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Advocates Call On Presidential Candidates To Prioritize Water Policy

Kate Payne/IPR
Aurora Harris with We The People of Detroit, at one of the organization's water stations. Residents whose water has been shut off can pick up cases of bottled water.

A coalition of environmental groups wants presidential candidates to treat drinking water as a top policy priority, and is asking them to build out their positions on how to ensure access to safe and affordable water for all Americans. But some politicos are skeptical the issue can compete for voters' attention at a time when much of the conversation is focusing on universal health care, the economy and climate change.

Across the U.S., residents are struggling to access safe drinking water. Lead pipes in homes and schools are largely unregulated and pose a silent threat. Nitrate runoff from agricultural lands and faulty septic systems is leaching into public water systems and private wells, for which there is largely no government oversight. Toxic chemicals known as PFAS are increasingly showing up in private wells and public faucets around the country, due to their use in fire-fighting foams and their seemingly ubiquitous presence in a slate of consumer goods from rain jackets and dental floss to shoes, carpeting and non-stick pans.

All the while, ratepayers are being squeezed by higher bills or facing outright water cut-offs, as utilities and municipalities shoulder the growing costs of cleaning up contaminated water and maintaining aging infrastructure.

These issues, from lead to nitrate to PFAS to water affordability, are at play in Iowa. And other key states on the electoral map are facing their own water crises, including Michigan, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

But so far in the early stages of the presidential primary, concerns around drinking water have not gotten the headlines that other issues have. According to a recent poll of early voting states by CBS News and YouGov, 88 percent of Democratic voters viewed health care as very important, 78 percent viewed climate change as very important, and 71 percent viewed income inequality as very important.

Chris Larimer, a political scientist at the University of Northern Iowa, suspects many voters take drinking water for granted if they haven’t directly experienced a crisis.

“If it’s not a crisis in their community, it’s not going to be a…top of their mind issue, whereas things like healthcare, immigration, gun control, that have always been there, and the economy, those are always the things people are thinking about,” Larimer said.

“If you would talk to people in Flint, Michigan you would see very different responses,” he added.

Despite the threats to an essential resource, Laura Rubin with the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition says presidential candidates aren’t giving drinking water its due.

“While much of the presidential conversations focus on job creation and healthcare, which are vital issues, the fact is, that for the families who don’t have access to clean drinking water, all else is secondary,” Rubin said.

Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition represents some 150 community groups across the Great Lakes region. Rubin says something as fundamental as access to clean water should be the defining issue of the presidential primary process.

“There is not a single issue in this election that is more important than the fact that in 2019, in the United States of America, there are millions of people who do not have access to clean, safe and affordable water for themselves, their families and their children,” Rubin said.

"There is not a single issue in this election that is more important than the fact that in 2019, in the United States of America, there are millions of people who do not have access to clean, safe and affordable water." - Laura Rubin, Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition

Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, with support from Freshwater Future, Ducks Unlimited, the Alliance for the Great Lakes and We The People of Detroit, has put out a policy platform calling on presidential candidates to expand and enhance federal enforcement of water protection laws and increase funding for water infrastructure projects.

As many presidential hopefuls gather in Detroit later this month for the second round of Democratic debates, advocates are hopeful they’ll use the state of Michigan as a backdrop to address a slate of water issues. The state is still grappling with the aftermath of Flint’s lead crisis, increasingly unaffordable bills that are forcing some to go months without running water in their homes, and an ever-expanding map of PFAS contamination that is poisoning wells, rivers and trout streams.

The upcoming debates hosted by CNN are scheduled for July 30th and 31st.

Monica Lewis-Patrick leads the group We The People of Detroit, which coordinates a water crisis hotline and administers water stations around the city, where residents without running water can receive bottled water and fill up jugs to carry home.

“We are experiencing a water infrastructure crisis that is putting our people and our families and our communities at risk,” Lewis-Patrick said. “In some communities water bills have doubled and even tripled, often for people who are low income and have the least ability to afford it. This has led to water shutoffs. This has led to health risks for children.”

Meanwhile, some are skeptical the current presidential candidates could reform the existing framework of environmental law in the U.S.

Oday Salim directs the Environmental Law and Sustainability Clinic at the University of Michigan. He says the current legal reality effectively puts the burden of proof on the public to demonstrate a substance is harmful to the environment, not on companies to prove that it's not. 

"I look at our current presidential candidates and if Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are the most radical people that we have I don’t hold a lot of hope that we’re going to radically alter these frameworks," Salim said. "I think it’s going to take more than them to do it."

Reporting for this story was supported in part by a fellowship with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter