When it comes to access to safe potable water, “race is still the strongest determinant," according to a recent report that found that more than 2 million people in the U.S. and Puerto Rico don't have access to running water and basic indoor plumbing.
George McGraw, who co-wrote the report and is the chief executive of Dig Deep, deemed the lack of water access a "silent crisis," especially in minority communities.
Latino and African American households are twice as likely as white households to lack indoor plumbing while Native Americans are 19 times more likely, according to the report.
Whereas communities grappling with water issues may feel like their problems are specific and isolated, the report urges looking at the issue as a national crisis and tackling it through a combination of factors: not just more government funding but encouraging partnerships with groups and flexible funding methods to provide families with the necessary infrastructure at the household level.
In areas along the Texas border as well as in rural areas in Puerto Rico, the lack of safe water and indoor plumbing goes back generations to communities that were built informally in remote areas away from the infrastructure grid. In some of the Texas "colonias," as they are called, some of the low-income families thought they would eventually get water when they built on their plots.
A century ago, the U.S. government responded swiftly to public health concerns by investing in water systems that provided safe drinking and wastewater services to Americans, after waterborne illnesses such as cholera were among the nation's leading causes of death.
"But when we said everybody, we meant white folks," said McGraw, adding that many poor, tribal and immigrant communities were excluded from water access initiatives.
There are currently multiple reasons as to why different communities still don't have water access. Apart from limited federal and local government budgets, most residents in these areas are too poor to pay into updating systems. Complicated regulations and permits as well as distrust between residents and government agencies have also contributed to the crisis.
Widespread unsafe water is a "ticking time bomb in terms of public health," especially when residents use springs and streams as main water sources, according to Josefa Torres-Olivo, director of the nonprofit RCAP Solutions in Puerto Rico, which works with communities on water issues.
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Roughly 600 families in Guayabota, a community in the town of Yabucoa, live disconnected from the island's main water system. Many of them pipe wastewater directly into streams or use septic tanks and systems because they live far from a sewer line.
High bacteria rates in Puerto Rico’s surface water suggest that wastewater issues are widespread, according to the report. Residents told researchers that wastewater regularly floods the streets of their neighborhoods and that the situation has worsen after recent hurricanes and heavy rains.
Torres-Olivo said groups like hers aim to form collaborations between community members and the appropriate government agencies to promote local initiatives and empower neighborhoods to take the lead in developing safer water infrastructures.
In the colonias along the Texas-Mexico border, many residents use unsupervised private wells that have unpredictable water quality and availability.
In the colonia town of Cochran, families purchase trucked water for about $250 a month for bathing or cleansing — not for drinking — or haul water by car or foot. Households in this colonia use 50 to 100 gallons of potable water a month; by comparison, the average American uses 88 gallons daily.
The situation is worsening in neighborhoods with poorly constructed septic systems or sewers when extreme weather events such as hurricanes, droughts and extreme rainfall cause the sewer systems to constantly back up and overflow.
This causes the water supply to be polluted by wastewater and other contaminants.
As climate conditions fuel more changes in rainfall, for example, this kind of water pollution will become more common, McGraw said.
Even though some rural areas counter with small drinking water systems that treat contamination with chlorination, low-income communities can struggle to afford treatment and testing.
Another issue involves the effects of agricultural and industrial production. Since 2013, thousands of Californians in the Central Valley are unable to drink water from domestic wells and municipal systems because they are contaminated with nitrates and bacteria from farm and dairy runoff, as well as arsenic, uranium and other harmful industrial chemicals, researchers found.
In Seville, California, a primarily low-income town, a resident told researchers that she pays $60 a month for "water that is yellow and full of debris." She also spends an additional $100 a month to buy clean, bottled water, preventing her from affording other needs.
"That impacts their ability to stay healthy, go to school, work and keep a normal life," McGraw said.
These conditions across the U.S. and Puerto Rico are taking place as federal spending on water systems has declined drastically.
In 1977, 63 percent of total capital spending for water and wastewater systems came from federal agencies, according to the report. That number is now less than 10 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office.