Without a vote in the Senate on the Build Back Better Act, especially with continued objections to the legislation from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), communities across the country are understandably concerned about the climate impacts of inaction. With increasingly frequent and catastrophic floods, freezes, hurricanes, and fires – including the recent devastating fire in Colorado – we can’t wait to transition to a cleaner economy.
But there’s another equally important provision of Build Back Better that’s getting far less attention, despite the urgent need for it: A program to help people pay their water bills so they can avoid shutoffs.
Even before the pandemic, water bills across the country skyrocketed due to failing infrastructure, shrinking city populations, and a sobering decline in federal support for water infrastructure. An estimated 15 million people, mostly people of color struggling with poverty and unemployment, lost access to clean water because they couldn’t afford their bills. Moreover, studies find nearly 77 million Americans are served by unsafe drinking water, and drinking water systems that constantly violated the law for years were 40 percent more likely to occur in places with higher percentages of residents who were people of color.
Families across America — in farmworker communities, small rural communities, and our cities — have for years paid twice for water: Once for toxic tap water and a second time for bottled water. When a family’s water is shut off, it not only creates health risks, it can also lead to the loss of their home and, in some states, losing custody of their children. Like most injustices in this country, the brunt of affordability issues has been felt by communities of color.
The water crisis is not experienced equally across communities. Addressing the issue equitably requires recognizing the combined challenges of rising water bills, histories of environmental injustice, and the impacts of climate change disproportionately affect the existing and future water security of those at the margins.
Water unaffordability is on the rise. Between 2010 and 2015, the cost of household water services in some major cities increased more than 40 percent. There are fewer protections against water shutoffs than other utilities for periods of hardship or for vulnerable populations in the United States. Protections against disconnections in electricity during extreme weather are required in many jurisdictions, and assistance programs for electricity are in place.
Pandemic relief efforts including eviction and utility shutoff moratoriums and temporary assistance have largely worked to keep people in their homes and with access to critical utilities, including water. Most recently, the governor of New Jersey signed a bill, which passed unanimously, that extends temporary water shutoff protections through this season and creates water shutoff protections for every winter. In the immediate term, these moratoriums need to be extended and, to create sustainable change, permanent low-income water assistance programs need to be established at the federal level.
If the Build Back Better Act no longer has a chance of survival in the Senate, then Congress must pass legislation that reduces the number of families without access to water. We cannot continue to ignore the problems that predated COVID-19’s exacerbation of infrastructure underinvestment, structural racism, and inequitable water policies.
Quite bluntly, we cannot build back better without recognizing and addressing the intertwined relationship between water security, climate change, and racial and economic justice.
Congress should allocate funding for a pilot low-income water assistance program within EPA, an essential complement to water infrastructure investments that were missing from the previous bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Although these legislative actions are vital, advocates know it is only the beginning. Support from Congress will be life-affirming and we will still need to combat the systemic issues in infrastructure and climate readiness.
It should go without saying, given this country’s past policies tinged with racism, that access to safe and affordable water is fundamental in lifting up Black, Brown, Indigenous, and low-income communities that continue to bear the brunt of climate change and the country’s failing water infrastructure.
Ensuring everyone has access to safe, affordable water is not simply the “right thing to do,” but essential to navigating resource scarcity and our overdue dedication to racial justice.