A woman I had never met before visited my office one early Saturday morning, and it still haunts me. It was several years ago, but I will never forget how distraught she was and the way she pleaded her urgent need to speak with me right then and right there.
She had a dream, she said. And it frightened her. So much so that she couldn’t hold back her tears. I watched and listened closely as water streamed from her eyes and down her cheeks. She expressed what had become her greatest fear – not only for her but for all of humanity.
“We’re going to run out of water,” she said. “If we don’t do something soon, we won’t have any more water. We won’t be able to survive.”
That was the gist of her dream. What she saw was very real to her. She described violence and home invasions depicted in her dream. The death and mayhem over the water shortage provoked her to let someone know. Since this was the only media outlet in her community, who better, she said, could sound the alarm but The Washington Informer?
I attempted to console her while not downplaying her worry or concern. Quite honestly, I seriously pondered her sanity. Patients housed at a nearby mental hospital often called with conspiracy theories and claims that the government was responsible for locking them up and forcing them to take drugs they didn’t want to take. But never had anyone knocked on our door. While there might be some truth to their claims, hers was a prediction about a crisis that is real and solvable if immediate action is taken.
Flint Water Crisis
After she thanked me for listening and walked away, my mind immediately reflected on the Flint water crisis that began in 2014. Thousands of children and adults were potentially poisoned from lead leached into the drinking water from corroded pipes. It was no accident, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and others, who concluded that the Flint water crisis is a defining example of environmental injustice, bad decision-making and systemic racism.
In 2014, when the city of Detroit switched its drinking water supply from Detroit’s Water and Sewer Department to the Flint River, as a cost-saving measure, inadequate treatment and testing resulted in contaminated drinking water and calls for help from residents that government officials ignored.
Flint residents complained to city, state and federal officials for nearly two years and backed complaints with bottled samples of discolored water that smelled and tasted foul. Their outcries were not addressed. All the while, residents experienced skin rashes, hair loss and itchy skin. Worse, nine people died, reportedly from Legionnaires disease, due to the legionella bacteria found in the water.
Officials, including Michigan’s former Governor Rich Snyder and Health Director Nick Lyons, still face misdemeanor and involuntary manslaughter charges, respectively, following lawsuits filed by Flint residents. And the residents? They still don’t have clean drinking water and they continue to rely on bottled water for daily use.
The Beginning and Today
The U.S. has a water crisis, and it did not begin in Flint.
As cities, factories and commerce grew throughout the U.S., waterways became common to dispose of waste. Early laws were passed to prevent the blockage of rivers but did not address the increased pollution it caused.
Under the auspices of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), growing public awareness and concern for controlling water pollution has led to significant amendments. In 1948, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act was passed, making it the first major U.S. law to address water pollution. In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act (CWA).
According to the EPA, “under the CWA, EPA has implemented pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards for industry. EPA has also developed national water quality criteria recommendations for pollutants in surface waters.”
Last April, results from Gallup’s annual environmental survey found, of six environmental problems facing the U.S., Americans remain most worried about those that affect water quality. Majorities express “a great deal” of worry about the pollution of both drinking water (56%) and rivers, lakes, and reservoirs (53%).
And, rightfully so.
Last month, researchers with the Environmental Working Group reported on the results from water contaminant tests they collected and reviewed that were conducted by water utilities and regulators from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
“After combing through the data from almost 50,000 water systems serving tens of millions of American households, the researchers found more than 320 toxic substances have been detected in U.S. drinking water systems since 2019. The drinking water contamination,” EWG reported, “is derived from numerous pollutants such as arsenic, lead, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), radioactive materials, and pesticides.”
Those harmful chemicals are linked to cancer, adverse birth and reproduction outcomes, impaired brain development, and a revolving door of other deleterious health impacts.
Meanwhile, dozens of cities have reported various amounts of lead in the drinking water over the past few years including Newark, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Charleston, WV; Miami, and Washington, D.C., to name a few.
And, while the EPA has set an action standard of no more than 15 parts per billion (ppb), medical experts are clear, no amount of lead is safe for human consumption.
The woman who showed up at my door was more concerned with water scarcity, and she’s not alone. Water shortages have become a significant issue, particularly in the Southwest. This year, drought and depleting reservoirs led 10 governors to seek federal drought disaster aid, particularly Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.
“Historic drought levels threaten to eliminate entire crops, depress yields, and harbor extreme levels of pests and disease that add to the cumulative loss,” the governors wrote in a letter to the Biden-Harris Administration.
In a statement addressing the crisis by U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, she stated: “Water is a sacred resource essential to feeding families, growing crops, sustaining wildlife and the environment, and powering agricultural businesses. Unfortunately, drought conditions in the West continue to worsen, and water allocations are at historic lows.
“There is an urgent need to minimize the impacts of drought and develop a long-term plan to facilitate conservation and economic growth, because drought doesn’t impact just one community — it affects all of us, from farmers and ranchers to city dwellers and Tribes,” wrote Haaland.
In an article by Michelle Horton published in Stanford News, she wrote: “While two very different kinds of natural disasters, scientists say they were spurred by a common catalyst – climate change – and that both also threaten drinking water supplies. As the nation already wrestles with water shortages, contamination, and aging infrastructure, experts warn more frequent supercharged climate-induced events will exacerbate the pressing issue of safe drinking water.
Horton acknowledges the Biden Administration for making safe drinking water a national priority. The Build Back Better Infrastructure bill includes funds for lead pipe replacements, particularly in disenfranchised communities and schools, as well as grants for low-income households that pay a high proportion of household income for drinking water and wastewater (including stormwater) services.
The bill, however, is still hung up in the Senate with some legislators who are not convinced that the impact of climate change is worth the cost environmental advocates believe is needed to protect the environment and human life.
What Do We Do?
The day that woman left my doorstep continues to haunt me. So does global warming. Stories about heat waves, drought, wildfires and air pollution aren’t as threatening for many as a pandemic shutdown that sets in motion a panic rush to buy bottled water and frustration over finding empty shelves.
We as humans can do more to protect our waterways, reduce pollution and prevent water scarcity. Little things such recycling, placing refuse in trash receptacles instead of littering, and scooping pets poop can make a world of difference. Yes, a single gram of pet waste contains an average of 23 million fecal coliform bacteria, some of which can cause disease in humans. Yet, more of it is making its way into streams and rivers due to run-off from streets, yards, and dog parks.
I may never see that woman again, but Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose words always ring true, said, “Because no matter who we are or where we come from, we’re all entitled to the basic human rights of clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and healthy land to call home.”
It’s up to us!
Denise Rolark Barnes is the publisher of The Washington Informer.