Our country has major problems with its drinking water supplies. Nearly one quarter of people living in the United States get their drinking water from one of the 18,000 water systems in all 50 states that reported violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2015, according to a new report. This news comes as the Trump administration eyes deep budget cuts to programs safeguarding drinking water and public health.
Many of the violations were "health based," meaning that they involved a specific danger to human health rather than a simple violation of federal requirements for reporting and monitoring. About 27 million people nationwide were served by drinking water systems that reported "health-based violations" of federal standards in 2015, according the report, which was released on Tuesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Health-based violations were most frequently triggered by chemical byproducts of disinfection treatments that are linked to cancer, or the failure to properly treat surface and groundwater to remove dangerous pathogens. Violations were also caused by lead and copper contamination; nitrates and nitrites that can cause the potentially fatal "blue baby syndrome" in infants; and coliform bacteria, which can cause illness and are often an indicator of fecal contamination.
The report is based on data from the Environmental Protection Agency's drinking water tracking system and may be incomplete because sometimes water utilities and state agencies fail to report problems to the federal government, according to the NRDC. The group claims the EPA and state regulators are not doing enough to protect drinking water while the nation's aging sewer and water treatment systems deteriorate underneath our feet.
"The problem is twofold … we’re living on borrowed time with our ancient, deteriorating water infrastructure," said Erik Olson, the director of NRDC's health programs and co-author of the report.
States with the highest number of drinking water violations relative to their population include Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Washington and Ohio, according to the report. Trump won a majority in 7 of the top 10 states with the most violations.
The group says Trump's proposed budget cuts would make the problem worse, especially in rural areas. Systems serving less than 500 people accounted for just over half of the health-based violations and 70 percent of all Safe Drinking Water Act violations reported in 2015. Meanwhile, Trump wants to pay for heavy increases in military and border security spending by making deep cuts to clean energy programs and public health agencies.
The White House has proposed slashing the EPA's budget by 31 percent, including $600 million in water-related programs and grants, according an official budget blueprint and an internal memo leaked online. In addition, $129 million would be cut from the EPA's enforcement budget, and the US Department of Agriculture's rural wastewater program would lose $498 million in funding. More than 200 people working on water quality programs at the EPA would lose their jobs.
"Americans have a right to safe, clean drinking water, but President Trump is killing that right with a meat axe," said Jamie Consuegra, a legislative director with the NRDC.
Luckily for environmentalists and anyone who drinks tap water, Trump's wishes have not come to political fruition, at least not after Congress's first round of budget negotiations since he became president. Over the weekend, lawmakers averted a government shutdown and agreed on a five-month federal budget that leaves funding for the EPA largely intact, according to reports.
Trump was frustrated by the negotiations, particularly because Democrats have refused to include funding for his proposed wall on the border with Mexico. On Monday, he tweeted that voters would need to elect more Republican senators in 2018, or the Senate could change its filibuster rules in order to avoid making budget compromises with Democrats.
"Our country needs a good shutdown in September to fix this mess!" the president added.
The NRDC argues the EPA needs more funding to protect drinking water, not less. Many potentially dangerous chemicals and other contaminants are not included in federal drinking water regulations, and the EPA has not added any substances to the list since the law was last updated by Congress in 1996. Only perchlorate, a dangerous chemical used in rocket fuel that has seeped from military weapons disposal sites, has been slated for regulation, but the EPA has not established perchlorate standards for drinking water since proposing to regulate the pollutant six years ago, according to the report.
"We take it for granted that when we turn on our kitchen tap, the water will be safe and healthy, but we have a long way to go before that is reality across our country," Olson said.
Environmentalists have honed in on drinking water issues ever since the water crisis in Flint, Michigan erupted into the headlines in late 2015. Lead contamination caused by faulty water quality treatments poisoned residents in the majority-Black city, where state officials recently agreed to replace aging delivery lines.
Similar problems have exacerbated a lead contamination crisis in East Chicago, Indiana, where Trump's EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, recently made a brief appearance and spoke to residents who have been forced to use water filters or leave their homes completely.
The NRDC determined last year that 18 million people in the US were served by drinking water systems that reported federal lead violations. Lead can cause an array of cognitive and other health problems, especially in children.