OPINION: We Can’t Build Back Better Without Water

Apr 20, 2021
2:49 PM

(Photo by Brocken Inaglory/CC BY-SA 3.0)

By Dolores Huerta and Jonathan Nelson

From our perspective in rural California, there is a lot to like about President Biden’s infrastructure plan, which aims to “ensure clean, safe drinking water is a right in all communities.” The plan acknowledges the decades of disinvestment that have left millions of Americans drinking polluted water, while paying dearly for it.

But the president’s proposal is missing one essential element needed to deliver on the human right to water: water affordability.  In addition to living with toxic taps, millions of families living in predominantly Black and Brown communities are facing water shutoffs because of crushing levels of utility debt. If we want to stop the spread of COVID-19 and keep families healthy, we must make sure water service is affordable for all.

We live in a country scarred by separate and unequal access to safe and affordable drinking water. It’s a direct legacy of racial injustice, redlining and disinvestment in communities of color.

The pandemic has only exacerbated the divide between those with safe water and those without. In California alone, families are carrying $1 billion in water debt. The places with the highest COVID-19 and unemployment rates, like Los Angeles and San Joaquin counties, are where the most families are falling behind on their bills. Farmworkers, healthcare workers, those in the service industry, and many more are risking their health to keep their families fed and the rest of us safe, yet when they turn on the taps, they fear nothing may come out.

recent study by researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research and Duke University concluded that a national utility shutoff moratorium enacted in March 2020 would have reduced COVID cases by 8.7% and deaths by 14.8%.

If there were any doubts before, they should be long gone now.  Access to water is about public health, and it is equally about racial justice and equity.

In the coming months, Congress will consider trillions in infrastructure spending. Drinking water must be a centerpiece of any plan to build this nation back better.

We believe that water can be an engine of equitable economic growth, so long as investments are focused on urban and rural communities of color whose basic needs have long been overlooked and underfunded.

Biden’s plan recognizes the need to invest in these communities, including in drinking and wastewater infrastructure, but it is missing key provisions to ensure the water running through our upgraded pipes and treatment plants is affordable for all families.

No family should have their water shut off due to the inability to pay as a result of the pandemic. Maintaining access to water for all families isn’t optional for an equitable recovery; it’s a prerequisite. If this statement isn’t self-evident, try going without running water for a week.

We need a national moratorium on water shutoffs, along with a long-term commitment of relief to families that struggled to pay water bills before the pandemic and now face hundreds or thousands of dollars in water debt.

Unlike with other basic utilities like energy and even cell phones, there is no ongoing national affordability program for families that need assistance paying their water bills.

This is a priority with bipartisan support. A March poll of registered voters found that 81% support federal assistance to families struggling with their water bills.

A long-term water affordability program was necessary before the pandemic and has only become more important since then. Environmental justice communities face a long road to an equitable recovery, even as we contend with an ongoing reality of the virus. We appreciate the one-time water debt relief already provided by Congress, but it is unfortunately only a drop in the bucket.

Going forward we must expand and maintain access for all to our most basic form of personal protective equipment—water. To do so means recognizing the importance of ongoing water affordability, and then taking action. Not later, now.

We urge Congress and the Biden Administration: to build back better and more equitably, include a long-term water affordability program as part of the final infrastructure bill.


Dolores Huerta is a national leader on civil and workers’ rights and is the co-founder, with Cesar Chavez, of the National Farm Workers Association.

Jonathan Nelson is the Policy Director for the Community Water Center, an environmental justice community-based organization that works to ensure all Californians have access to safe, clean and affordable drinking water.