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Divided by poverty and prosperity, millions of Americans continue fight for clean water

2 million people in U.S. are without running water, researchers say.
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Posted at 10:39 AM, Feb 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-07 10:39:49-05

TOOLEVILLE, Calif. — While most households don't think twice about flushing their toilets or turning on the faucet, thousands wake up every day without these modern conveniences.

The hidden divide drains communities of far more than the precious resource.

"You know, we've been like this for so long you get used to it. I have my gallon back there on the stove, next to it. I use it right there, for cooking," said Maria Olivera of Tooleville, California.

Located in the Central Valley, the unincorporated town is made up of two streets.

"Tooleville, majority Hispanic. A lot of them farmworker families, low income and have been here for decades," said Blanca Escobedo, a regional policy manager for the Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability (LCJA).

Olivera moved to Tooleville in 1974.

"It's out in the country; everybody knows each other," said Olivera. "It's relaxing."

Surrounded by endless miles of lush farmland, the Central Valley grows a quarter of the nation's food.

But the region is a patchwork of prosperity and poverty.

About two decades ago, neighbors learned the drinking water was contaminated by nitrates and bacteria linked to fertilizer.

In recent years, samples have also detected the cancer-causing chemical hexavalent chromium.

The state delivers bottled water for drinking and cooking, but homeowners rely on the toxic tap water for most everything else.

"You think about drinking water, which is really key for everyone's survival and for health, but it's more than that. It's also your water for bathing, cooking, washing dishes, cleaning your home, doing laundry – it makes things really difficult," said Zoë Roller, a water equity fellow for the US Water Alliance.

Less than a mile away in the City of Exeter, clean water flows from the tap.

Tooleville residents have been fighting for years to connect their water to the nearby municipality.

But the city has long pushed back, citing cost and maintaining its own aging infrastructure, turning down state incentives to share its water.

Roller says these divides exist throughout America.

"We wanted to highlight the fact that there are a lot of communities in America where people are living without running water and indoor plumbing," said Roller.

"And that this is a crisis that has flown under the radar for a long time and that it disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income people."

The US Water Alliance helped unmask the crisis in a 2019 report: Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States.

"It was the most comprehensive research that had been done to date on access to water in the US," said Roller.

"For many of these communities living without water access today, they were affected by discriminatory practices in how infrastructure was developed in the past."

The report explains how America's most vulnerable communities were left out of historic water infrastructure investments, including tribal communities, low-income people in rural areas, immigrants, and people of color.

Researchers found more than two million people in the U.S. lack access to running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater services.

"Because of these historical patterns, of where infrastructure was invested in and developed, these communities have a harder time accessing quality infrastructure," said Roller.

The analysis is based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and on-the-ground qualitative research on six regions facing water and sanitation access challenges: California's Central Valley, the Navajo Nation, the Texas colonias, rural areas in the South, Appalachia, and Puerto Rico.

"It can make life really difficult," said Roller.

"We heard from a lot of people that their kids can't play outside because they don't know if there would be dangerous standing water in the yard."

On the Navajo Nation in the Southwest, families drive for hours to haul barrels of water to meet their basic needs.

But they also noted the resilience among research participants, highlighting several organizations working to ensure people have access to water.

In Appalachia, local food banks are using atmospheric water generation technology to get drinking water to those who need it.

In California, local organizations are successfully advocating for transformative policy and funding changes.

"We're a country with a lot of resources and a lot of technology," said Roller.

"We do have the ability to close that water access gap within our lifetimes."

She says the newly-signed infrastructure bill includes more than $55 billion for water infrastructure, funding many say is long overdue.

"There is still a really significant gap in our water investment, but it's a very promising move towards more of a federal role in funding water infrastructure," said Roller.

In California, a new law is putting more pressure on cities to connect their water to places like Tooleville, renewing hope for residents.

"I just hope they connect us," said Olivera. "We're going to keep working hard, so the city connects us."