Record Investment Merely Scratches the Surface of Fixing Black America’s Water Crisis

This story was originally published by Capital B. Please sign up for Capital B’s newsletter, which comes out each week, to follow similar stories.

Gwendolyn Reed-Davis recalls living without running water during the holiday season last year, merely months after a water crisis left Jackson, Mississippi, residents struggling to bathe, cook, and flush their toilets. 

The mother of 12 says the city’s years-long struggle has harmed public health and threatened the development of a whole generation of children. 

Since December, Congress has earmarked $600 million to fix the city’s century-old water infrastructure, and the U.S. Department of Justice appointed longtime sanitation manager Ted Henifin as the third-party manager of the city’s water system. However, Reed-Davis says she hasn’t seen any progress made in her south Jackson neighborhood, especially compared to improvements she’s seen made in more affluent neighborhoods.

Poor and Black communities may be among the last to reap the benefits of the federal government’s record investment in repairing the nation’s aging water infrastructure.

The Biden-Harris administration has earmarked more than $50 billion to replace lead pipes, build new water treatment plants, and regulate the industries contaminating waterways nationwide — but the expenditures are only a fraction of what’s needed. A 2018 federal report found that more than $470 billion is needed to maintain and improve the nation’s drinking water infrastructure over the next 20 years.

“It is not by circumstance or coincidence that these instances of pollution and injustices are concentrated in historic and current majority Black communities,” says LaTricea Adams, the founder of Black Millennials 4 Flint and recent appointee to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. “The intersection of racism, classism, self-hatred, and anti-blackness perpetuates these issues.” 

The water from this Memphis concrete company was not tested for three years. The Environmental Protection Agency describes the water produced by concrete companies as a corrosive, dense liquid containing toxic metals. Credit: Adam Mahoney/Capital B

The water from this Memphis concrete company was not tested for three years. The Environmental Protection Agency describes the water produced by concrete companies as a corrosive, dense liquid containing toxic metals. Credit: Adam Mahoney/Capital B

Across the U.S., struggles around accessing affordable and clean water have worsened since the Flint water crisis made national headlines in 2014. And there’s no one-size-fits all approach, as cities face specific problems.

In urban areas, it is often a question of outdated infrastructure, such as the health-altering concentration of lead pipes. In many rural communities, however, the infrastructure sometimes was never there in the first place. 

In rural and urban communities alike, the crisis is undergirded by an economic system that has made water bills and infrastructure exponentially more expensive over the last half-century; all while Black Americans’ trust in the water running through their homes has increasingly faltered. 

Regardless of why a community may not have access to water, it’s a deliberate decision being made by those in power, Adams says.

“It speaks volumes to who is valued and who isn’t. And that’s just the bottom line,” says Adams, who has worked to pass state and federal legislation limiting water contamination across the country. 

In March, Capital B traveled across four Southern states to explore how this lack of “value” invested in communities has disrupted daily life for Black Americans and the myriad ways residents continue to endure the worsening water crisis. Reporting from six cities highlighted that while the issue is widespread, blanket solutions fail to address communities’ distinct issues and the various ways water issues have impacted Black life.

Mapping the Crisis

Although Reed-Davis has running water now, the water isn’t always clear. Often, she, along with her children, must visit family members to wash clothes and bathe. Most times, though, she buys jugs of water to cook, clean, and wash, a costly practice she’s used for decades while living in Jackson.

Reed-Davis attributes her school-age children’s learning problems and her kidney infection to decades of exposure to the city’s contaminated water. Dozens of studies have shown that lead exposure leads to cognitive impairment for life, even decades after initial exposure. And the biggest factor for lead poisoning in America is race, namely being Black, even more so than poverty.

“All my kids are smart, but I got kids, they suffer from ADHD, which is common amongst the kids in the JPS [Jackson Public Schools] school system. They got serious issues paying attention, listening, being able to understand, even with me being able to teach them things at home,” Reed-Davis said. 

“I still think it has to do with the water system.”

