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Will America's Have Nots Soon Lack Safe Water?

David Callahan

Most Americans are clueless about just how much government makes their lives bearable. When they think of government, they often think about high-profile programs like the Affordable Care Act -- as opposed, say, to how water comes out when they turn the faucet on. In fact, waterworks may be the single best example of a public good that people take totally for granted. 

But that's starting to change, as America's infrastructure crumbles and clean water stops running in more places. Which poses this question: As water supplies become less reliable, will government be given the resources to fix this problem? Or will something as basic as access to water become another fault line in this new age of inequality?
First, some background. Water systems are crumbling fast in the U.S., along with the rest of the nation's infrastructure. I saw this in my own neighborhood last year when there were two water main breaks over a few months. That turns out to be a common event, with the U.S. experiencing about 240,000 water main breaks a year. Just keeping water systems in working order will cost $1 trillion over the next 20 years, according to American Water Works Association estimates.
And what happens if we don't spend that money? We start to get more episodes like the one in Boston in 2010, where a water break led to an order to boil water, which affected two million people. 
Frankly, that's embarrassing. Boiling water to drink is the kind of thing you associate with developing countries, not with the largest GDP in the world. But, of course, so little of this nation's wealth goes to infrastructure, and that share has dropped over the decades amid the rising war on government. The New York Times reported last week that the United States now ranks 34th place globally for access to safe water and sanitation. 
Americans may think of welfare when they think how much they hate government; but the ideologues they send to Washington have an agenda for downsizing every part of the public sector. So it is that Congress hasn't passed a big water bill since 2007, even though historically it passed such legislation every two years. The gridlock in Washington caused by conservative extremism is now actually forcing Americans to boil their water like people do in the slums of Mumbai. 
How far will this go? I have no idea. Because many infrastructure costs are borne locally, we'll probably see poorer U.S. cities and counties struggling more to keep clean water flowing in the absence of strong Washington leadership. So, yes, safe water could become a new indicator of whether you belong to the haves or have nots. 
Just like how it used to be. Remember that access to indoor plumbing, as a national norm, is only about 60 or 70 years old. In some parts of rural America, that norm is less than 40 years old. Once upon a time, the view about Americans who were forced to use wells and outhouses was that this was their own problem. Now it seems we're heading back in that direction.