion to fix.

The only reason that the crisis in Flint, Michigan, was brought to the public’s attention was because of one woman, a pediatrician named Mona Hanna-Attisha, who began noticing the symptoms of lead poisoning in an extremely large number of children from Flint. Dr. Hanna-Attisha went public with this information, which prompted investigations from civil engineers, leading to the unveiling of the problem. At the time of Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s discovery, the contaminated water had been flowing through taps in Flint for two years.

Sadly, Flint is just a tiny piece in a much larger story. Likely the reason the crisis in Flint made national headlines is because of the level of political incompetence that went along with it. But the story did wake people up to the idea that dangerous water could be anywhere, and that led to investigations by reporters who uncovered one of the potentially most overlooked stories of 2016.

On December 19, 2016, Reuters released a startling report about America’s drinking water. Reuters’ investigation concluded that there were nearly 3,000 other locales in the United States where the lead contamination in drinking water was at least double the rates found in Flint’s drinking water. These were not areas where the contamination was the same, or even slightly elevated. No, these 3,000 areas have contamination levels that came in at least twice as high as Flint.

From the Reuters report:

The poisoned places on this map stretch from Warren, Pennsylvania, a town on the Allegheny River where 36 percent of children tested had high lead levels, to a zip code on Goat Island, Texas, where a quarter of tests showed poisoning. In some pockets of Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia, where lead poisoning has spanned generations, the rate of elevated tests over the last decade was 40 to 50 percent.

Like Flint, many of these localities are plagued by legacy lead: crumbling paint, plumbing, or industrial waste left behind. Unlike Flint, many have received little attention or funding to combat poisoning.

To identify these locations, Reuters examined neighborhood-level blood testing results, most of which have not been previously disclosed. The data, obtained from state health departments and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tracks poisoning rates among children tested in each location.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, at least 2.5 percent of children in the United States have elevated levels of lead in their blood, a direct result of drinking contaminated water.

The World Health Organizationas reported by the Huffington Post, says that infants and small children may exhibit no signs of lead poisoning in their early years, but that the effects of lead on brain development become evident in adolescence. According to the Huffington Post:

Once kids reach school age, cognition problems, including lower IQ and ADHD-like symptoms start to show up. Lead exposure has been linked to physical problems, such as anemia, kidney dysfunction and high blood pressure, as well as behavioral problems, including aggressive behavior and problems with the criminal justice system.

We should also note that in these studies of contamination, researchers focused only on lead contamination. The levels of other toxins such as mercury, arsenic, and commercial and household chemical contamination could potentially make the water in these areas and others far more toxic than this set of data indicates.

Complicating matters further is the fact that testing children for lead contamination typically falls on states and municipalities, and that funding is drying up quickly. In short, states not only lack the funds to repair their aging water infrastructure, but they also lack the necessary funds to study the negative effects of that aging water delivery system on the public.

While the widespread contamination should raise alarm bells for every American, what might be even more terrifying is the fact that analysts are predicting that in a few decades, we’ll be lucky if we can even afford to drink contaminated water.

According to a new report from Michigan State University (MSU), a variety of compounding factors in the United States could easily push large portions of the population out of the financial range to even afford water in the future.

From the MSU report:

A variety of pressures ranging from climate change, to sanitation and water quality, to infrastructure upgrades, are placing increasing strain on water prices. Estimates of the cost to replace aging infrastructure in the United States alone project over $1 trillion dollars are needed in the next 25 years to replace systems built circa World War II, which could triple the cost of household water bills…

Over the next few decades, water prices are anticipated to increase to four times current levels. Prices could go higher if cities look to private providers for water services, who have a tendency to charge higher rates than public providers. These pressures on water systems, combined with the fact that water is a vital necessity to sustain life, place this issue at the forefront of 21st century infrastructure challenges. While studies have found that Americans are willing to pay more to maintain and ensure access to water resources, this willingness to pay may conflict with their fundamental ability to pay for water.

The report notes that water prices across the country have risen by about 41 percent since 2010, and if this particular trend continues, 35.6 percent of American households will not be able to afford water services within the next five years.

In short, the water affordability crisis is not something that is a few decades off, or even a single decade off: More than 40 million American citizens could find themselves unable to afford water in the next five years if both stagnating incomes and increasing water prices stay on their current trajectories.