A 50-year Decline 

In rural communities across the country, public policy and communication gaps between federal, state, and local governments have not just maintained residents’ lack of access to clean water, they have helped worsen economic conditions and widened the country’s racial wealth gap

In cities like Opelousas, Louisiana, little has been done to accelerate the modernization of the city’s water infrastructure despite regular assurances. The area’s ailing water plant hasn’t seen upgrades since 1997 as the city of 16,000 has been slow to connect hundreds of homes to municipal water lines. Some residents in the city, where 40% of people live in poverty, must decide between being waterless or spending thousands of dollars annually to run individual water systems. 

But it’s not all the city’s fault. Typically, federal taxes fund bridges, roads, and subways, but the same is not true for water infrastructure. With over 50,000 local water systems operating in the U.S., a sprawling and highly unequal distribution system has followed.

Since the mid-1970s, the federal government’s share of water spending has declined by nearly 85%, forcing local governments to foot an ever-increasing bill. The decline in federal funding was accelerated by a 1987 law, which switched federal support for water projects from a grant system to loans. Local municipalities became responsible for the majority of project costs because they were ultimately expected to repay the loans. 

In the aftermath, local governments have spent more on maintaining existing water infrastructure rather than carrying out important upgrades — especially in Black communities, where studies have shown that states are less likely to spend money from the loan program. 

Even with the federal government’s record investment in improving infrastructure, federal guidelines still may stifle progress. Funding made available through Biden’s infrastructure spending package and the Inflation Reduction Act requires the funds to be allocated to specific projects within the next decade. But many cities, including Opelousas, are not equipped with the workers needed to handle an immediate increase in infrastructure projects, nor do most local governments have the resources to have employees dedicated to regularly draft applications for funding.

Opelousas’ water system is one of 64 — out of 954 statewide — that received an “F” grade from Louisiana’s Department of Health for water issues in 2022. The city’s water plant has required updates since 1997. Credit: Adam Mahoney and Alexandra Watts/Capital B

Opelousas’ water system is one of 64 — out of 954 statewide — that received an “F” grade from Louisiana’s Department of Health for water issues in 2022. The city’s water plant has required updates since 1997. Credit: Adam Mahoney and Alexandra Watts/Capital B

As small utilities lack the capacity to manage water infrastructure improvements, they often depend on dubious practices that place the financial burden on the most vulnerable. 

Since 2000, water bills nationwide have risen on average twice the inflation rate. But it’s not just a rise in bills: In Opelousas, residents say that instead of relying on federal funding, local leaders have attempted to recoup funds through a predatory practice of closing delinquent water accounts, oftentimes within just two weeks of a missed payment. Then residents are forced to pay exorbitant fees to get often-brown water trickling out their faucets again. Similar techniques have been seen nationwide, including in Jackson, Mississippi. 

'If you don't pay in two weeks, that's a wrap'

Between 2018 and 2022, the city turned off the water in 1,075 homes, but they reconnected water accounts nearly 14,000 times over that same period — meaning many families were paying fees to reconnect their water every few months. On average, delinquent account holders were only $38 in debt when their accounts were initially disconnected, but then had to pay another $40 on average to reconnect their water on top of their debts. In all, the city collected more than half a million dollars in reconnection fees, including $164,000 in 2020. 

City officials did not respond to Capital B’s request for comment. 

The Next Flint? 

Climate change has been called the “great equalizer,” but centuries of unequal policies have made its force anything but equal. 

Memphis, Tennessee, had been known for having “the sweetest water in the world,” a product of its reliance on clean groundwater lying deep beneath the surface. The majority-Black city is the largest in the country to 100% rely on groundwater for drinking water. But climate change, which has led to dramatic increases and decreases in groundwater levels across the country, has helped make the city a hotbed for water contamination and now-regular water boil notices. 

Every day, tons of highly toxic coal ash gets trucked through residential neighborhoods in South Memphis, Tennessee, before being dumped in this landfill. Credit: Adam Mahoney/ Capital B

Every day, tons of highly toxic coal ash gets trucked through residential neighborhoods in South Memphis, Tennessee, before being dumped in this landfill. Credit: Adam Mahoney/ Capital B

The fluctuation has threatened the spread of contamination, namely from a recently shuttered coal plant that had allowed highly toxic coal ash to seep into the soil and, thus, the groundwater for years.

