In this week’s episode, host Daniel Raimi talks about drinking water with Gregory Pierce, the codirector of the Luskin Center for Innovation at the University of California, Los Angeles. Pierce discusses who has and who lacks clean drinking water in the United States, what factors have contributed to differing levels of access to clean water, the potential policies and investments that can help expand access to clean water, and the challenges that climate change and pollutants may pose to this expansion.
Listen to the Podcast
- Variable access to clean water is an understudied issue in the United States: “The United States is not a party to international declarations of the human right to water; it doesn’t have a national human right to water or a composite water equity definition … In a way, we know less at the household or individual level about the human right to water access or water equity in the United States than we know in the context of a lot of low- and minimum-income countries that have been collecting data on these attributes for 25 or 30 years now.” (3:30)
- Unaffordable clean water is a health issue: “The … part of affordability that is coming more and more to light—especially in the last 10 years, and even more during the pandemic—is not so much that the price of water is too high, but that low-income households still can’t pay it. There has to be affordability support because of the effect on the marginal aspect of folks’ budgets. If you don’t provide relief, and you let people fall into debt or shut them off, that is an affordability problem that’s being compounded into a health and livelihood problem.” (8:33)
- Clean water has been a local issue: “When it comes to important policy reforms, all the action currently is at the state and local level. The federal government has backed off in many ways. It’s certainly still the regulatory body, but it hasn’t invested a lot until very recently in local water systems.” (24:28)
Top of the Stack
- Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret by Catherine Coleman Flowers
- The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Daniel Raimi.
Today we talk about drinking water with Dr. Gregory Pierce, codirector of the Luskin Center for Innovation at the University of California, Los Angeles. Gregory will help us understand who does and who doesn’t have access to clean water in the United States, and what factors contribute to those outcomes. We’ll also talk about the policies and investments needed to expand access to clean and affordable drinking water in the United States, and how this may become even more challenging over time with climate change and the detection of new pollutants in our water supplies. Stay with us.
Gregory Pierce from the Luskin Center for Innovation at the University of California, Los Angeles. Welcome to Resources Radio.
Gregory Pierce: Thanks for having me.
Daniel Raimi: We’re going to talk today in big-picture terms about access to clean water in the United States, but before we talk about that topic, we always ask our guests about how they got interested in working on environmental issues. What interested you in this topic initially, or have you always had interested in water as a kid—what steered you into this line of work?
Gregory Pierce: I didn’t have interest in this as a kid besides growing up swimming quite a bit. It was really after undergraduate degrees in economics and history (I was, for a time, contemplating a PhD in Russian history) that I realized I wanted to do something a little more practical and impactful. I turned my interest to international development and then realized how many people in the world didn’t have access to clean water. Once I started to understand that, I couldn’t unsee it, and I’ve been working on it ever since. But I am a social scientist through and through, I would say, who’s then come to the environment—and water, specifically.
Daniel Raimi: That’s really interesting. Where did you grow up?
Gregory Pierce: In Orange County, California.
Daniel Raimi: Not a lot of water around there, I suppose. Except for the ocean.
Gregory Pierce: A lot of neighborhood pools and the ocean, but otherwise no.
Daniel Raimi: Let’s start talking now about this topic of clean water. And as you mentioned, obviously this is a huge issue all around the world, but I think in our conversation we’re mostly going to focus on the United States.
Most of us, or at least many of us in the United States and other high-income countries often take clean water for granted, but access to that safe and affordable water is not at all universal, even in a rich country like the United States. Can you start us off by giving us a high-level overview on how many people in the United States lack access to safe and affordable water and how that problem might be distributed differently across different regions or different demographic groups?
Gregory Pierce: This is a big question. I’ll try to give a big, but also concise answer.
First, I’ll back up a little bit and say that the terms “safe” and “affordable” water do map onto generally accepted notions and some legislated definitions of a human right to water. But I would add a dimension not only of safe and affordable water, but also accessible water.
Also note that the United States is not a party to international declarations of the human right to water; it doesn’t have a national human right to water or a composite water equity definition. Some states do. In a way, we know less at the household or individual level about the human right to water access or water equity in the United States than we know in the context of a lot of low- and minimum-income countries that have been collecting data on these attributes for 25 or 30 years now.
