America's water crisis goes beyond Flint, Michigan

What happens if U.S. ignores water issues?
What happens if US ignores water issues?   

America's water issues extend far beyond the current crisis in Flint, Michigan — and it's going to take a massive infrastructure investment to protect citizens from serious public health dangers, say experts.

In light of World Water Day, on March 22, the White House, along with about 150 other institutions, pledged more than $5 billion to improve water accessibility and quality across the nation, acknowledging that "water challenges are facing communities and regions across the United States, impacting millions of lives and costing billions of dollars in damages."

In fact, data CNBC obtained from the Environmental Protection Agency reveals that only nine U.S. states are reporting safe levels of lead in their water supply. These include Alabama, Arkansas, Hawaii, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota and Tennessee.

According to the EPA, 41 states had Action Level Exceedance (ALEs) in the last three fiscal years, meaning states have reported higher than acceptable levels of lead in drinking water.

On its website, the EPA published a regulation in 1991 — known as the Lead and Copper Rule — to control lead and copper in drinking water.

Demonstrators protest over the Flint, Michigan contaminated water crisis, March 6, 2015.
Rebecca Cook | Reuters
Demonstrators protest over the Flint, Michigan contaminated water crisis, March 6, 2015.

"If the action level for lead is exceeded, the system must also inform the public about steps they should take to protect their health and may have to replace lead service lines under their control," the website states.

Furthermore, the EPA told CNBC that of the more than 7,000 schools subject to the EPA Lead and Copper Rule, 431 reported heightened levels of lead between 2012 and 2015.

Lynn Thorp, the national campaigns director at Clean Water Action, told CNBC that of particular concern in Lead and Copper Rule compliance data would be public water systems with repeated exceedances of the action level.

"If over 10 percent of samples are showing lead at the tap over 15 parts per billion, and this is occurring over and over again, this is a signal that controlling corrosion from lead in pipes and plumbing is not working," Thorp said.

The director did add, though, that because lead levels can vary in any one place and over time, "an exceedance should prompt system action, investigation and notification, but it should not be used to draw conclusions about statewide lead levels at the tap."

Experts say, however, that the focus should not necessarily be on water quality in the United States, which is fairly high, but rather with the infrastructure that is delivering the water to our homes, schools, daycares and cities.

Casey Dinges, the American Society of Civil Engineers senior managing director, told CNBC that the infrastructure conveying the water is in "serious need of investment right now."

"If we don't increase investment in these areas, we're putting at risk by the year 2020 over $400 billion in U.S. GDP, 700,000 jobs would be endangered, and over half a trillion dollars in personal income would be at risk." -Casey Dinges, senior managing director, American Society of Civil Engineers

"If we continue on the path that we are on now, and if we don't increase investment in these areas, we're putting at risk by the year 2020 over $400 billion in U.S. GDP, 700,000 jobs would be endangered, and over half a trillion dollars in personal income would be at risk," Dinges said.

Those investments include pouring money into pipes, water treatment plants and other water infrastructure.

Dinges says it would cost a little more than $80 billion over a nine-year period to protect businesses from losing about $150 billion and could protect homeowners from about $60 billion in costs associated with water-related issues.

"The cost-benefit ratio of about an $80 billion investment yielding over $200 billion in savings for the country … is a good investment for us to make," Dinges said.

The water situation in Newark, New Jersey, schools is now in the spotlight as well.

John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union, told CNBC that Newark public schools are a "mini-Flint," with tests revealing that at least 30 schools in the city show lead contaminated water samples.

"It could be in the upwards of $10 [million] to $20 million dollars to retrofit the plumbing in some of these buildings. Some of these buildings are over a century and a half old," Abeigon said.

The Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., based nonprofit public policy organization, published a report saying that better regional measures should be in place in order to improve water infrastructure.

Among the steps Brookings suggests that local areas can take to improve these issues includes increasing transparency on any water data collected, producing more detailed metrics of the infrastructure itself and conducting more frequent testing.

"It is in part an infrastructure crisis, but it is also a case of gaps in government oversight at all levels, of ill-thought austerity and of not being aggressively proactive in taking the job of protecting, treating and distributing drinking water as a public health issue," Clean Water Action's Thorp said.

Erik Olson, senior strategic director with the Natural Resources Defense Council, agrees. "The Flint water crisis is extreme, but it's not the only case of lead-contaminated tap water in America. Lead problems exist across the nation, but deficient data reporting, often nonexistent state oversight and an utter lack of accountability by state and federal governments keeps the widespread problem of lead in drinking water largely out of sight," he said.