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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Environment

Water treatment facility overlooking the Manhattan skyline.

"The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles." Thus sang Bob Dylan in 1965, and we can now clearly see those vandals: In addition to polluting corporations, they're the national, state, and local officials who have routinely failed over the years to prevent the waste and defilement of our water supply while also failing to budget for even minimal upkeep and modernization of water delivery. As a result, the system is badly broken.

Federal funding for our water systems has plummeted 77 percent since its peak under former President Jimmy Carter. At the same time, the need for more national investment has dramatically increased: The U.S. population has surged by 110 million; aging water infrastructure is outdated and breaking down; state and local politicians have ignored problems (replacing an old pipe is not a prized photo-op); and necessary upgrades to cope with new contaminants and extreme weather events have gone unfunded by politicians catering to pro-corporate financial interests and anti-government ideologues.

So, here we sit, a nation of unsurpassed prosperity using duct tape and political hype to cover up the fact that our drinking water system is so dilapidated that it received a sorry C-minus grade from the quadrennial evaluation by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Worse, the wastewater component of the system (mile after mile of underground sewage pipes and nearly 16,000 treatment plants) scores a D-plus, with a majority of the waste plants nearing the end of their 45- to 50-year life spans. The overall system is so fragile that a water main breaks somewhere in America every two minutes, and it's so permeated with leaks that utilities lose 6 billion gallons of drinking water every day.

And then there's the rising crisis of affordability. With federal funding cut to a dribble, utilities have tried to fill in with constant hikes in water bills. Our average monthly rate has jumped more than a third since 2012, and analysts estimate that within three years, up to 36% of households won't be able to afford drinking water. Even with rising fees, utilities themselves are struggling. The American Water Works Association reports that income fully covers costs in only one in five systems, and four out of five large utilities expect they will not be able to provide full service five years from now.

Billions of years ago, when some squirmy form of early "us" crawled out of the sea, they brought along the need for that basic ingredient. Human bodies are 60 percent water, and most of earth's surface is not earth at all — 71 percent is covered in seas, rivers, lakes, bayous, etc. There is no "us" unless each of us gets a constant intake of reasonably clean water. If you don't ... you die, usually within three days.

Thus, managing this precious natural resource is a deeply moral responsibility. While our globe has an abundance of the wet stuff, 96.5 percent is undrinkable salt water. Of the potable 3.5 percent more than half is locked in ice at the polar caps or so deep underground it's unavailable. Still, we do have enough water to meet the needs of all — if it is conserved and fairly distributed.

Sadly, most countries do a piss-poor job of fulfilling their moral responsibility — especially the U.S., given our resources, abilities, and egalitarian pretensions. The good news is that the U.S. public is not only increasingly aware of the inexcusable inadequacies and inequalities in our water system but also increasingly outraged . As Sen. Bernie Sanders put it in February when introducing a major water justice bill: "It is beyond belief that in 2021, American kids are being poisoned by tap water."

Wall Street's sharks smell money in the water. In fact, they are out to privatize, commodify and "profitize" (own) our water. Of course, with ownership comes control, both of water's use and price. Unsurprisingly, the two core precepts of these Wall Street profiteers are: Water is greatly underpriced, so let's make it more expensive for all users, including us common drinkers; and water must flow to its "highest use" (i.e., highest bidders), so its allocation should not prioritize nonindustrial farms, lower-income communities or even general public use — but rather advantage high-tech facilities, upscale suburban developments and high-dollar businesses willing to pay the most.

More alarming, Wall Street is busy creating complex new financial gimmicks to allow speculators to dominate global water markets. Meanwhile, they're recycling the same gobbledygook about risk management that Enron deployed in the 1990s, even though that scandalous power play for energy markets led to massive corruption, job losses, waves of bankruptcies, and rip-offs of customers and shareholders.

For a splash course on water issues, look up "H2Equity: Rebuilding a Fair System of Water Services for America" from the Environmental Policy Innovation Center (http://www.policyinnovation.org).

To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

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What Are You Drinking?