Break it down in terms of accessibility, safety, and affordability. I’ll start with accessibility and first note that—and there’s been some very recent studies that have documented this—that approximately 2.2 million folks in the United States don’t have in-home water access. They don’t have the piped infrastructure, and they don’t have water flowing through those pipes.
A lot of those folks are located on sovereign Tribal lands, as well as pockets of folks in our largest cities who are unhoused or in unconventional housing settings. I also want to note that we don’t know much about the approximate 10–15 percent of the population who are reliant on private wells and not on regulated drinking water systems, and we have about 15–20 percent of the population who’s unsewered or on septic tanks, essentially.
When it comes to safety, we know a lot more because we have a Safe Drinking Water Act at the federal level that was enshrined in 1974. It parallels the Clean Air Act and also the Clean Water Act. But the Safe Drinking Water Act is what regulates the 50,000 public water systems in the United States. I want to note that we have a lot more drinking water utilities or drinking water systems than we have wastewater systems, and certainly than we have in the energy space.
Each of those systems, whether you’re a mobile home park serving 25 people—and there are many of those all the way up to your municipal system that serves LA City or New York City—has to comply or is mandated to comply with 98 different sorts of water-quality constituents. You have to be below what are called “maximum contaminate levels” that are based on health-based epidemiological studies.
We have recent estimates that about 7–10 percent of water systems fail to comply with health-based water quality standards on an annual basis. Probably about half, or a little less than half of those are endemically failing to comply. I’d give the lower percentage who are not providing safe water on a consistent basis. But again, we don’t know much about private well-owners when we do studies in isolated fashion. We find upwards of 25–30 percent of those folks have water that’s equivalent to unsafe under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
When it comes to regional variability, it’s a hard question to answer on safety. Essentially, what you find is it depends on the contaminant, and there’s really nowhere in the United States that is doing really well or really poorly. If you look at arsenic, you’re going to see one pattern. If you look at nitrate, you’re going to see concentrations in agricultural areas. If you’re looking at lead, it’s mostly going to be in core urban cities in the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest of the United States. Disinvestment byproducts, you’ll get a different answer. It’s quite varied, and we could perhaps talk more about that later.
Last but not least: when it comes to affordability, we don’t have a good answer. We don’t know what people are paying for water across the United States in a holistic fashion. In some ways, I would say that water has generally been underpriced. The problem is not so much the general level of drinking water, but that there are 50,000 systems in the United States, and for the most part, they price water separately. Some are regulated by utility commissions and other mechanisms, but they have a lot of discretion, and some have a lot of constraints on how they can finance. There’s quite a bit of variability what you’ll be paying for the same amount of water, even in one part of the county versus another—and there’s some really, really extreme water rates out there.
The other part of affordability that is coming more and more to light—especially in the last 10 years and even more during the pandemic—is not so much that the price of water is too high, but that low-income households still can’t pay it. There has to be affordability support because of the effect on the marginal aspect of folks’ budgets. If you don’t provide relief, and you let people fall into debt or shut them off, that is an affordability problem that’s being compounded into a health and livelihood problem.
Daniel Raimi: That really highlights the complexity of these topics and the many dimensions that are important here. We’re not going to be able to touch on all of them, but one of the things that stands out to me as you responded to that question is the amount of times that you had to say, “We don’t know.” It reminds me of conversations I’ve had with friends in the past who work a lot on water systems. I’m someone who works a lot on energy systems, and we have pretty good data on energy stuff. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty darn good. It just strikes me that, for folks working on water issues, this lack of data availability seems like a fundamental challenge. Does that strike you as being true?
Gregory Pierce: Absolutely. There are a couple of reasons for that. One of them is that we like to think that water’s special and there are 50,000 systems, and so it’s inherently difficult to collect data across those 50,000. But also at the federal level, we’ve taken off questions from US Census products and related surveys that used to be there that gave us a better picture on some of these attributes. Yes, we don’t have anything like we have in energy, housing, and transportation in terms of questions on the census or designated surveys at the federal or state level.
Also, everyone likes to say issues are understudied, but if you look back for studies on US water equity or water equity in Europe in the 1990s. or the 2000s. or even a decade ago, you will find very little. There’s a lot more attention now and a lot more people studying and working on this issue, but it has really been the last decade where attention on this has ramped up.