With climate change impacting water levels and increasing the regularity of flooding, the city’s aging infrastructure, particularly the tens of thousands of lead pipes running throughout the region, has become overburdened. 

In 2021, severe weather led to the city’s first-ever water boil notice. As old pipes froze and water pressure weakened, the risk of bacterial contamination skyrocketed. 

“We’re not taking our vulnerability to no longer accessing clean and affordable water seriously,” said Pearl Walker, a Memphis resident. 

“We see what happened in Flint and Jackson on the internet, and we feel some kind of way about it. ‘That’s awful. Why are they doing them like that, and why is that always happening to Black people?’”

“Well, that can happen here overnight, too.”

Charles Chambers, a lifelong Memphis resident, doesn’t fear the threat of water contamination. Credit: Alexandra Watts and Adam Mahoney/Capital B

Charles Chambers, a lifelong Memphis resident, doesn’t fear the threat of water contamination. Credit: Alexandra Watts and Adam Mahoney/Capital B

In the two years since, the city has experienced three other water shut-offs and boil notices because of weather events. The notices underscored a budding crisis across the city, including discriminatory water testing practices.  A poor Black neighborhood in South Memphis went without water quality testing for three years — and some of the residents interviewed by Capital B were unaware of this occurrence. 

Severe weather conditions will require more targeted infrastructure improvements and public education about water quality issues, as evidenced by Memphis. While the Biden administration has made money available for projects that will improve the situation, namely infrastructure needed for aquifer storage and infiltration, the infrastructure fixes only go so far without planning for the climate acts themselves, including emergency response plans that allow residents to understand the risks of water scarcity and contamination during disasters and the ways to combat them. 

A Century of Pollution 

As Memphis confronts the fallout of recent industrial pollution of its water source, cities in oil country have been doing so for a century. More than 60% of the country’s largest oil and chemical plants are in Texas and Louisiana, and for generations they’ve dumped cancer-causing chemicals directly into drinking water sources. 

The reality broadens the country’s water crisis beyond one determined by failing infrastructure. Even in cities with more updated infrastructure, like Lake Charles, Louisiana, which has opened two new water plants in the last decade, struggles persist. Dozens of chemical plants have dumped toxins into the region’s drinking water source for decades as Black neighborhoods have been wiped off the map by sickness and death. 

The same can be said for dozens of neighborhoods in Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch of cities between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and in similar Black industrial communities in Southeast Texas, where in addition to chemicals, feces is sometimes found in drinking water.

The federal government has recently attempted to mitigate some industrial pollution through regulation, but many contaminants can sit in water sources for years. In March, the administration released the first-ever plan to reduce the amount of “forever chemicals,” a set of chemicals that do not break down over time, found in water supplies across the nation. Still, just a month later, the federal government was sued by a group of environmental groups for its failure to address other sources of water pollution from oil refineries and chemical plants. 

Chemical plants have dumped toxins into Texas and Louisiana’s waterways for decades as Black neighborhoods have been wiped off the map. Credit: Adam Mahoney/Capital B

Chemical plants have dumped toxins into Texas and Louisiana’s waterways for decades as Black neighborhoods have been wiped off the map. Credit: Adam Mahoney/Capital B

The shift away from polluting industries has been made more difficult by their sheer economic power. With cities typically dependent on their own money to operate water infrastructure, much of the maintenance has been funded by taxes from these same companies. In 2022, Lake Charles-based industrial companies paid more than $80 million in property taxes, a massive boost to a city that makes around $200 million in annual revenue

So the distrust remains, even with purported fixes to the ongoing pollution. 

“They done ‘fixed’ the water, so we can drink the water,” said Herbert Rigmaiden, an 88-year-old resident of the Lake Charles area, recounting at least four times the EPA conducted tests for contamination around his home. 

“Then we go get the water and drink it. And we end up with cancer.” 

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