These problems are very real, and they are problems that are generally not gaining very much attention. While the water contamination crisis will occasionally steal a headline or two, virtually no attention has been paid to the fact that we’re pricing a third of United States citizens out of the water market.

Resource scarcity breeds conflict. That’s been true throughout human history. And when we’re talking about something like water — the single most important thing to sustain life — the looming scarcity should be a top concern for every American citizen.

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  1. readerOfTeaLeaves

    Under ‘resource scarcity’ + ‘water’ + ‘conflict’, it should be noted that the five years preceding the outbreak of war in Syria, there was a record drought. I offer this link to underscore the point about resource scarcity — particularly water — as a catalyst for conflict:

    Also, the essential: “Understanding Syria”, by William Polk, explains how drought contributed to farmers moving to the cities, which in turn created an unemployment problem, which then translated to political and military conflict:

    Anyone who sees water as a ‘market opportunity’ is quite likely to find their mercenaries will turn against them at some point. No doubt they think they can survive such a reversal; I do not share that optimism/delusion.

    1. Felix_47

      Thank you. That is a really good comment. I wish that the refugee industry could understand that or maybe they do… seekers that they are. They are reporting record profits in Germany. Birth control in the Arab world is the only option. We can’t count on the Republican administration to face this reality or provide any leadership.

      1. witters

        “Birth control in the Arab world is the only option.”

        Set an example for us all.

        At home.


      2. ambrit

        Birth control everywhere is part of the solution. Not in any particular region. Look at Latin America and it’s predominantly Roman Catholic culture. This isn’t something that laws alone can solve. The Chinese under Mao had to resort to draconian measures to limit their birth rate. A cultural shift had to be engineered. It’s either something like that or let war, pestilence and drought thin out the human herd.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          Its very little to do with culture. Italy and Spain are catholic, but have very low birth rates. Most demographers associate low birth rates with child care costs, job market structures (especially for women) and family structure.

          In wealthier countries, birth rates are higher when there is more affordable child care or more flexible labour markets. What countries with low birth rates like Japan, Italy and much of eastern Europe have in common are inflexible policies on having children while working, and expensive child care, and in many cases, extended families giving way to nuclear families. High birth rates in Arab and South American countries have probably more to do with fewer women in the workplace and relatively tight extended families which makes childcare much cheaper.

        2. Jagger

          The Chinese just ended their one child policy. Couples may now have two children.

          China will “fully implement a policy of allowing each couple to have two children as an active response to an ageing population”, the party said in a statement published by Xinhua, the official news agency. “The change of policy is intended to balance population development and address the challenge of an ageing population,”

          1. ambrit

            Hmmm… That and a proposed rise in the average standard of living. Someone is being very optimistic in Pekin.

    2. Waldenpond

      The owners of corporate water will just make sure that the mercs and their families have resources not available to the general public. Our current purveyors of violence on behalf of the state already receive more than typical benefits. They currently don’t live in the communities they oppress and with armed drones there is no need for them to.

      Water that is poisoned where the effects show up later do not create the same call to arms. Water scarcity has a more visible appearance on people and causes mass migration. In the US, those impacted by dried up aquifers are pacified with provided bottled water until they give up and the impact is spread out to just a trickle of people that lose their homes. They loss of a home from stolen water gets lost in the much larger loss of homes through financial crimes. People stay in communities with poisoned water. If the people had migrated in force to the neighboring communities would they have been given support by their neighbors to fix Flint or would there have been a demand for state violence to remove the internal migrants.

      People hate the purposefully created homeless class of migrants. I’m not sure the internal water theft victims nor the water poisoned victims are going to get anything different. The other day I saw panels removed from the sides of homes. I thought that some work had been done and the panels not secured properly. I saw a couple across the street going at my neighbors home. When I called out, they said “we’re just charging our phones”. So I expect we will see penalties targeting thieves that are trying to fill a measly water bottle and to see the act of committing that offense added to the list of stand your ground laws.

      People are normalized to poisoned water. Flint resulted in no action. After Flint, more cities were listed with poisoned water and there is no action.

