Water Poverty in America

A NWNL NextGen Blog by Ruby O’Connor, University College Dublin.

All Photos © Alison M. Jones.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts only student essays; sponsors a forum for its student contributors; and invites student proposals to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Ruby O’Connor hails from San Francisco, California. Now a student at University College of Dublin in Ireland, she studies Liberal Arts and Sciences. Her academic interests lie in the current state of the environment, history, politics and philosophy. In her personal time, she enjoys traveling, reading, music and art.

Last month, The Guardian published an eye-opening investigation into American water poverty. They analyzed 12 US cities between 2010 and 2018: Austin, Cleveland, New Orleans, San Diego, San Jose, Tucson, Santa Fe, Seattle, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Charlotte and Fresno. Across the country, water and sewage bills are rising at an incredible and unaffordable rate, especially in low-income communities. Between 2010 and 2018, the price of water and sewage rose by an average of 80% among these 12 cities, and in Austin TX, it rose by 154% over the course of 8 years.[mpn]Nina Lahkani[/mpn] For low-income Americans, rising costs of water bills means an inability to pay. Utility companies further impoverish Americans by restricting their access to water and holding claim over their property in two ways: (1) a shutoff – restriction of water access to that household or (2) a lien – a property claim linked to the household’s debt.

Who Funds and Regulates American Water?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says an investment of at least $35 billion per year for the next 20 years is needed to ensure safe water, yet a large part of the problem is due to the lack of federal funding for safe public water infrastructure. According to The Guardian, federal funding for water systems has fallen by 77% since 1977. Between 85-90% of water utilities are now owned at a city or municipal level, thus local governments are left to fund new water infrastructure, despite aging structure and climate change challenges. They are also left responsible for handling water contamination, be it by lead, algae blooms, or PFAS (“Forever Chemicals”). While a portion of the market is left to the private water sector, this often results in even more extortionate rates.[mpn]Nina Lahkani[/mpn]

Water: A Public Health Issue

“Water is not suitable for drinking” sign in Lubbock, Texas

Not only is water in America becoming more expensive, it is also contaminated and unsafe for consumption in many communities. According to the EPA, “more that 30 million Americans lived in areas where water systems violated safety rules at the beginning of last year.” There are many different types of water contamination across the country, all threatening ecosystems and human health. Perhaps the most well-known example is the lead contamination in Flint, Michigan. However, there are many other cases of US water contamination that lack the coverage and solutions they deserve, including:

  • In the Navajo Nation, water was contaminated by uranium mining causing infections and cancer.
  • In Denmark, South Carolina, a chemical called HaloSan was added to the water supply, causing skin ailments.
  • In Inez, Kentucky, water contaminated with arsenic and mercury has caused increased risk of cancer as well as liver and kidney damage.[mfn]Justin Worland[/mpn]
  • Along the Mississippi River in Louisiana, petrochemical and fossil fuel industries pollute the air and water which has led to the region being nicknamed ‘Cancer Alley’.[mpn]Antonia Juhasz[/mpn]

Environmental Racism

Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’ serves as an indisputable case of environmental racism. The area is an 85-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans in which fossil fuel and petrochemical plants are abundant. These plants are operated by well-known companies including ExxonMobil, Koch and Shell. The plants release huge amounts of toxic chemicals into the air and water, thus increasing the risks of cancer, heart disease and respiratory disease for surrounding black communities.[mpn]Antonia Juhasz[/mpn] In the community of Reserve, Louisiana, which lies within ‘Cancer Alley’, the risk of cancer is 50 times the national average.[mpn]Jamiles Lartey and Oliver Laughland[/mpn]

The residents of Reserve encourage others to understand the region’s history for some insight into environmental racism at large. Thousands of enslaved people once worked on sugar plantations in the area, formerly called the ‘German Coast’. Like much of the nation, once slavery was abolished “sharecropping, atrocious labour conditions, and Jim Crow laws kept much of the black population along the coast in poverty.” Many chemical plants are now built on these former plantations.8  One plant, The Marathon Petroleum Company in Garysville, even hosts Bishop Cemetery on its land – which holds the remains of former slaves and their descendants from the former San Francisco Plantation.[mpn]Trymaine Lee and Matt Black[/mpn]

“Petro-Chemical Alley” in Garyville, Louisiana

In the 1930’s, the Louisiana Industrial Tax Exemption Program helped fuel the state’s industrial boom.[mpn]James Pasley[/mpn] By the 1940’s, the first chemical plants were built around the towns of Baton Rouge and New Orleans. During the 1950’s, looking to avoid heavily populated areas, industrialists began to develop in smaller black communities along the Mississippi River. Craig Colten, a professor at Louisiana State University said, “Given prevailing racial attitudes, those communities were, in effect, invisible.”[mpn]Tristan Baurick[/mpn] Residents of communities in this stretch of the Mississippi River have been pushing back against these chemical plants for decades.

Activism – Get Educated, Get Involved!

In Louisiana, The Coalition Against Death Alley (CADA) is working towards environmental justice for the communities living in “Death Alley.” They have renamed ‘Cancer Alley’ to “Death Alley.” as the residents experience not only high rates of cancer but additionally high rates of birth defect, cardiovascular complications, autoimmune disorders and respiratory disease. CADA is demanding the following:

  1. No new petrochemical projects in the river parishes and a ban of industrial emission within 5 miles of public spaces.
  2. Chloroprene emissions from Denka Chemical Company must be kept under EPA limits or shut down.
  3. The shutdown of Mosaic and the removal of toxic radioactive gypsum waste.
  4. Healthcare costs caused by the pollution must be covered by the companies to blame.
  5. The end of the Industrial Tax Exemption Program.

Most recently, CADA has embarked on a campaign against the new construction of a Formosa Plastics plant. There are countless US communities facing the same injustice as Louisiana’s “Death Alley;” and environmental racism in impoverished communities exists on a global scale. Progress in the fight against this continuing issue is possible: it lies in education, awareness, stewardship and action.

You can read more about on CADA’s website here.

Barge and tugboat going downstream on the Mississippi River passing smokestacks from Big Cajun II power plant (coal powered and now using biomass)


Baurick, Tristan. “Welcome to ‘Cancer Alley,’ Where Toxic Air is About to Get Worse.” ProPublica, 30 October 2019. Accessed 8 July 2020 by REO.

Juhasz, Antonia. “Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’ is getting even more toxic – but residents are fighting back.” Rolling Stone, 30 October 2019. Accessed 2 July 2020 by REO.

Lartey, Jamiles and Oliver Laughland, “Almost every household has someone that has died from cancer’ / A small town, a chemical plant, and a desperate need for clean air.” The Guardian, 6 May 2019, accessed 8 July 2020 by REO.

Lee, Trymaine and Matt Black, “Cancer Alley: Big Industry, Big Problems.” MSNBC. Accessed 8 July 2020 by REO.

Pasley, James. “Inside Louisiana’s horrifying ‘Cancer Alley’, an 85-mile stretch of pollution and environmental racism that’s now dealing with some of the highest coronavirus death rates in the country.” Business Insider, 10 April 2020. Accessed 8 July 2020 by REO.

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