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In America, Clean Water Is Becoming a Luxury

In America, Clean Water Is Becoming a Luxury

Our water system’s collapsing—and I found out the hard way.


I can’t forget to turn the kettle on before bed. In the morning, I’ll need that water to wash my hands and brush my teeth. The rest I’ll carefully store in the fridge, away from light and bacteria. It’s a routine I shared with at least 1,500 neighbors—for the better part of a week—when E. coli bacteria tainted West Baltimore’s water, bringing risks from stomach bugs to lethal kidney disease. Welcome to life without clean, running water.

Across the country, extreme weather is accelerating breakdowns decades in the making. Storms are battering old water and wastewater networks, many with parts built a century ago or more for vastly different climate conditions. Floods are overwhelming existing facilities, sometimes contaminating water at the source.

Baltimore officials still can’t pinpoint a cause, but storms caused dire flooding here in August, and that’s contaminated the water before. Such storms are getting more common and less predictable, with climate change the likely reason. Rising sea levels make coastal floods even more dangerous, despite mitigation plans. A 2019 storm even flooded our harbor with more than a million gallons of sewage. And Baltimore is far from the only example.

Running water is everything, which you don’t realize fully until you’re without. Your morning coffee? Bottled or pre-boiled water. Pets? They need theirs bottled or boiled, too. Showers? Fine, if you keep your mouth closed throughout. But that’s harder for kids, and the CDC recommends using bottled or boiled water (cooled first!) to bathe them. Are you one of the lucky few who found powdered infant formula? Don’t forget to use bottled water, too. But city officials, after telling us to do just that, set up exactly three bottled-water pickup spots for everybody at risk.

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