November 19, 2019 – Washington, DC – Two national non-profit groups, DigDeep and the US Water Alliance, released a new report, “Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States: A National Action Plan,” which included the Rural Community Assistance Partnership’s (RCAP’s) unique perspective from working with small, often disadvantaged, rural communities across the United States and Puerto Rico. While most Americans take reliable access to clean, safe water for granted, this new nationwide study found that more than two million Americans are living without running water, indoor plumbing, or wastewater treatment.
On the Navajo Nation in the Southwest, families drive for hours to haul barrels of water to meet their basic needs. In West Virginia, they drink from polluted streams. In Alabama, parents warn their children not to play outside because their yards are flooded with sewage. Families living in Texas border towns worry because there is no running water to fight fires.
Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States is the most comprehensive national study on the more than two million Americans who lack access to water service. The report fills an important knowledge gap: there is no one entity—whether a federal agency or research institution—that collects comprehensive data on the scope of the United States water access problem.
The report’s authors, with researchers from Michigan State University, examine six areas where the water access gap is particularly acute: the Central Valley of California, border colonias in Texas, rural counties in Mississippi and Alabama, rural West Virginia, the “four corners” area in the Southwest, and Puerto Rico. Researchers spoke to families living without water and captured their stories of poor health and economic hardship. The authors also spoke to local community leaders working to solve the water crisis by distributing water, building community-centered water projects where no infrastructure exists, and advocating for policy change to bring more reliable services to rural and unincorporated communities. Despite these community efforts, data suggests that some communities may be backsliding; six states and Puerto Rico saw recent increases in their populations without water access.
The report contains contributions from Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) network members from across the country, including research and policy perspectives from the national office in Washington, D.C., as well as perspectives on-the-ground from RCAP regional partners including RCAP Solutions (the Northeastern RCAP,) Communities Unlimited (the Southern RCAP,) Great Lakes Community Action Partnership (the Great Lakes RCAP) and Rural Community Assistance Corporation (the Western RCAP).
“Working with rural communities, we see the negative effects families face when their access to clean and safe water is threatened,” said RCAP CEO Nathan Ohle. “As members of the US Water Alliance, we vow to partake in these solutions to help close the water gap in America as quickly as possible, so rural communities can continue to thrive.”
George McGraw, Founder, DigDeep, said: “Over the past few years, DigDeep has brought running water to hundreds of families on the Navajo Nation, but now we’ve learned this hardship is shared by millions of Americans across the country. To live daily without reliable drinking water and with untreated sewage are conditions more frequently associated with impoverished nations, but it’s happening in our own backyards. With all the resources being leveraged to solve the water and sanitation crisis abroad, I have no doubt we can close the water gap in America quickly if we redouble our efforts.”
Radhika Fox, CEO, US Water Alliance, said: “It’s hard to imagine that in America today, people are living without basics like safe and reliable water service. While the challenges are daunting, this report presents a national action plan to close the water access gap in our lifetime. From the Central Valley to the Navajo nation, there are community-centered solutions that are working. Now is the time to build upon these innovations and ensure every American can thrive.”
The report makes several recommendations to help close the water gap in the United States. Recommendations include re-introducing Census questions about whether homes have working taps and toilets, as well as changes to how the federal government funds and regulates water systems to support rural and unincorporated areas. There are also several recommendations for the philanthropic and global WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) sectors to drive community empowerment, deploy innovative technologies, and apply successful WASH models from abroad here in the United States.