US failing to account for full extent of drinking water concerns in vulnerable communities

By Carey Gillam

US environmental regulators are failing to adequately account for how extensively vulnerable communities are exposed to contaminated drinking water, a new study has determined.

From 2018-2020, one in ten people in the United States were exposed to water quality violations that could impact their health, the study found. And roughly 70% of those affected are considered “socially vulnerable” under a range of factors that include race, language, disability, and housing vacancy rates.

The exposure risk was particularly noteworthy for Hispanic populations throughout the southwest and southcentral US. And when looking at people living on tribal lands, the numbers were more alarming: three in ten people were exposed to health-based water quality violations, the researchers found.

Overall, the number of people exposed to drinking water violations is more than three times greater than the number of people identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), according to the analysis. The authors note that current federal environmental justice tools leave out other factors important for identifying inequities in water quality.

“The current White House and EPA [environmental justice] tools do not seem to be appropriate for drinking water,” said lead author Bridget Scanlon, senior research scientist with the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas.

The findings add to evidence that broad swaths of the population are struggling to access clean drinking water, and they come at a critical time, as the Biden Administration and US states are deploying funds aimed at addressing drinking water access and quality around the country.

The EPA has pledged $50.4 million in funding for states to improve drinking water infrastructure for small, underserved, and disadvantaged communities. More broadly, the White House has earmarked more than $50 billion to improve US water infrastructure.

By not fully accounting for the people impacted by water quality violations, the program is in danger of falling short, the authors of the new paper warn.