      There will be debates over a corporations use of ‘clean’ in labeling. There will be tech companies stepping up with fabrics that don’t hold odor or are disposable. There will be powdered soaps and shampoos (or going hairless with tattoos?). What I don’t expect to see is a broad program to repair failed infrastructure other than to privatize and use an yet another extortion racket.

      This is not a hopeless view of the future. It just seems most communities are normalized to state and corporate violence and are adaptive rather than rebellious and that there only needs to be a small portion of the community kept comfortable to stay with the use of force response.

    3. blert

      Turkey’s new dams had a huge impact on Syria. (Euphrates)

      They took years to fill.

      At first the Syrians drilled deeper and deeper to tap enough water to keep their farms going.

      However, the aquifer plunged so far, so fast that Syria soon entered dust bowl conditions.

      This sent thousands of ex-farmers into the cities… and all the rest.

      The Ethiopians are now filling their own super dam. This has alarmed the Egyptians — naturally.

  2. SomeCallMeTim

    Thank G-d Nestle and other good global corporate citizens are on the case! And with Trump’s interest in infrastructure spending the problem will be in our rear view mirror by 2023, tops.

  3. Clive

    The pricing mechanism could be used as a progressive solution (charging high users a lot more for each cubic meter, in other words). Based on a very good paper on the social cost of water poverty:

    Nevertheless, universal metering would seem to be a necessary first step through the scope it offers for tariff adjustments. Current tariffs are mainly regressive, with small consumers paying more for each unit of water used. Yet they could be made more progressive so that high users pay more. Trials are already taking place to assess the potential impacts of rising block, seasonal and peak seasonal tariffs. Under rising block tariffs, the high volumetric rates paid for luxury high use could be used to subsidise very low rates for low levels of essential water use or unavoidably high use by low income households.

    (emphasis added)

    But obliviously we can’t, because markets. And because privatization (additional costs imposed on the water companies for implementation of variable usage tariffs eat into their profits so they would demand higher margins)

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Ah, such a complex and fraught area.

      Metering is a vital method for controlling water use, but it goes hand in hand with privatisation. In Ireland, the installation of water meters has been hugely unpopular in working class areas, and led to a surge in support from the more opportunistic left wing parties (i.e. the Trots). The fact that metering leads to less regressive distribution is lost on them (well, its not lost on them, but they find it politically convenient). But its also true to say that a metering system makes privatisation easier in the future.

      A core problem is that when public water supply investment is done by politicians, they tend to favour the ‘big infrastructure’ approach – they can be persuaded to build a new reservoir, but its all too easy to save money by postponing day to day investment in existing water infrastructure. Many cities all over the world are ‘free-riding’ on major investments decades or even centuries ago, with nothing except patching up done until there is a major crisis. This can work in a ‘muddling through’ type of way, but if all the crises hit at once (due to climate change or environmental stresses), then you have a serious problem. We can’t assume all technical problems like this can be solved, the world is full of dead cities caused by a collapse of water systems.

      1. sharonsj

        One of the things that pushed me out of New York City was the imminent installation of water meters. Turns out that everyone would be charged the same minimum every month, and it was not based on how much water you did or didn’t use. There was no advantage to using less. Now I live in the country with my own well and septic, and I don’t have to deal with ever-rising bills for water and sewer. I have friends still living in cities who complain mightily about having to scrape up the money for said bills, with not much in return.

    2. ambrit

      Agreed, insofar as your example goes. However, the smaller municipalities that I interact with do their bit to drive marginal costs up. The linking of sewerage rates to water usage also helps regressivize (sic) costs. Our fair city is in the middle of federally mandated sewer system upgrades. Being fairly typical for this region, the local sewer system is about seventy or eighty years old. The replacement costs will be high. When spread out to the population through higher water and sewer rates, the costs of the upgrade will, according to the available estimates, raise average water bills by one half. This is, or should be, viewed as a circular process. Water in, through water delivery systems, and water out, through sewer systems.
      This dynamic cries out for a modern Hunter Commission. Dr. Roy B Hunter was appointed head of the plumbing section of the National Bureau of Standards by Hoover. He filled that post during the 1930’s and 1940’s. His work collected and standardized sewer technical knowledge. Modern sewer treatment systems are based on the technical findings of that landmark effort. In general, plumbing is a messy affair.
      As we can see, Dr Hunter literally wrote the book on plumbing.
      See: (For some reason, this will not link through. I was going to connect to the American Society of Plumbing Engineers, but something won’t let me. Ah, the vagaries of Information Technology!)

