Water Must Be Part of our COVID Recovery

Wash your hands, save lives — it's a central message during the COVID-19 crisis.


But what if you don't have basic running water, as we assume everyone does? Incredibly, too many Americans don't.

To fix that, our recovery from this pandemic must include a sincere investment in fixing the problems behind this long-running failure. That includes assuring access to reliable, affordable water in all households, whether in city neighborhoods or rural communities, strengthening underfunded and struggling water utilities, both urban and rural, and modernizing the aging pipes, pumps and plants that deliver it.

COVID-19 has reminded us in stark terms that access to clean tap water is a basic human need, essential to public health. Yet even in the Great Lakes region, defined by the world's largest source of freshwater, thousands have lost service because they fell behind on rising bills and were shut off for nonpayment. Others, particularly in rural and tribal communities, never had adequate water systems.

It is imperative that we never let this happen again, and the pandemic itself creates an opportunity to pursue practical, achievable upgrades in our water systems.

Thousands of nonprofits, front line utility workers, and local government leaders are working to make water clean and accessible to all. As the nation shifts to recovery, we need to help them, and these four principles should guide our thinking:

Ensure Water is Reliable and Affordable

In 2016, a national survey of 73 water utilities found that 500,000 customers had been shutoff for nonpayment. The authors estimate that water shutoffs for nonpayment affect 15 million people in the United States every year. The problem is growing in lakefront cities like Chicago and across the nation. As a recent statewide analysis of water affordability in Ohio demonstrated, it is a challenge in rural, suburban and urban communities across the United States.

A solution will require commitment and investment from local, state, and federal governments. Local governments and water providers must adopt rate structures designed to ensure affordability for basic service, regardless of income. Other utilities come with assistance programs, such as the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (commonly known as LIHEAP). There is no equivalent for water, and there should be.

Close the Access Gap

Many of the more than two million Americans who lack indoor plumbing or wastewater services live in remote areas, or come from high-risk groups like the elderly, disabled, homebound and homeless. The federal government should use existing disaster response protocols to close this access gap, and prioritize communities where local capacity is limited. It should partner with state and local municipalities for both immediate and long-term solutions.

Strengthen Water Utilities of all Sizes

Across the U.S., more than 70,000 utilities deliver tap water and treat our sewage, and water professionals are key actors in our public health infrastructure. But because most utility revenue comes from water sales, utilities have been hit hard the by the closure of restaurants, arenas and other businesses. Federal recovery dollars for water utilities are critical to ensure they can weather the crisis without rate increases that, in turn, jeopardize the affordability of their services and make the access gap even worse.

Fuel Economic Recovery by Investing in Water Systems

The pipes and other systems delivering our clean water are aging, but we are not investing enough in infrastructure to keep water systems in good repair. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that the U.S. needs to spend $15 billion more per year over the next 10 years to meet projected capital needs.

Such investment would be one clearly smart way to jumpstart our post-COVID-19 economic recovery. A pre-crisis study show this kind of investment would create more than 1.5 million jobs, more than the entire employed workforce in 20 states. It would generate more than $260 billion in economic activity annually, exceeding the gross domestic product of 28 states.

The pandemic has shown that overall public health requires us to meet the basic water needs of every person in the U.S. These principles — so basic, yet so overlooked — can help chart the route to getting us there.

Pure Water Cleveland Can Help You Navigate These Uncertain Times.  Contact Us Today.

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