Providing Clean Water and Sanitation for All in the U.S.
Currently, in the US more than 1.1 million people across the 50 states don't have hot and cold running water, a toilet, and a shower or bathtub and over 500,000 people experiencing homelessness face challenges with consistently accessing these resources.
Public water systems supply water for human consumption. They can be broken down into three categories (SWDA Data Summary):
Community water system (CWS): used by year-round residents - water in homes, apartments, etc.
Non-transient non-community water system (NTNCWS): a non-community system that serves the same population on a regular basis, such as a school or an office building.
Transient non-community water system (TNCWS): a non-community system, that is also not used by the same population, like a campground or a highway rest stop.
Community water systems are fed by:
groundwater - located below the ground surface in pores and spaces in the rock and accessed with wells.
surface water - streams, rivers, lakes, reservoirs, or oceans.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 91% of public water systems are supplied by groundwater, but 68% of the US population use systems supplied by surface water. Large, well-populated metropolitan areas tend to rely on surface water supplies, whereas small, rural areas tend to rely on groundwater (CDC Water Sources).
The Clean Water Act (CWA) regulates the discharge of pollutants into the waters of the United States, allowed only with the proper permits, and also regulates the quality standards for surface water (EPA - CWA).
The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) regulates the nation’s public drinking water supply and requires many actions to protect drinking water and its sources. It also authorizes the US EPA to set national health-based standards for drinking water (EPA - SWDA).
In 2020 alone, there were over 30,000 health-related SWDA violations reported across the US.
Unequal Distribution of Challenges
The causes driving a person's lack of access to clean water and sanitation services are wide-ranging; from the monetary cost or water sources and facilities available based on geographic location to government regulations and more.
According to research conducted by Dig Deep and the US Water Alliance, Native Americans have the least access to sanitation and are 19 times more likely to lack indoor plumbing than their white counterparts. African American and Latinx households also lack indoor plumbing at almost twice the rate of white households.
Lack of access also tends to impact whole communities, more often in rural areas than in urban settings, with strong correlations with race and income levels, as well as access to affordable and safe housing.
Government Funding & Oversight
While the Federal government provides legislation regulating water quality, wastewater treatment, and source water protection and restoration, much of the oversight, monitoring, and reporting is left to the state and local officials.
Federal water infrastructure funding has continued to decline, disproportionately affecting underserved communities that historically received little support, to begin with (Global Citizen)
The vast majority of US homes and businesses receive drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater services through a large infrastructure network (US Water Alliance). These networks are filled with aging, inefficient facilities. For example, between 2012 and 2018, the rate of water main breaks in the U.S. rose by 27% (ASCE). These aging facilities are associated with both increasing water contamination and economic disruptions to communities.
Health and Well-being
When people lack access to water and sanitation (Global Citizen):
they are more susceptible to disease, related to direct exposure to contaminants, and to dehydration
have a harder time securing employment
receiving an education
have a harder time breaking poverty cycles
Access to sanitation facilities, especially hot water and soap, is especially important with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and affects some of the most vulnerable populations in the country.
Exposure to specific contaminants in water, like lead, is a serious concern - as was the case in Flint MI.
The Flint Water Crisis
The crisis in Flint, Michigan is one of the most well-known drinking water crises in recent years in the US, but it certainly isn't the only one.
The City switched its water supply to the Flint River in 2014 (a surface water source) in a cost-saving move. Inadequate treatment and testing of the water resulted in a series of major water quality and health issues for Flint residents, particularly related to the concentration of lead in the water (NRDC).
Studies found that the contaminated water contributed to a doubling—and in some cases, tripling—of the incidence of elevated blood lead levels in the city’s children. Almost 9,000 children were supplied with lead-contaminated water for 18 months.
This event also highlighted the unequal distribution of clean water-related challenges and the need for environmental justice to play a part in solutions.
A new report by The US Water Alliance estimates that the US needs to invest a total of $109 billion per year in water infrastructure over the next 20 years in 2019 dollars to close the water infrastructure gap. The same report found that:
Drinking water systems currently lose at least 6 billion gallons of treated water per day or 2.1 trillion gallons per year. In 2019, that resulted in an estimated loss of $7.6 billion of treated water due to leaks
The cumulative capital investment gap will total $2.2 trillion—nearly $6,000 for every adult and child expected to be living in the United States in 2039.
In 1977, the federal government invested 63% of all capital spending on water infrastructure. Today, water infrastructure accounts for less than 10%.
The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that closing the water infrastructure investment gap would create 800,000 new jobs and household disposable income would rise by more than $2,000 per household (ASCE).
Measures of success based on the targets and indicators determined by UN SDG 6 (SDG Tracker) include:
The proportion of the population using safely managed drinking water services: available when needed and free from contamination.
The proportion of wastewater safely treated.
The proportion of bodies of water with good ambient water quality - by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping, and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials.
Increase water-use efficiency across all sectors.
Reduce the level of water stress/scarcity: freshwater withdrawal as a proportion of available freshwater resources.
Protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers, and lakes.
Water and sanitation related nonprofits
Healthcare focused organizations
Federal, state, and local governments
Public utilities organizations
Federal, state, and local governments
Environmental, clean water, and sanitation organizations
Community members/ the general public
Public utilities organizations
The agricultural sector
According to data aggregated by X4Impact from the Security and Exchange Commission filings, since Q1 of 2019, $65.1M of private funding has been invested in companies working to create tech-based solutions addressing clean water and sanitation in the U.S. $29M was deployed in Q4 of 2020 alone.
Based on data from over 600,000 tax returns filed by nonprofits in the US (data via X4Impact), in addition to the private sector, there are also government and private grants, as well as the $137B in income reported by over 3,000 nonprofits working to address water and sanitation-related issues.
You can use the clean water and sanitation interactive tool to see how this breaks down by state and organization type.