Daniel Raimi: It’s probably a factor that’s going to make it difficult for you to answer this next question, but I’m curious to find out. That question is whether we know whether these challenges of accessible and safe and affordable water in the United States have, in general, gotten better or worse over time? I’m sure there’s a lot of complexity to this question, but I’m hoping you can try to sum it up for us.
Gregory Pierce: It’s complex. If I was pushed on an overall answer to that, I would say that it has been getting better, but we think it’s been getting worse partly because of what we just talked about: there haven’t been a lot of studies, and we don’t have baseline data. We’re discovering places where there are shortcomings all the time, and also our data are getting better to track that.
But really, the answer would be that it depends on which dimension of the human right to water or water equity you’re looking at. If you look at accessibility, the data are pretty clear. If we’re talking about just folks who are connected to systems and have water running through pipes, we’ve actually reduced the percentage of folks who don’t have that by half since 1970. And we also have more folks who are connected into regulated systems and aren’t reliant on private wells and septic tanks than we had in the seventies.
That being said, I think the raw numbers are about the same. It’s difficult to move forward and see a huge decrease in those populations getting connected over time. On accessibility, we’re seeing new impacts we’ve never seen before on systems that used to be perfectly reliable due to climate change shocks. When it comes to affordability, it’s pretty clear that it’s getting worse. But again, that’s coming from water being too cheap historically; in some ways, even leaving aside climate change, the rise in the price of water is making up for lost time and underinvestment in water systems that was absolutely necessary. Your average middle-income, high-income or nonresidential customer has to be paying more for water than they have been historically.
That being said, our understanding of the issue of affordability has really risen, and the attention to the issues of debt and shutoffs has picked up in the last few years. I’m not sure that issue has been getting worse, but the salience of it has risen, and we’ve come around to the understanding that we need to be supporting affordability, even though it’s a relatively small part of most folks’ budgets, for low-income households in core urban areas.
Last but not least, with respect to quality or safety, this is where it’s been getting better. It’s certainly gotten better, although it’s not as easy to see as it is on the Clean Water Act side. It’s been getting better since the Safe Drinking Water Act passed. But the problem has expanded while we’ve kept the same baseline standard. We’ve gone from 26 contaminants being regulated when the Safe Drinking Water Act was enshrined, to 98 now. Our detection also is getting better around contamination, and reporting and compliance is getting expanded. We’re discussing adding new contaminants to the primary list that would probably increase the size of the problem by a third or maybe even a half, namely PFAS [perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances]. So, things have been getting better, but the perception is that they’ve been getting worse. A lot of the reason why is because of the way we measure things.
Daniel Raimi: Another big-picture question, which I recognize is unfair to ask, as many of these questions are. This next question is about some of the underlying causes of the challenges to accessibility and safety and affordability. Can you point us to what you consider some of the most important drivers of these challenges across the United States?
Gregory Pierce: The main three causes are in many cases overlapping and thus indistinguishable with precision. But the main three are poor planning, neglect, and then exclusion. But even the line between those three phenomena, unless you’re talking about a place like Flint, isn’t always clear.
I would start with the biggest problem: simple poor planning. I say that as someone who’s in an academic planning department. But again, we allowed and in many ways encouraged the formation of small water systems. If we had just a bit of foresight, we would’ve seen these are unsustainable and are increasingly becoming unsustainable due to climate change. Even leaving that aside, in many cases, since they’re relying on groundwater and over-extraction of groundwater, they weren’t going to last very long.
Then there are a lot of cases of implicit exclusion or neglect, including a lot of core urban areas where we haven’t excluded low-income communities of color from infrastructure, but we’ve underinvested in them serially over time, including Flint—although again, things went far beyond that in Flint—and Jackson, Mississippi; and a lot of large, core urban areas in the Northeast, Southeast, and Midwest.
We come to plenty of cases—although most of them are relatively small and hard to see until you start studying them—of overt exclusion, particularly of communities of color on the margins of large systems, particularly in peri-urban or exurban areas where small communities don’t get grafted into large systems either at the outset or when systems expand over time.