  4. UserFriendly

    The problem with Flint, and the problem with many water delivery systems throughout the United States, is that lead pipes are time bombs.

    Like most metals, lead will break down over time, especially when it is exposed to corrosive water throughout its existence.

    Especially when the water is fluoridated. The John Birch society wasn’t wrong about everything, who knew.

  5. Anti-Schmoo

    I had to move to an emerging third world country to realize the utter absurdity of the western world’s use of potable water.
    Potable water is used for everything; washing people, dishes, flushing toilets (we poison potable water with our own bodily waste), washing cars, driveways, sidewalks, patios, windows, etc., etc., etc.. Insanity!
    I live in a country with quite a bit of water, almost none of it potable; so, using RO (reverse osmosis/UV) systems to make clean, safe drinking/cooking water; we buy 20 liter carboys (about $.30/carboy). For everything else we use the village water; which I do filter (2- 5 micron filters) into 2 1600 liter storage tanks.
    Ya’ll in the west need to wake up and fast; tick tock, times running out, way faster than you think.

    1. Quanka

      +1. So true.
      We must develop the ability to differentiate between green, gray and black water. Green water = Potable Water and is incredibly energy intensive to create. Gray water is the equivalent to what you might collect off your roof and can be used for innumerable purposes, while black water is what happens to the water in the toilet when you finish, or to the water in your washing machine after you add chemicals … and must be sent off to a centralized water treatment plant before it can re-enter the water supply.

      Why would you water your garden or your yard with fully treated water? Why would you clean your car with same? Gray water collected from your roof would be suitable for these purposes.

      Clean (“green”) water is the #1 most scarce resource and we need to start treating it as such. You shouldn’t use green water for purposes that do not require it. We need to fundamentally rethink the way we use water in western culture.

      1. Anon

        My town is moving in that direction. Public buildings have waterless urinals, re-claimed water toilets, xeriscape landscape standards (succulents w/drip, mulching) and the sewer treatment is now full tertiary treatment (and stored in massive underground containers for re-use). The De-Salinization plant is set to come on-line next year.

        When i did my architectural thesis on municipal water re-use (some 37 years ago) the Committee thought me crazee.

      2. Stelios Theoharidis

        I certainly agree that we need to start integrating rainwater harvesting and change the way that we use water as consumers. It will be essential as climate change will exacerbate water shortages as well as result in extreme flooding events due to the sprawl of impermeable surfaces in our urban and suburban areas, as well as poor land management that results in nutrient runoff pollution / topsoil erosion in rural areas. I think that this is as simple as providing tax credits and incentives for homes to build rain barrels for gardens, transform their water intensive lawns, and invest in efficient appliances and systems at home. If you could change the home interest rate tax credit and transform it into something that privileges long term efficiency and sustainability rather than the cost of dwellings, which only creates incentives for building larger more inefficient homes, it would transform the way that we buy and build houses.

        Water isn’t just a problem with managing scarcity but also appropriately managing surplus. We talk about infrastructure spending quite a bit, but usually fail to acknowledge that it is not all created equal. Infrastructure spending that just augments our consumerism will only slide us further into unsustainable patterns of development and leave us more vulnerable when we are finally confronted with resource realities. Because efficiency improvements can create long term savings they appear at least to me to have a higher or more extended multiplier than fixing highways to temporarily save drivers a few minutes on their commute.

        As a rule of thumb in efficiency improvements, you prioritize the largest users where you can make strategic investments with the greatest payoffs. The primary users and polluters of our water systems are corporations and large agribusinesses. They both waste pristine water and pollute it at levels that dwarf consumer use. We severely underestimate the embodied energy, water, resources, and toxicity in our consumer choices. Creating the conditions via pricing mechanisms or other incentive structures for these businesses to invest in more efficient systems will reduce the water shortages they have created for downstream users.

