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The intersection of race and water during the COVID-19 crisis

Nicole Lampe September 11, 2020
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As the mother of a soon-to-be first grader, I have always been pretty into handwashing. But the frequency and rigor have definitely increased during the pandemic. Something else that has increased is my awareness of the places that don’t always have enough soap and sinks for everyone to keep clean: schools, prisons, farms and food processing facilities, tent cities, etc.

The COVID crisis has made it harder to ignore long-standing water justice issues — from the lack of running water in Navajo Nation and many other Tribal communities to toxic taps in California’s Central Valley and rising water rates that are leading to widespread utility shutoffs. Many of these problems are rooted in structural racism, which Sen. Kamala Harris and Dolores Huerta called out in a recent op-ed about disparities in safe water access.

Advocates have worked for years to bring these challenges to light. And they’ve made important progress. A year ago, California lawmakers committed more than $1 billion to fund safe and affordable drinking water. This spring, dozens of cities and states banned water shutoffs, and the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that includes a moratorium on utility disconnections and support for low-income ratepayers. Organizers pushing for solutions have pointed out the systemic failures that created the problems in the first place. 

Below, we highlight a few recent reports that dig into the racial dimensions of current water challenges.

  • As the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund noted in its Water/Color report, discrimation runs deep in the nation’s water system: “For as long as our cities have been rigidly segregated by race, local officials have found ways to deprive communities of color of access to essential water services.” It goes on to explain the way failing infrastructure, rising rates, and aggressive collection tactics like home liens impact Black households. 
  • Research by Pacific Institute found that Black households receiving a notice that water service could be shut off for nonpayment are twice as likely to be disconnected as White households receiving the same notice. Native American or Alaska Native households are three times as likely to have service cut. 
  • Closing the Water Access Gap by US Water Alliance and DIGDEEP  found that race is the most important factor in predicting which households have access to hot and cold running water and flush toilets. African-American and Latinx households are almost twice as likely as white households to lack complete plumbing, and Native American households are 19 times more likely.
  • A study by NRDC, Coming Clean and Environmental Justice Health Alliance found that race is also the strongest predictor of water safety. Water systems with long-term safety violations were 40 percent more likely to occur in places with more residents of color, according to EPA data analyzed in the report. Unsurprisingly, Black and Hispanic communities are less likely to trust the safety of their tap water, and more likely to spend money on bottled water. 

Many of these reports point out that a dramatic decline in federal spending on water infrastructure — it dropped from $76 per person in 1977 to $11 per person in 2014 — has contributed to these problems. Shifting the burden to local government and utilities has exacerbated existing disparities. 

We have an opportunity now to reverse this trend, as Congress is spending trillions of dollars on COVID relief and recovery, including substantial spending on infrastructure. Advocates are pushing for the government to prioritize water investments as a way to advance public health and racial justice. To learn more and get involved, check out Policylink’s recommendations for a street-smart stimulus and US Water Alliance’s principles for water equity















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