But there’s also a large phenomenon that’s not just related to race, but it’s related to class, where, particularly, we see types of housing developments that aren’t viewed as desirable: for instance, mobile home parks that aren’t connected into larger water systems. Even though they’re sometimes within the boundaries of larger water systems or right next to larger water systems, cities or water systems don’t want to include them. You also see the overlap between class and race with farmworker communities and other types of small communities or dwellings.
Last but not least, in terms of major causes, there is a sizable portion of folks who don’t have safe, accessible, affordable water due to self-selection. They want to live off the grid—particularly and typically rural, majority-white communities that don’t want to be included in public infrastructure and to interact with the government. They have really poor water as a consequence. Some of them now are looking to be grafted in as they see the impacts of climate change shocks. But, in some cases, there’s still resistance, and that’s a particularly tough issue to tackle.
Daniel Raimi: So much nuance is encapsulated into each of those issues, and we’re so grateful for you to coming on the show and giving us these high-level insights.
Another high-level question is whether we have a good understanding of the scale of investment that’s needed to address some of these challenges that we’re talking about today, when it comes to expanding access and affordability to clean water. There have been investments in water systems in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) that I think were pretty substantial, but my suspicion is that they’re far from sufficient to meet the scale of the problem. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Gregory Pierce: I’m contractually obligated to agree with you as a representative of the water industry. But you can see some striking graphs of the level of federal investment in water systems compared to energy and transportation systems since the 1970s. It’s basically fallen off a cliff, and local water systems are locally financed—I think it’s around 90 percent. There are the “state-revolving funds” that have been operated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and then are delegated to the state level and every state over time. A lot of the IIJA money is routing through those.
To the overall question: We have some good estimates, and new estimates came out very recently that give us a better picture and understanding of the scale of the investment. When you’re talking about accessibility in those 2.2 million people who aren’t connected into any system—primarily on Tribal lands and federally designated colonias along the US-Mexico border and interstitially within core urban areas.
A recent estimate says it would cost $50 billion to connect all those folks, but also that the benefits would be about four times that. We don’t have a good estimate of the cost of grafting in even a substantial portion of those reliant on private wells and may have underperforming or inadequate levels of access. We don’t know where all the private wells in the country are with any level of precision, so I don’t have an answer there.
But when it comes to getting all the 50,000 regulated systems up to compliance on the safety dimension of the human right to water, we do have good estimates that land somewhere between $50–$100 billion in present-day terms. $50 billion would be an estimate that’s focused on the endemically violating or substandard systems, whereas $100 billion would be tackling every system that’s out of compliance on an occasional basis. That $100 billion number is coming from an EPA effort; it’s a topping-up of the last time the EPA did an assessment on this matter, which was five years ago. They’re currently updating it right now. The estimate in 2016 was $83 billion, and when they come out with the new estimate, I imagine it’ll be closer to $100 billion or above.
That being said—and I do want to mention this again—if we add in some of the contaminants that the EPA recently announced to the primary list that every system is obligated to treat out, namely PFAS, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re increasing that amount by 50–100 percent.
Daniel Raimi: Something to keep an eye on that could substantially add to those costs.
A couple more questions, Greg. One more big-picture question, then maybe a small-picture one. When you think about the tools available to address these challenges, you mentioned how most of the funding for these systems comes from local sources—primarily in the form of property taxes, I’m guessing. What are some of the most important policy options that can help to deal with this, and what level of government do you see that coming from in a perfect world? Is it coming from the federal government? Is it coming from states? Is it coming from reform of local property tax systems, or is it all of the above?
Gregory Pierce: The primary financing at the local level is directly through rates. Property tax gets involved, but it’s user fees, rates, and charges that constitute the bulk of the local financing. When it comes to important policy reforms, all the action currently is at the state and local level. The federal government has backed off in many ways. It’s certainly still the regulatory body, but it hasn’t invested a lot until very recently in local water systems. From my own view, we would need to put in another decade of concerted effort, support, and funding—to take a heavier hand on policy—though, in the current administration, things have changed, and it’s playing a helpful role now. But most of the reforms are delegated to states. They have primacy over them, as it were, with one exception. It’s really all at the state and local level.
