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No child should be exposed to pollutants just by drinking water from the kitchen tap

We must be willing to invest the money necessary to provide every American family access to that most basic human need: clean water.

The American Jobs Plan is poised to repair aging roads and bridges, jump-start transit projects and rebuild school buildings and hospitals and would also expand electric vehicles, replace all lead pipes and overhaul the nation’s water systems.
Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

The water was brown — a murky, mud-like, tragic brown. Until that moment, I had never even considered that a color could be tragic in itself.

It was years ago, in the middle of a House Oversight Committee hearing on the Flint water crisis. At the time, my older daughter was just a year old. I remember looking out into the audience and seeing a mom holding a baby bottle that looked exactly like the one my baby drank out of — a little bottle, with a pink top.

Unlike my daughter’s bottle, however, the water in this bottle was that horrifying, rancid-looking brown.

I couldn’t — and all these years later, still can’t — begin to imagine what it would’ve been like to have to drink that water while I was pregnant, or to have no choice but to give it to my baby, because I couldn’t afford clean, safe drinking water. But that kind of nightmare remains everyday reality for far, far too many parents across this country.

It’s been seven years since some leaders of the City of Flint tried to save a few dollars by swapping its drinking water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River, setting off a chain of events that poisoned nearly 9,000 kids in just 18 months while too many elected officials covered their eyes to the crisis at hand.

But while Flint was a tragedy, it was not an anomaly.

In the years since, countless more Americans have been exposed to pollutants simply by taking a sip from their kitchen faucets. More than 6 million homes continue to get water from lead service lines. And as of 2019, roughly half a million children under the age of 6 still had elevated levels of lead in their blood — something that can cause permanent brain damage — perhaps in part due to the federal government’s share of capital spending in the water sector falling from 63% in 1977 to a meager 9% in 2017.

Imagine if your child was one of those who’d gotten sick because legislators refused to take action on such an obvious crisis. Imagine if you had to be the one to get your newborn to sip water that you couldn’t even see through.

We should not let even one more parent suffer through that worst-case scenario.

Every American has a right to clean water, no matter their zip code, the color of their skin or the size of their income. It is long past time that we turn that right into a reality, investing in the kinds of projects that would put Americans back to work rebuilding our crumbling water infrastructure.

That’s one reason why I’ve partnered with the leaders of the Senate Committee on Environment and Publics Works, Senators Tom Carper and Shelley Moore Capito, to introduce my bipartisan Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act of 2021 — legislation designed to help keep our kids safe when they drink from the water fountain at recess and to modernize and improve our drinking water and wastewater systems across the country. Because if our nation truly wants to “Build Back Better,” we cannot merely fix our roads while failing to repair the pipes beneath them. We must be willing to invest the money necessary to provide every family access to the most basic human need: clean water.

That’s exactly what my bill would do. It would authorize more than $35 billion for water resource development projects across the country, with a focus on upgrading aging infrastructure, addressing the threat of climate change and investing in new technologies. It would also focus on grant opportunities rather than just loans, so that all communities have access to the help they need to protect families rather than just the ones that can afford it — because the awful fact of the matter is that even while a community’s racial and economic breakdowns are the top predictors of waste facility locations, disasters in environmental justice communities still don’t get the same attention or assistance as those that take place in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.

If there’s anything the past year has taught us, it’s that when we work together to protect the health of our most vulnerable neighbors, we improve the quality of life for all of us. So as President Biden and Congress begin working on a new infrastructure bill, it’s important that we also finally bring our country’s water system in line with our nation’s values.

Because to me, it comes down to this: No mother should have to hold a bottle full of brown water up to her baby’s lips. No father should have to worry about giving his child a glass of water before bedtime. No family should fear that their house will be flooded by sewage every time it rains.

This is a matter of health and safety. It’s is a matter of systemic racism and of discrimination against those in poorer neighborhoods. It’s a matter of justice — both for those who’ve already suffered too much and those whose suffering we may still be able to prevent.

It’s a crisis that is daunting, yes, and devastating, certainly — yet it’s a crisis that is solvable, one bill passed, one water fountain tested and one child saved at a time.

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