Op-ed: The Rural Water Crisis May Soon Be at an End | Civil Eats

Op-ed: How Federal Dollars Can Help Ease the Rural Water Crisis

The USDA has billions of dollars of infrastructure funding to spend. The next farm bill could end the long history of racist disinvestment in rural communities of color.

A resident of Porterville, California, carries a case of bottled water for use at home. (Photo credit: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)

A resident of Porterville, California, carries a case of bottled water for use at home. (Photo credit: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)

Everyone has heard about the water crises in cities like Flint, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi, but America’s rural communities are facing equally dire problems with toxic taps and outdated infrastructure, and they typically have even less to spend on fixes.

That may change soon. In addition to the historic water funding included in recent infrastructure bills, the farm bill that is currently being negotiated in Congress could support real progress in small towns across the country, thanks to the billions it includes for construction of rural water and sewer systems.

We know firsthand what a huge impact those dollars can make on the ground. In California, people in an estimated 300 communities can’t drink from the tap. And two examples—the unincorporated farmworker communities of Monson and Sultana—show how federal funding can make the difference between residents having to rely on bottled water to drink, brush their teeth, and cook dinner, or having safe water from the tap.

For decades, the residents of Monson, which is just 15 miles north of Visalia, has faced water access challenges, including struggles with dry wells and high levels of nitrates.

In California alone, people in an estimated 300 communities can’t drink from the tap. Federal funding can make the difference between residents having to rely on bottled water to drink, brush their teeth, and cook dinner, or having safe water from the tap

Like many regions that are home to the people responsible for growing and harvesting the bulk of this nation’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables, this community still relies on bottled water and septic tanks for wastewater. Sultana, on the other hand, which is just 4 miles north, upgraded its infrastructure in the 1970s, replacing aging water and sewer systems.

Through advocacy by Sultana residents, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Development helped to fund a $2.1 million project in 2017 to drill a new community well and lay pipes to supply more than 200 homes with safe water. The two neighboring communities are currently working together to connect more homes in Monson to the safe water system in Sultana.

The USDA’s Rural Development programs are a lifeline for thousands of small towns that don’t have enough residents to cover infrastructure costs through property taxes, water bills, or other revenue sources. Over the past decade, the USDA has released more than $10 billion in grants and loans for water projects through the Rural Utilities Service. But, despite the fact that Black, Indigenous and People of Color households are far more likely than white households to lack complete plumbing, and more likely to be served by water systems that fail to meet safety standards, only 15 percent of all USDA-funded water projects over the past 10 years were located in communities of color.

Our nation’s racial water gaps exist and persist in large part because of past disinvestment, and even today, communities with larger numbers of people of color often receive less funding from key federal water programs. Many critical water projects in these communities are eligible for funding by USDA Rural Development, but continue to sit in an unfunded backlog.

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Our nation’s racial water gaps exist and persist in large part because of past disinvestment, and even today, communities with larger numbers of people of color often receive less funding from key federal water programs.

Right now, on the heels of President Biden’s declared commitment to environmental justice, we still have families in rural communities forced to rely on bottled water, and worrying about their wells running dry.

USDA Rural Development must fulfill its commitment to Justice40, and prioritize the needs of low-income and rural communities of color. Farmworker communities, Tribal Nations, colonias, stakeholders, and government agencies must collaborate to protect the vital human right to safe drinking water. Environmental justice advocates and community-based organizations deserve a seat at the table of federal decision making dedicated to underserved communities.

And the money the USDA has today for rural water is simply not enough to meet the needs in communities across the country. Ensuring every family in this country can trust their tap water will also require increased rural water funding in the 2023 Farm Bill.

More projects like those completed in Monson and Sultana are possible if we remain committed to prioritizing communities most in need. Federal support prevents vulnerable communities from being left behind and keeps the water and wastewater gap from expanding. The Biden-Harris Administration and current agency administrators have made some of the most progressive investments in underserved communities in this nation’s history. Congress should do its part to follow suit as it negotiates the farm bill. We all need to stand up for expanding access so that every American has safe and affordable water in their homes.

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Michael Prado is President of Sultana Community Services District. As a long-time resident of Sultana, he has witnessed firsthand the type of environmental injustice that rural communities of color face, and has channeled his experiences into fighting for the human right to water. Read more >

Celina Mahabir is Federal Policy Advocate with Community Water Center. As a native to Florida and the Caribbean, she has seen how water issues can impede the progress for families, and how critical investments towards environmental justice can change lives. Read more >

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