        You can get good returns on the consumer end but it is better if you don’t atomize consumers. Although they have their problems, mainly from other interest groups, I’ve seen successes in collective financing for municipalities via property assessed solar and other types of community improvement projects where whole neighborhoods get weatherized, in achieving lower costs through economies of scale and more secure lower interest rates.

        Once you have appropriate pricing established then you make sure that you fill the gaps that private financing fails. I have advocated for years that we need to build national, regional, and local ring-fenced efficiency funding systems, you can call them efficiency banks or infrastructure banks. They are funds that make portfolios of loans for efficiency projects, invest in efficiency projects, companies, and technologies and then reinvest revenues / profits back into further efficiency improvements. Without revenue recycling systems you risk issues related to Jevons paradox, where consumers, companies, or financiers use the savings from efficiency gains to invest in increased consumerism.

        This is actually a huge opportunity to get large public investors like pension funds to get a decent and stable ROI as well as promote regional economic growth in the areas that their pensioners live in rather than just putting their savings in corporations that will consequently undermine their collective bargaining rights, avoid paying taxes that fund government, convince lawmakers to destroy social safety nets, or invest in overseas manufacturing to hollow out the US economy.

        Once you have achieved efficiency in all sectors of use, that is when you invest in repairing infrastructure. This is because those systems subsequently cost less because you have invested on the demand side.

        I think we can achieve 80 – 95% efficiency in our embodied water, energy, resources, toxicity, etc we just have to structure our systems in ways to overcome existing inertia. We don’t appreciate at all the surplus we have as Americans and the huge quantities of waste that we produce. All that waste is an opportunity.

        As much as I respect the Nakedcapitalism folks for their independence and skepticism, over the years I have found the narrow obsession with identifying problems in these areas rather than evaluating potential options and solutions to be an extremely draining exercise in self-flagellation. It feeds a perma-pessimism / bearishness in its readership. If the sky is falling, it is probably our fault, we certainly need to agree on why, but after that we need to get on with evaluating how we can prevent the worst consequences. As mentioned by another commentator, it is extremely worrying to me that some people just want to narrowly see where they can make a profit off of the suffering people will experience due to these resource problems. If it comes to that, I promise that you won’t be able to eat your money or your gold, or whatever strategic investment you have made to hedge against these problems, unless of course you have built a garden or a greenhouse.

        There are plenty of people working on solutions out there, there are an extremely large amount of permutations, they need to be evaluated and then implemented.

    2. Antoine LeBear

      *sigh* So so true. Here in Canada we are the worst, the prices per cubic meter are awfully low, we think we have 20% of the world’s fresh water where in fact we have only 7% of the RENEWABLE fresh water, and most of it are located too far north to be usable.
      Even worse: here in Montreal we do not pay the first 100,000 cubic meters (26M gallons).
      Can you imagine that? EVERY FAMILY HAS 100,000 FREE CUBIC METERS! THE WASTE!

  6. Jim Haygood

    A 1996 amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 required public water systems to mail out an annual CCR (it means “Consumer Confidence Report” not “Creedance Clearwater Revival”).

    What use are these reports, if 3,000 contaminated water systems slipped through the cracks? The EPA brazenly promises “Consumer Confidence” but totally dropped the ball.

    Recently I had to order a water quality test on a hand-dug well at my farmhouse. Lead was reported as 2.50 μg/l versus a limit of 5.00 μg/l. There’s even a helpful column labeled Standard Exceeded (Y/N). In other words, you don’t need no PhD in chemistry to interpret a water quality report. Just look for the letter ‘Y‘ — it means there’s a problem.

    So how it is that the EPA runs through over $8 billion a year, and let 3,000 contaminated water systems slip through the cracks? Where is the accountability?

    1. ambrit

      The EPA is dealing with the problem after the damage has been done. Alas, who plans ahead? Who ever did, or proudly proclaims that; “We’re spending your money now for those who come after us!!!” Either way, it sounds like a death wish in (in)action.

    2. rd

      The EPA is focused on the water source as the water leaves the reservoir or treatment plant.

      The lead contamination comes from the old municipal water lines, the old pipes in the houses with lead solder connections, and the lead in the faucet fittings. Also the paint in the older buildings has lead in it, and the soil outside the houses has lead in it from the lead paint and from leaded gasoline.