The first one that everyone’s talking about is the physical consolidation, or grafting in, of small, underperforming systems that aren’t providing safe, accessible, affordable water, as well as private wells into larger systems that are high performing. States do fund these types of efforts. They will require funding; mandating them doesn’t do much and in many cases isn’t legal. But the physical consolidation is not a panacea, and estimates based on work we recently did in California, for instance, indicate that you could only feasibly physically consolidate about 50 percent of the systems that are poorly performing.
Beyond that, I would mention what’s variously called “managerial consolidation,” or “shared management models,” which are ways to get to economies of scale that don’t involve physically integrating infrastructure. There are a variety of players that have a role: investor-owned utilities have a role there; I’d like to see publicly-owned systems, which provide 80 percent of the water in the United States, get more involved, although they currently don’t have the incentives.
But you also need small-scale operators—new entrants into the field—and there is some opportunity for technological or pure engineering innovations, although that is relatively limited compared to what you see in energy and transportation, much less telecommunications.
The third intervention or policy reform requires states to loosen the standards or broaden them is the inverse of physical consolidation or the traditional way of building a treatment plant, even for a very large system. That’s allowing and helping individual homeowners put in point-of-use or point-of-entry, end-of-the-tap filters, rather than thinking about a centralized solution, purely due to cost. This is very common and the preferred or only solution for unsafe water in many low- and middle-income-country contexts. But in the United States, it hasn’t been deployed broadly, partly due to issues of perception, but also because of government hesitance around public health.
Given the counterfactual (many small, rural communities don’t have another option and are buying bottled or hauled water for their drinking needs), we need to think more liberally, and governments are thinking more liberally. We need to see those deployed over time.
The last thing I’d mention, which is a little wonky, is the need for different types and a better quality of technical assistance to help small systems, which in many cases are one- or two-person operations, apply for funding that exists. Right now we have a big problem, especially with IIJA: there’s a lot of funding that needs to get out the door quickly, but there aren’t enough systems who are able or have the capacity to apply and fill out the paperwork to get that funding.
We also need new types of technical assistance: folks who form social businesses to help small systems operate over time without the profit margins they may have been used to in the past, as well as actual evaluation of the effectiveness of technical assistance and the effectiveness of the state-revolving funds on the drinking water side, which has not happened. This is in contrast to, for instance, plenty of evaluations of the effectiveness of investments on the Clean Water Act side, including, I believe, from some folks at Resources for the Future (RFF).
Daniel Raimi: That dovetails with some of the things that I’ve been seeing on the energy side of things, when it comes to local government capacity and the ability to access those funds from IIJA.
Great ideas there. Greg, I would love to talk to you more about so many questions, but we’re about out of time, so I want to move us to our last question, which is the Top of the Stack segment, where we ask you to recommend something that you’ve read or watched or heard that’s related to the environment (or maybe not) that you think is great and our listeners would enjoy. So, Greg, what’s at the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack?
Gregory Pierce: I have two books at the top of my literal stack. The first is Waste by Catherine Coleman Flowers, which is an autobiographical but nonfictional account of her first growing up and then doing advocacy around wastewater equity or sanitation inequities, particularly in Alabama, but more broadly in the southeastern United States. Recognition of sanitation inequities is becoming better understood in the United States, and I think there’s going to be momentum around trying to work on that. It’s a great, intuitive primer to those issues and the impacts they have on folks who don’t have sanitation access.
Then another book—I’m not sure if I’d recommend it. I like it, but it’s grim. It’s called The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, which is a dystopian account looking at (I’m not sure how long from now) management of the Colorado River and the extreme aridification of the Southwest and the extreme lack of water supply. When I first picked up the book a few months ago—I’m working through it slowly—I thought so much of it was ridiculous, and I still think a lot of it is far fetched; but it does strike a chord when you look at the issues we’re dealing with in the Southwest, particularly the situation around the Colorado River.
Daniel Raimi: Fascinating book topics, and I’m sure that many of our listeners will be super interested in both of those suggestions.
I want to say thank you one more time, Greg, for coming on the show and answering these ginormous questions, many of which were too broad to try to answer in such a short period of time. But I think you’ve done a great job introducing us to many of these topics, and hopefully we’ll be able to dig deeper on them in the weeks to come.
One more time: thank you, Greg Pierce from the Luskin Center for Innovation at UCLA. We really appreciate you coming on the show.
Gregory Pierce: Thanks again for having me.
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