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The Scope of America's Failing Water Systems

A new study looks at how often American community water systems violate health standards.

In any given year over the past three decades, between 3 and 10 percent of community water systems in America have violated health standards in some way, according to a new study.

In 2015, the year when the nation learned that tap water in Flint, Michigan, was laced with dangerous lead, 9 percent of America's water systems were recorded as either testing too high for levels of contaminants such as bacteria or certain regulated chemicals, or not having infrastructure to meet modern safety standards.

"When news about the Flint water crisis broke, there were about 21 million people who were receiving water from utilities that had violated health-related standards," says Maura Allaire, a professor of urban planning at the University of California–Irvine, who led the study. "That's sort of disconcerting. I'm sure we can do better."

It's important to note that the violations Allaire and her team examined don't necessarily mean the water that utility providers served people was unhealthy. Testing everybody's water at the tap would take a gargantuan effort. Instead, the researchers looked at existing data, reported by utility companies to the Environmental Protection Agency between 1982 and 2015, on violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The researchers looked for rule-breaking they deemed most likely to affect human health. (They excluded violations having to do with not filing the proper paperwork, for example.) Ultimately, experts say, the vast majority of Americans can still trust their water, especially if they're served by a large, well-funded water system. But we shouldn't take clean water for granted.

"There's a perception in this country that water should be free. This is a reminder that water really isn't free," says Jackie MacDonald Gibson, an environmental engineer at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, who didn't work on the study. "If you want to ensure the quality of your water, it requires continuous investment."

In addition to figuring out exactly how many water systems violated health standards nationwide, Allaire and her team uncovered what seems to put water systems at risk, and which counties tend to have repeated problems with the Safe Drinking Water Act. Small, rural systems that serve low-income populations seem to struggle the most. Violation hotspots appeared in Oklahoma, Nebraska, and parts of Texas. That finding wasn't surprising to Allaire. "They face an incredible amount of financial strain because they already have a small customer base to begin with," she says. "They really can't afford the latest and greatest technology to treat their water and they're just in a tough place. A lot of them don't even have full-time water managers. It could just be a part-time position."

Regulators should focus on these hotspots, testing them more often and offering them technical help and funding to update their systems, Allaire and her team write in a paper published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. "I'm hoping this analysis could provide a more informed way of going about prioritizing greater regulatory oversight, as well as assistance to utilities that are struggling," she says.

When possible, having small utilities merge, or buy treated water from a larger facility would help, too, Allaire says. After all, her study showed that large, privately owned systems had the lowest rates of violations. Indeed, Flint's troubles started when the financially struggling city stopped buying water from the larger and better-funded Detroit-based system, and began trying to save funds by managing its water on its own.

MacDonald Gibson believes Allaire's study was "well-done" and likely the first to track Safe Drinking Water Act violations across the nation over several decades. "I haven't seen anything like this before," she says.

At a time when the Trump administration is focused on investing in America's infrastructure, both MacDonald Gibson and Allaire suggest the president turn his eye to the nation's water pipes. Says MacDonald Gibson: "We do have real needs in this country for upgrading existing infrastructure and replacing community water infrastructure that was put in maybe more than a century ago."