Speeding Up Drinking Water Protection: A Conversation with Katherine Baer

Thanks in large part to the Clean Water Act of 1972, America’s surface waters, especially those near urban areas, have improved dramatically. Like a three-legged stool, the Act created roles for three parties – regulators, permittees, and private citizens – to work together to meet the Act’s goals.  The Act empowers private citizens to enforce the law. The result has been a robust network of environmental advocacy organizations that can advise and represent local citizens.  Data show that the presence of a well-supported local water advocate results in cleaner surface waters. [1]

Drinking water protection is missing one leg of the stool: a strong role for private citizens. While there are robust rules for regulators and permittees, private citizens have only weak intervention capabilities.  This has contributed to problems like Flint’s lead contamination crisis where a drinking water advocacy community was not well-prepared to respond.

River Network, which for decades has been training and empowering local groups on how to use the Clean Water Act to protect and restore their local waters, recognized that the drinking water problem wasn’t just about Flint, nor was it only about lead contamination. In mid-2019 they released their Drinking Water Guide: A Resource for Advocates, with a major focus on water equity and justice.  The guide is intended to get information into the hands of citizen groups throughout the U.S. so that they could better advocate for clean, safe, affordable water in their communities.  We recently spoke with Katherine Baer, one of the guide’s lead authors. The interview was conducted by our collaborator, Lynn Broaddus, over phone.

EPIC: What were some of the “aha” moments you had in developing the Drinking Water Guide?

KB: I’ve been surprised at how little connection I’ve seen between the public health departments and drinking water systems. It’s a missing link.  If water suppliers had their value proposition tied to community health, that would be a huge step forward.

EPIC: What’s driving the interest in the drinking water guide?

KB: We have a slice of people interested due to an acute reason like lead. They want to know what to do and how to pay for it. Others are approaching the issue with infrastructure and affordability in mind. They want to know how to understand it, how to pay for it, who pays for it, how to focus it in an equitable way.

EPIC: What contaminants are community groups asking about?

KB: PFAS for sure, lead, and sometimes algal-related toxics. We’ve seen recent articles about dogs dying from toxic algae in North Carolina and Georgia which have gotten a lot of peoples’ attention.

EPIC: You recently spoke to Alabama water advocates. Why were Alabama groups interested in the Drinking Water Guide?

KB: I was invited to speak because the Alabama Rivers Alliance noticed that there are fewer water groups engaged in drinking water than on wastewater, yet the state has problems with PFAS, coal ash, etc. Alabama Rivers Alliance is also thinking about other aspects that impact water access and equity:  planning, efficiency, management, climate change as well as source-water protection. The hope is that the Drinking Water Guide will embolden Alabamians to be stronger advocates for their drinking water.

EPIC: Are you hearing of cases of overbuilt water infrastructure?

KB: Yes. Financial distress for North Carolina towns is often tied to overbuilt infrastructure which communities can’t afford to maintain.  The small town of Eureka (pop. 200) which fell behind on payments to the neighboring communities where it sends its sewage, was recently the focus of an article in the Charlotte News & Observer. [2] The ripple effect of their financial shortfall could impact two nearby cities, including Goldsboro (pop. 35,000).  Around 90 communities in North Carolina are having trouble paying for their water and sewer.

EPIC: How do we help towns that are falling behind:

KB: We have the conundrum that water is undervalued and unaffordable at the same time. The Center for Neighborhood Technology has done a good job of looking at water efficiency as part of reducing and controlling water rates (https://www.cnt.org/great-lakes-water-infrastructure), however most people aren’t connecting the dots yet.

This is part of the larger issue of how you look at demand forecasts and punch holes in them.  Are there ways to achieve the supply you need without investing public dollars in enormously expensive, inflexible capital projects like new reservoirs and pipelines? In North Carolina and Georgia, we have a boom of reservoir proposals.  Citizens have to ask if they are taking conservation into consideration instead of expensive expansion of supply.

EPIC: How does climate change fit into this?

KB: Certainly, there are areas with drought and scarcity issues. I’m thinking especially of Paradise, California, which is now dealing with contamination from all the PVC water distribution pipes that melted during wildfires. That’s how it can play out for a dry, hot situation.  For communities faced with flooding, they are vulnerable when their drinking water system goes off-line due to submerged equipment.

EPIC: How does source-water protection play into this?

KB: There’s no federal requirement for source-water protection. The current Farm Bill allocates about ten percent of conservation practice dollars to go towards source-water protection, and I have wondered what the role of community groups in is determining how those dollars get allocated.  There is a lot of work in the land trust community on this.  In Alabama they’re fighting discharges upstream of drinking water intakes.  With the leadership of West Virginia Rivers, that state passed legislation to increase community engagement in drinking water protection and planning in response to the 2014 chemical spill on the Elk River upstream of Charleston, West Virginia’s drinking water intake.

EPIC: What other needs do you see?

KB: One big area is helping people understand risk. That means also understanding what isn’t a risk, or is a low risk, so we can spend our energy in the right places. I also think we need to figure out how to re-build trust between entities such as customers, community groups, local government, and water utilities.

The other big issue is consolidation. The number of small systems is unsustainable.  We need to help people understand that consolidation can take many forms. It need not be a physical consolidation, or merger of entire operations. For instance, little things like consolidating human resources or administrative support could free up funding and mental energy so that communities could focus on better water treatment.

[1] Grant and Langpap. 2018. “Private provision of public goods by environmental groups.” PNAS. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2018/10/02/1805336115

[2] Ross, K. 2019. With town of Eureka drowning in sewage bills, state takes control. The News & Observer. August 7. https://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/article233635952.html

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