      Lead was banned for all these purposes in the 1980s, so newer subdivisions are essentially lead-free. This is really an inner city problem, which is why it usually gets no attention until an area is gentrified and the upper-income parents suddenly realize that their children are going to become lead poisoned like poor kids.

      It is a “pay now or pay later” choice. We either pay now to address these various lead poisoning sources, or we get to deal with the societal issues of lead poisoned children in the coming decades. Lead poisoning causes learning disabilities and emotional behavior problems, both of which get in the way of preparing people for the new economy. It is likely that lead poisoning is one of the reasons that corporate CEOs complain about the quality of their employee pool.

    3. redleg

      This same law requires public water systems to add corrosion inhibitors, usually poly- or ortho- phosphates, to the water to prevent leaching problems like what happened at Flint. The chemicals leave a coating inside the pipes so lead and copper are isolated from the water. The stuff works, and it’s cheap to purchase, store, and apply. (Phosphate in wastewater is another story)

      What happened in Flint is that the “emergency manager” ordered Flint Water to stop adding the corrosion inhibitor, in violation of federal law, to save roughly $20k a year in costs.

      This shows their actual price point for people.

  7. Moneta

    This ties in neatly with the article on declining productivity numbers. A lot of our current economy depends on investments that were made over the last few decades such as infra and NASA and military R&D.

    We could argue that productivity of the last few decades depended on exploiting all these past investments and cutting all expense lines on income statements: unit costs with economies of scale, dd&a with lack of investment, low wages, pension underfunding, cutting rates, cutting taxes. And there is not much more to cut except the tax rate!

    But now all the infra that supports this “productivity” (exploitation) is falling apart.

    The productivity has been a mirage. Sysiphys was very productive pushing up that rock but it served no purpose.

    1. human

      This underlines the point that Jack Ma made at Davos; that the US has wasted $14T over the past 30 years fighting wars.

      1. Moneta

        Fighting wars was to maintain the USD as a reserve currency which protected access to cheap oil.

        Maybe the US day of reckoning should have happened in the 70s and fiscal and monetary policy gave America an extra 4 decades of consumerism.

        It’s always the weakest link that gets us… will it be water or something else?

  8. ambrit

    As I have remarked in comments earlier in this thread, water is only half of the equation. Sewer is the other part. When public sewer systems break down in urban environments, we will see outbreaks of previously supposed vanquished diseases; typhoid, dysentery, cholera, worms, polio, the list goes on.
    Short termerism in public administration will literally be the death of many of us.
    This is all avoidable. It requires political will. The obvious solution is to decouple public administration from “radical individualism.” Cynic that I am, I fear that this worthy goal might have to be accomplished at the end of a gun, or many such instruments of “coercive violence.” As I just remarked above, this being a matter for political will to resolve, who is wielding those “pointed reminders of mortality” is an important detail.
    The defining detail will be, how bad everything gets.

  9. amousie

    In my parents like town, they replaced the sewer system in the roads (not to the houses), built a new wellhead (because they want to create an industrial park like every other little town in the middle of nowhere up there).

    They also changed the billing structure from quarterly to monthly, increased the monthly rate for water, increased the now separate sewer change, added fire hydrant fees and other fees, etc.

    The result: the last time I looked, the monthly bill is now 300% per month higher than it was originally. The only good thing about my parents is that they use minimal water compared to what most people use. I can’t imagine what the increase looks like to an active family.

    This article reminds of me Matt Taibbi’s series of articles / blog posts on Jefferson County and how horribly wrong water can go with a little help from corrupted officials and Wall Street. Time has moved on but I bet the ways to screw over the public on water and infrastructure have only increased.

    Jefferson County, Alabama: Screwed By Wall Street, Still Paying

    By Matt Taibbi
    April 7, 2011

    The good times just keep coming for Jefferson County, Alabama. Last year I did a story for Rolling Stone about Wall Street’s sacking of the Birmingham, Alabama region — the city was roped into a series of deadly swap deals by a number of banks, most notably JP Morgan Chase, that left the county billions of dollars in debt.

