Why Fixing the Nation’s Water Crisis and Combating a Pandemic are Linked

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Fighting the COVID-19 pandemic requires access to safe, clean water. While some Americans decry their "loss of freedom" by being told to wear a mask in public spaces, others don't have the freedom to wash their hands with clean water.

Water is necessary for life. Up to 60 percent of the adult human body is water. Water regulates our body temperature and metabolizes and transports carbohydrates and protein in the bloodstream. Water is also necessary to wash our hands, particularly during a pandemic.

Some people in the U.S. lack either access to water or access to clean water. More than two million Americans lack running water and indoor plumbing, according to a report by Dig Deep and U.S. Water Alliance. People of color are disproportionately affected. Native Americans are 19 times more likely than whites to lack indoor plumbing. African American and Latinx households are nearly twice as likely to lack indoor plumbing.

American Rivers and River Network point out that households lacking access to water are at a higher health risk. Some households of the Navajo Nation in the Southwest drive for hours to get barrels of water. A total of 30 percent of the Navajo Nation lacks running water. At Dilkon in Navajo Nation, 90 percent of the residents lack running water. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the U.S. By the end of spring, the infection rate was higher than any state, and the death rate per capita is still higher than any of the 50 states. Although infection rates by the end of August started to go down, the Navajo Nation instituted a lockdown from August 29 to 31, with a curfew from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Water contamination in California’s Tulare County

The San Joaquin Valley in California has the highest rates of drinking water contamination and the highest amount of public water systems with maximum contaminant level violations in the state. Tulare County in the Valley has long had water problems. The most recent contamination occurred in the city of Tulare, where local government buildings received a boil-water notice after a test of county wells found coliform bacteria. The county has had problems with those wells in the past.

In late May, the Tulare county town of Earlimart lost water service. The Fresno Bee reported that after restoring water service, the town’s main source of water became a well contaminated with a pesticide banned in the 1980s called 123-trichloropropane. Recognized by the state of California as a human carcinogen, the pesticide was used as a fumigant across the San Joaquin Valley.

EWG looked at water contamination in the city of Tulare, which has a population of 60,823. The organization found 24 contaminants, with eight exceeding EWG’s health guidelines. Nitrate is one of the eight contaminants, and it is one of the most prevalent groundwater contaminants in the Valley. Produced for use in fertilizers, its heavy use in Valley agriculture means nitrate winds up in public-supply wells. Nitrate in the levels found in the Valley cause death in infants younger than six months and stillborn babies. It is also linked to reproductive issues, thyroid illnesses, and certain cancers.

Tulare County ranks in the top three of all farm counties in the U.S., with two other Valley counties ranking in the first and second spots (Fresno and Kern). The county’s largest private employer is agriculture. Tulare County ranks high in something else: COVID-19 infections. The county is still on the state’s watch list, which prevents salons and restaurants from operating indoors.

The federal government must take action

It is time for the federal government to act to make our nation’s water supply safe. American Rivers and River Network calls on Congress to prioritize water infrastructure funding to communities that most need investments, and increase and sustain water infrastructure funding in general.

“Action at the federal level is needed to support this work and ensure all communities receive clean, safe, and affordable water—regardless of race, class, immigration status or otherwise—during this unprecedented crisis,” the organization proclaims. 

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