I was a teenager in southern Indiana when news broke that Westinghouse Electric had dumped polychlorinated biphenyls at multiple sites across Monroe county, contaminating our community’s water supply. It was an early lesson not to take clean water for granted in America.
Every day, millions of Americans wake up and drink tap water that is unsafe. According to one study, up to 21 million Americans are getting water from systems that violate health standards. Reporting by the Guardian shows that at least 33 major US cities have skirted water quality testing in much the same vein as Flint and the state of Michigan.
People throughout the country are more concerned about water pollutionthan they have been in nearly 20 years. Urban or rural, Republican or Democrat, we all want clean water. It’s one thing we can all agree on in this period of intense political division.
It’s no surprise, then, that some of our biggest political movements and crises in recent years have centered around water pollution. A couple of years ago, the US was riveted as Native Americans banded together at Standing Rock to protect the Missouri river from the Dakota Access pipeline. The pipeline would carry 470,000 barrels of oil a day under the river. A leak would quickly destroy both water and food for the reservation and beyond.
Around the same time, the disaster of lead-laden drinking water in Flint, Michigan, illustrated the vulnerability of our water supply. The heartbreaking stories continued to unfold in the mostly African American community as public officials failed to act and people became ill.
Both those battles resonated across the country. When Barb Kalbach, an intensive care nurse in Iowa, heard about the water crisis in Flint, she was incensed. The thought of children drinking unsafe water, or going without, outraged her. But she wasn’t surprised, because the same thing has been happening in her state, and in many others.
A fourth generation family farmer from Adair county, Kalbach knows what it’s like to question the safety of your water: Iowa has 750 impaired waterways. In most cases they were polluted by manure and chemical fertilizers from the massive factory farms that have overrun the state.
There are more than 10,000 factory farms in Iowa now. The state is home to 26 million hogs that produce the equivalent waste of 65 million people. That waste has to go somewhere. So it runs into waterways and eventually into the drinking water system. The city of Des Moines has the largest nitrate removal system in the world in an effort to keep the water drinkable – and its residents foot the bill.
“You’d think you wouldn’t have to fight for legislation for clean drinking water,” says Kalbach, board president of the grassroots organization Iowa CCI Action Fund. “It’s such an obvious thing that you’d want clean water for your children and your home. Yet at the end of the day it’s big money that stands between us and clean water”
While the exact cause of water quality issues might differ from place to place – fracking, mining, pipelines, corporate agriculture, toxic dumping or lead pipes – ultimately, the source can usually be traced back to corporate greed, lack of regulation and public disinvestment.
People throughout the country are more concerned about water pollution than they have been in nearly 20 years. At a time when the role of government is fiercely debated in America, one thing people agree on is that government must ensure the quality of our water.
While it was the water crisis and injustice in Flint that got much of the country to tune into the issue of water, 21 million Americans are getting water from systems that violate health standards.
“When it comes to everyday people, water brings together urban and rural, Democrats and Republicans. Though that sometimes breaks down when it comes to politicians,” says Pastor Greg Timmons, the executive director of Flint Recovery for Flint Calvary United Methodist church. When asked why, Timmons says: “It’s about money. All about money.
“Clean air and water are things we can all unite around because when it’s not clean it affects every part of our lives,” says Timmons.
When members of my own organization survey folks at their front doors, clean water always shows up as a top concern, in cities, suburbs or rural areas.
Hope can be found in the Water Act of 2019 – legislation introduced in Congress last month by Representatives Brenda Lawrence and Ro Khanna and Senator Bernie Sanders offers solutions and provides $35bn in funding to assure access to clean, safe water. It also provides for good, green jobs to do that work.
Dave Metz, Partner and President of the California based public opinion firm, FM3 Research, has conducted extensive research on public opinion on water issues. “As a pollster, I’m struck by how often today it seems like Democrats and Republicans are living on different planets. Water is different – it’s one of the few issues where Democrats, Republicans and independents express equal concern about the issue and equal support for investments to address it.”
Americans also agree that the corporations responsible for poisoning our water should pay to clean it up. Corporations get away with spraying, spilling, and dumping pesticides, petrochemicals, and other toxins into our environment whenever and wherever it suits their business plans – until they are discovered. Sometimes, as in Flint, with disastrous results. Then they close up, take away jobs, and leave behind a community in shambles, and unprepared local governments to clean it up.
It’s true that we live in a divided country. It’s also true that there are issues that we can all get behind – clean and safe drinking water is one of those issues. Leaders who want to bring the country together might look to water as an issue that can do just that.
As Kalbach says, “There’s no red water or blue water – it’s clean or it’s dirty. And no matter where you come from, you know the difference”
Instead of being pulled into hate and division, we have an opportunity to focus on the true causes of what ails us – disinvestment, corporations externalizing their messy waste, environmental deregulation, privatization of water systems. From there we can move to solutions. Water quality reminds us that government is not the problem, but instead the prize. As long as its controlled by big polluters, Americans across race, place and partisanship will be cleaning up (and drinking) their mess.