    The genesis of the whole affair was a sewer project that crooked local pols turned into a $3 billion money pit; when they turned to Wall Street to help finance their way out of the cost overruns, the banks leaned on the County to take on a series of swap deals that essentially pushed the debt into the future, but at geometrically increasing cost. Among other things, the banks worked through middlemen who bribed the local commissioners into taking the toxic deals. As a result of all of this, Jefferson County not only ended up saddled with an astronomical debt service on its sewer project, it also saw a downgrade in its overall credit rating, which left it paralyzed in its attempts to borrow money to pay for general expenditures.

    1. amousie

      I would also add that the town did the upgrade with a federal grant. And that the industrial parks on all of the little towns are being pushed by the state and grants. Although I don’t know the specifics of how much matching money the towns have to come up with or even if they are flat out grants or loans in disguise.

      And for pricing: my parents previous minimum water allotment for the minimum charge was 3,000 gallons per quarter. With the new metering system they were typically coming in around 500 gallons per month. Some months higher if they took more baths or did more laundry (but Mom saves the water manually since they don’t make washing machines with the save suds feature).

      So when you think of charges, they’ve actually decreased their usage as far as minimum charges are concerned and still seen a dramatic increase in monthly expenses. Plus the late fees are absolutely ridiculous if you can’t come up with the money in a given month.

  10. cocomaan

    Potable water is only half the problem. Several imminent aquifer depletions are going to make future agriculture much, much harder to carry out, and will stress even more the systems mentioned in the post.

    The Ogallala in the midwest is getting tapped out. Groundwater is still a problem in CA. There’s major saltwater intrusion into East Coast water supplies – expect to see more of that last one as climate change raises the sea level.

    “Mined” water is a finite resource that many people don’t talk about in these contexts, because it can’t be easily seen.

    1. rd

      The Rust Belt generally has very good water resources – that is why it was developed in the 1800s and early 1900s in the first place.

      Water infrastructure improvements in the Rust Belt will be a major economic driver in the coming decades, if executed, as many other areas deplete their usable water supplies through over-pumping or climate change.

    2. Vatch

      You are quite correct. It’s wasteful and silly to use precious aquifer water for the production of ethanol fuel in the Midwest, and it’s similarly wasteful and silly for California farms to grow rice and alfalfa, which are both very thirsty species. Homo sapiens is often anything but sapient.

    3. Waldenpond

      CA, in it’s forever brilliance (note we just dealt with the high expense of the death penalty not by getting rid of it but by making it faster), is proposing that the multi-billion transportation schemes to move water (no longer needed with the temporary reprieve from drought) be continued with the slight shift of using the water to refill depleted aquifers.

      Farmers are not required to report water use. Farmers fought back putting devised to track use on their pumps. Farmer water reductions during drought are voluntary, personal use which is a fraction is mandatory. The wealthy have their land defined as agriculture to pay less. The wealthy have a scheme when they can’t qualify as agricultural, they can get superuser status and pay less. It looks like the PBS scheme where the less wealthy are subsidizing the wealthy. We have aquifers that are not refillable as the land is already compressed.

  11. George Phillies

    Forty years ago, my city found a few lead water mains, left over from a century back. This put us ahead of Bsoton, which found a few wooden water mains finally wearing out from the pre-Revolutionary era. They were replaced on an emergency basis. We then created robots that go down the water lines (almost all cast iron), ream clean the pipes, and line them with cement, to which things do not stick. It took 40 years, but the project is now in fair part finished. A trillion dollars over 40 years is not a big deal spread over the entire country..

    1. Waldenpond

      Capturing rain water is already illegal in some areas. It is considered circumventing the community system which requires everyone have skin in the game. Though some areas will allow a single 50 gallon rain barrel.

      If this is a possibility to explore, start hiding storage now before it’s illegal in your area. Space under the house, garage, a ‘playhouse’ or a section of a pet or chicken area.

      1. Oregoncharles

        It was illegal in Oregon until recently, but the local co-op now offers a very public demonstration, so I think that’s been fixed. The problem was that surface waters were subject to water rights, and of course rain is on the surface, at least until it goes into a tank.

        That was ironic, since rainwater storage addresses our chief problem, which is that we get little rain in the growing season. On a large scale, it would even help with stream flows, another big problem.

        In general, water law in the arid West dates back to pioneer days and is a mess, but too wrapped up in power relationships to fix.

