Residents of Jackson, Miss., recently experienced a week without reliable water service. And an advisory to boil any water that does flow from faucets in that capital city of 150,000 people has been in place since late July. This is just some of the alarming drinking-water-related news that has surfaced as summer winds down in the U.S. Other reports have told of arsenic in tap water in a New York City public housing complex, potentially sewage- or runoff-related Escherichia coli bacteria in West Baltimore’s water supply and a lawsuit alleging neurological issues linked to thousands of liters of jet fuel that leaked into drinking water in Hawaii last year.

In the aftermath of the drinking-water contamination crisis that hit Flint, Mich., in 2014, a growing number of similar incidents have received national attention, eroding confidence in neglected drinking-water and wastewater treatment systems that once were considered among the world’s most sophisticated and robust. Some ground will be gained as billions of dollars from the Biden administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law start to flow to states for improvements to local water systems—including the replacement of dangerous lead pipes that run from public water lines to buildings’ plumbing. But money alone cannot solve larger structural and systemic issues afflicting the nation’s thousands of aging public and private water and wastewater systems, experts say.

Upmanu Lall, a hydroclimatologist at Columbia University and a luminary in his field, has co-authored and led numerous studies that document the rise of contaminated drinking water in the U.S. He and his colleagues assessed a national data set of 17,900 water utilities and other community drinking-water systems, revealing that water-quality violations of the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act more than doubled between 1980 and 2015. In the latter year, drinking-water systems serving nearly 21 million people in the U.S. were cited for such water-quality violations. In other studies and projects, Lall and his colleagues also have examined rational and effective ways to build more resilient water and wastewater systems globally and to address water scarcity.

To learn more about the national context and implications of Jackson’s ailing water system, Scientific American spoke with Lall about what the future holds for U.S. water and wastewater systems—and what can be done to improve the outlook and to secure safer drinking water for coming generations.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

How do the recent drinking water problems in Jackson fit into the larger landscape of U.S. water distribution systems?

Jackson is one of many cities where things like this are happening. It is perhaps one of the larger such crises. And it’s a more chronic one. The smaller water problems, unless they are something like Flint, just don’t get reported. So the larger context is that what’s happened has caught people’s attention.

How far can the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law go toward addressing problems such as those afflicting residents of Jackson?

Some of the primary water concerns that the infrastructure bill proposes to address is to replace a whole bunch of lead service lines and to put money to figuring out why PFASs—perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances [often called “forever chemicals” because of their persistence in the environment]—are present in water and what to do about it. These are good things. I don’t want to criticize them. But what they speak to is that when one particular issue becomes prominent, then Congress or other bureaucracies start paying attention to it. But the one issue that they should be paying attention to is that the whole infrastructure system with water and wastewater is failing. And many leaders and officials don’t get that because it’s too big an issue. The problem with what they’re doing is that when you focus on “Okay, we’re going to go replace a bunch of lead service lines,” money is being spent on that one issue—but it’s not addressing the basic issue across the board.

What should leaders and officials focus on instead when it comes to our water and wastewater systems?

Here’s the challenge: Water and wastewater systems can be divided into the following components. One is storage, such as reservoirs and dams. Then the second is conveyance, which is the pipes that bring the water to you or sewers that take the wastewater back, as well as the associated pumps. And finally, there is the treatment system. So these are the three components that we have to deal with. The median age of U.S. dams is around 60 years. They were designed to last for 50. And the state of maintenance or the condition of around two thirds of the dams in the country is actually unrated and unknown. Regarding conveyance, the number of water-main failures is estimated at around 850 daily in the North America. 

And then the treatment systems—we have increasing reports of pathogens in drinking water, which lead to “boil water” notices. That trend has been driving more and more people to consume bottled water or to buy filtration systems. So in totality, each of the components is aging and failing, and the reliability of service in each component is now a question mark. This is why one has to think about how they can collectively be upgraded.

Smaller communities in particular do not have the financial or technical resources to actually figure out what they should do. And so as a result, we have a systemic risk of failure.

How does climate change figure into this problem?

The systemic risk of failure is amplified by changing climate. If you have a drought, you have a lower amount of water available, a higher concentration of chemicals entering water and limited treatment capacity. At the other extreme, for example, nearly four years ago, heavy rains flooded the Highland Lakes area, which supplies water to Austin, Tex. The reservoirs filled up with sediment. The city’s treatment plant did not have the capacity to deal with so much sediment. So the city’s water utility asked residents to go a water-rationing spree and issued a boil-water advisory that lasted one week in the middle of very wet conditions.

Beyond its current regulatory and other roles, what more could the federal government do to secure safer drinking water for people in the U.S.?

There is no central planning for water investments in the U.S. Compare that with the situation for energy, where we have the Energy Information Administration and the Department of Energy. Whether they do a good job or not, there are at least some people tasked with thinking about what should be done and to put some requests for money on the table. In contrast, we have seven or eight different federal agencies with some sort of jurisdiction on water. And that structure is then replicated at the state level and at the local level. The federal government had strong investments in water infrastructure in the middle of the 20th century and up to around 1980. We were state of the art as a result. Today it is time to renew such efforts in a thoughtful way that best uses new digital technologies to assure performance.

Could the country spend its way out of this problem?

It’s a bigger issue than that. Again, I’ll make the comparison with the energy situation. The energy policy makers are seriously working on how to replace fossil fuels, how to expand transmission capacities, how to improve the reliability of the system. A lot of this is done in the private sector, but there is some facilitation by federal government sources and state sources. There is no corresponding story on water. And so the challenge is not money. It’s having some group that is actually working on what should be the 21st-century architecture for the U.S. water system. Because otherwise, what happens is that we have piecemeal approach, such as focusing on replacing lead pipes.

What types of solutions does your research point to?

Obviously, we have to think about how we replace all these aging components. But then, if we want to design a system for the 21st century, we probably want to have some digital capacity such that—when somebody turns on a faucet or uses water for flushing toilets, showering, drinking or cooking—in each case, an instrument on-site should assess the relevant chemicals of concern and indicate whether you have an issue or not.

It also turns out that 70 to 80 percent of our water systems’ expenditure in the U.S. is on conveyance: pumps, pipes and sewers. So suppose you localize treatment. Every neighborhood, or possibly every house or building, could have a treatment system. Then you could obtain immediate feedback with sensors as to whether or not that treatment was effective. Then we could have the ability to take wastewater that is locally generated and treat it to our drinking-water standards. Rainwater that falls from roofs could be captured and treated to our drinking-water standards. All that starts becoming feasible. We can start looking at a system that is still going to need wells and other water supplies. But you could probably reduce your draw of water from nature by 70 percent or so in many settings. You would have much higher service reliability and quality.

Similarly with agriculture, which is the largest water user, there are options such as agrivoltaics and shifting which crops are grown where. So you start thinking about restructuring the whole system. That is not just a question of liberating money. It’s more a question of getting some good, higher-level planning and thinking in place and then putting money behind these plans and innovations.

What happens if we do not pursue such changes to water storage, conveyance and treatment systems in the U.S.?

One big concern is the California drought. The agriculture industry there is at an extremely high risk of dying. And that will have an impact on the food supply. More generally, we will see a slowly evolving epidemic of water system failures like the one in Jackson. So it’s not going to be a sharp catastrophe, but there’s going to be something that will continue unfolding slowly until you say, “Hey, what the hell is going on?”