After the crisis in Flint, water has once again been thrust into the national spotlight because of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protests, which revolve around the protection of water resources for a nearby Native American reservation. While most of us are lucky enough to not to have to worry about clean tap water or access to basic water services, the same is not true for many communities all across the United States. There are numerous communities that don’t have steady access to clean water or—like the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in South Dakota—are seeing their water resources threatened by outside interests.
The Dakota Access Pipeline protestors are raising several issues with the construction of the pipeline, such as the disruption of sacred burial lands and the continued reliance on fossil fuels that worsens climate change. However, a major theme of the movement is centered on the issue of water. In fact, the participants refer to themselves as protectors as opposed to protesters since they consider themselves, first and foremost, protectors of the water and land. The pipeline would pass directly under the Missouri River, the reservation’s sole source of water, less than a mile away upstream from their lands. In this regard, their main concern is that their water and land would be contaminated if the pipeline were to leak or burst.
Do they have real reason to be so worried about their water? Data would suggest yes. High Country News arranged data from PHMSA (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) to create a map showing every pipeline accident that occurred between January 2010 and May 2015 in the U.S. They found that over 1000 pipeline ruptures or spills were reported within that time period—and estimate that over 7 million gallons of oil were spilled. In reality, those numbers might be bigger since they only accounts for spills that were officially reported.
As should be clear from their analysis, pipeline accidents are very common and many of them can have dire consequences for the surrounding environment—in particular for water sources. Just recently, a pipeline malfunction in Alabama left many areas of the South scrambling for gas. A pipeline rupture spilled somewhere between 252,000 gallons and 336,000 gallons of gasoline. Thankfully, the fuel didn’t reach a nearby creek or river but only because a spout of dry weather prevented it from traveling farther and coming in contact with water.
The DAPL protest and complementary legal action taken by the tribe and their allies have already been successful in halting operations for the time being as well as prompting the federal government to make more of an effort to include reservations in the planning and decision-making process for big infrastructure projects. But the fight is not near over yet. Moreover, the Dakota Access protests have helped bring attention to one of the most historically neglected communities in the U.S. and their living conditions.
While the Standing Rock tribe is fighting to protect their sole water source, there are other reservations that have no access to water at all. About a year ago, Upworthy published a piece on a Navajo tribe in New Mexico that scrambles for water on a weekly basis. You can read the full story here and take a look at the conditions residents must endure. The problem has become so dire that a non profit organization called Dig Deep, which usually works in third-world countries, has recently started a project to dig a well for this community. In Alaska, native and other rural communities also struggle with access to running water and proper plumbing in their homes—leading to some dire health consequences such as a higher incidence of respiratory infections.
Water access is not a problem that only affects tribal or Native American lands and communities. Here in California, in a small rural town called Arvin, residents can’t use tap water for cooking or drinking because it is contaminated with arsenic, a known carcinogen. Other unincorporated communities in California are also suffering from a lack of running water as they rely on private wells that have been drying up because of the current state-wide drought—and this is a common theme for poor unincorporated territories in other states as well. For example, an unincorporated community in Sandbranch, Texas has been trying to get nearby cities to provide basic water services since the 1980’s. They used to rely on private wells that have since been contaminated through a combination of poor sewage management and nearby gravel mining.
Furthermore, this is not just a problem affecting places that are historically dry like Central California or Texas. The New York Times just released a piece on the effects of the drought happening in New England on people and farmers that relied on private wells for water, but have seen them dry out suddenly. On the same day, they also highlighted a community in Alabama lacking proper water infrastructure (e.g., sewage connections or septic systems). In it, they share the staggering statistic that “nearly half a million households in the United States lack the basic dignity of hot and cold running water, a bathtub or shower, or a working flush toilet, according to the Census Bureau”.
All of these stories paint a picture of what it is like to live without running water in an industrialized developed country. They tell the tale of people whose lives are completely altered by the lack of proper water services, much like the different stories we heard from Flint. These stories also clearly show that communities that are most affected by these types of problems are, by and large, poor communities and communities of color—and we owe them better. These communities have been historically neglected and disenfranchised and, if we can agree, that water is a human right (which, according to California law, it is); we are failing to ensure all citizens their inalienable rights. Better water management, infrastructure, and conservation need to be pressing priorities in governance.