  12. Gaylord

    Our species is done. This is one of many crises to come, not “by 2050” but within a decade because we are now in the exponential phase of global heating. Note that the temperature in the Arctic already reached highs that were not expected for at least 75 years. All of the time estimates are far too conservative. The so-called leaders of the world are hell-bent on continuing this race to oblivion and we humans will not be able to adapt to the unstable conditions that we have brought about. No habitat, no life.

  13. Marc Andelman

    It will cost substantially more than the town of Flint is worth to replace those pipes. They also do not have the time. The solution is treatment at the point of use. However, existing technologies are not reliable enough to be recommended for non potable water. However, inventing reliable means to do this is not rocket science.

    Water technology is truly a job for self funded inventors and private scientists, apart from institutions, where support is zero or , actually, negative . I know of no institutions with substantial funding for water purification R&D right now, with the possible exception of the Bureau of Reclamation. That has matching fund strings, except for universities, which, unless people think academia is the sole source of innovation, excludes most of the universe. Maybe there are a few more pennies here and there that are a waste of money as too little to do much other than give a false idea that something is being done.

    For one example, below is from the current website of the National Water Research Institute:

    ” Update as of August 2012 – NWRI is not currently accepting pre-proposals or applications at the moment. “

  14. blert

    “Lead pipes” is a misnomer. ( Leaded pipes is preferred. )

    The pipes are not made of lead but cast iron.

    Lead was used to JOIN the pipes … as a metallic ‘cork’ if you will.

    This method was abandoned many, many years ago.

    Granted, legacy joints are everywhere to be found.

    The practical solution: constant monitoring and a step-wise replacement.

    Trenchless coating processes exist. I should expect these to be widely adopted.

    Lead-tin solder also exists at the retail end of water distribution. Ripping down 80% of the housing stock to address legacy lead based solder is not practical.

    Rather, the authorities are going to have to stay on the ball — monitoring water chemistry so that leach out conditions don’t occur.

    1. ambrit

      It’s six of one, a half of a dozen of the other. I have replaced fully lead water pipes in very old houses. The lead joints that I have seen were used in the sewer pipes. Solder is now generally all a tin and antimony combination. Old fashioned lead solder is now used mainly for radiators, and almost impossible to find. Replacing copper pipe joined with lead and tin solders is a function of time. Eventually, every piece of infrastructure needs to be repaired or replaced. The big political football in play is who is going to pay for the replacement.

  15. Tim

    Flint and other high lead poisoning areas will have abnormally high crime rates in 20 years.

    If Trump is looking for a problem for infrastructure spending to solve this is it.

    Somehow we were able to afford to create the infrastructure before, but now we cannot afford to replace it…what got so expensive that wasn’t before? Labor, energy, raw materials? I think we’ve become so efficient and recurring living items over the last 60 years that it has masked devaluation of our money. CPI is bogus is a shorthand way of explaining it.

    So all those studies that say how incomes are doing relative to the past are CPI based and the reality is even worse than the analysis.

  16. equote

    I live on the 98 meridian in Central Texas. The rule of thumb that has applied since at least 1718 is that to the east farming is viable, to the west drought will drive farmers into bankruptcy and despair. That is the way it was, a cycle of drought and flood, and weather extremes (10 to 115 degrees F, the UV will turn your skin to leather in 5 years). About 2011, a year of extreme drought, things have changed. It seems reliable rainfall is moving east, and temperatures are rising. NATIVE trees, the species from west have been dying, my fruit trees no longer set fruit (they require a certain number of hours below 50 degrees to do so. My stock tank (the pond) goes dry every winter, previous owners of the property are surprised, they tell me it Never went dry even it the big droughts. The nearby urban areas are using more and more water, prices are high, but they have money and flush feces with water, wash cars and water their lawns of subtropical water hungry grass. The reservoirs that supply sometimes get dangerously low, and in the floodplain there is a asphalt plant that when the next BIG flood come will taint the reservoir. Water is life, out here civilization is on edge. It’s mostly climate change (which can’t be see in highly urbanized areas) but chemistry is also is degrading the land and water. Most of us will move to the city, if we don’t die first. Please note there is nothing technology can do … except raise new problems. Erda wins in the end.

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