Photo by SHTTEFAN on Unsplash

A mechanical marvel of human ingenuity was plopped down on Mars by NASA last February. Its name, Perseverance, fits the Mars rover perfectly, for the robotic vehicle embodies a feat of scientific know-how, long-term dedication to public purpose, and a tight focus on teamwork. Think about the 20-year span of institutional tenacity required for myriad scientists and others to imagine, design, plan, construct, test and otherwise develop the project. And then they hurled this extraordinarily complex machine on a seven-month, 300-million-mile journey through space, navigating to a pinpoint landing in Jezero Crater, a 3.6-billion-year-old, dried-up Martian lakebed. Now Perseverance is probing the Red Planet's watery past for evidence of primordial life.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, during the same week of this WOW! achievement on Mars, millions of people in NASA's home city of Houston were also probing dried-up waterways: the faucets in their homes, businesses, and schools. On Valentine's Day, an Arctic cold front ripped through the state, and suddenly, basic infrastructure failed, and tap water in this sprawling metro became nonexistent or contaminated. Houstonians were left scrambling for essential, life-sustaining H2O.

They were not alone. Nearly 1,300 water systems across Texas were sputtering and failing at the same time. Worse, this calamitous crisis stemmed directly from the even bigger failure of another essential piece of modern infrastructure: the electric grid. During the weeklong deep freeze, almost all the Lone Star State's jury-rigged network of corporate-owned and -run power systems failed, leaving 4.5 million homes and businesses without electricity. In turn, this fiasco caused the pumps, pipes and pressure controls of hundreds of local water networks to freeze up and break down, cutting off potable water for days.

Gov. Greg Abbott, a GOP mediocrity who grossly mismanaged Texas' COVID-19 response (his slogan seems to be, "Failure is not an option; it's a promise") tried at first to blame Mother Nature. Well, it surely was a big winter storm ... but lots of states regularly maintain electricity and water through much deeper freezes.

What hit Texans was not nature, but an ongoing unnatural disaster. It was the state's reward for turning its government over to incompetents and right-wing ideologues who persistently disdain investment in public resources and community needs. For 25 years, a series of money-corrupted, corporate-coddling Texas governors and legislators have recoiled from even such minimal measures as requiring energy profiteers to weatherize people's crucial infrastructure. (This sort of corporate butt-kissing is what governors really mean when they puff themselves up and bluster that their state is "business-friendly.")

And their obsequious surrender of the public interest to moneyed powers pays off handsomely to them ... in bales of campaign cash they rake in from the profiteers. For example, the oil and gas giants that fuel the electric grid rewarded Abbott's six years of servility with a whopping $26 million in "thank-you" donations. The public's reward was hundreds of Texans killed in that one week of the grid crash and some $130 billion in economic losses from business shutdowns and homes flooded by burst pipes.

How embarrassing is it that the techno-advanced, engineering powerhouse of America has a growing crisis of water quality and delivery usually associated with impoverished nations? And the infrastructure collapse is not just in Texas. From our biggest cities like New York to isolated rural communities like those in the sprawling Navajo Nation, millions of us endure raw sewage, industrial chemicals, lead pipes, burst water mains, price gouging, cut-offs, boil emergencies, and other water disasters.

In March, Consumer Reports and The Guardian issued findings from a nine-month investigation of drinking water systems serving 19 million Americans. Of 120 systems analyzed, 118 had serious levels of toxic chemicals including lead, arsenic, and/or PFAS (a group of synthetic toxins) at dangerous levels. PFAS compounds are in our clothing, carpets, nonstick cookware, food containers, and thousands of other products. And now they're also in our water, seeping in from chemical factories and landfills. They are linked to a range of human health horrors including thyroid disease, cancers, and possibly learning delays in children. The Environmental Protection Agency sets no enforceable limit on PFAS in drinking water and suggests voluntary caps for a few chemicals — even as the compounds contaminate drinking water in more than 2,300 communities in 49 states. To learn more and see what's in your drinking water, go to EWG.org/tapwater/.

To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com