Presidential Politics: Water Supply and Contamination

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

By Gabrielle Marangell, C+S ’16

A version of this post originally appeared on the Earth Institute’s blog, State of the Planet. I originally wrote this piece for my summer internship at the Earth Institutes water research center. This summer at the Columbia Water Center I have focused on increasing my community engagement skills through social media postings, blog writing, and website development.

Water is a National Issue

Flint may be the most well-known city that has contaminated drinking water, but it certainly isn’t the only city in the U.S. with serious water problems.

Uranium was found in the water supply of several central California communities, and lead in the drinking water of 10 Oregon schools. Eleven cities in New Jersey had children who tested positive for more dangerous lead levels than those found in Flint.

Both of these contaminants can be very dangerous to human health. Long-term exposure to uranium can lead to kidney damage as well as increased cancer risk. Exposure to lead is particularly dangerous for children as lead poisoning can cause damage of the central nervous system, learning disabilities, growth impediments, impaired hearing, and blood cell function.

Unfortunately, contaminated water isn’t the only problem that is affecting America’s water supply. Much of the U.S. is currently struggling with perpetual drought or a decrease in groundwater levels.

Significant portions of California are suffering through year another year of “exceptional drought,” the most serious category. California is not the only region that is experiencing less than normal rainfall. Portions of the Southwest, High Plains and Southeast are dealing with “extreme drought” conditions. The water problems associated with drought are exacerbated by the growing depletion of groundwater levels. Across the nation, but particularly in West, Midwest and Southwest, groundwater levels have fallen by 15 feet or more. Many communities rely on groundwater as their key source of drinking water. If groundwater levels run too low, many are at risk of having their wells run dry.

Why is America’s Water Contaminated?

Many water pipes and mains in the U.S. are more than 100 years old. Outdated infrastructure leads to a higher rate of main breaks, which can allow contaminants to flow into the water supply. Additionally, most old water pipes are made of lead, which can leach into the water supply as the pipes age.

Uranium contamination has become a greater issue due to the vast number of irrigated farms in regions where there is extreme drought. In California, where most of the uranium contamination has been found, mountain snowmelt washes naturally occurring, uranium-laden sediment into the flatlands below.

Water Main Break

Water Main Break. Credit: @picJim/Flickr

Irrigated agriculture, the standard in California, naturally creates a weak acid that draws the uranium out of the sediment that comes from the mountains. Groundwater pumping draws the uranium-contaminated surface water down into the earth. Once in the groundwater, uranium easily flows into public and private wells that supply local drinking water. With California’s ongoing drought, farmers and residents have been pumping groundwater at the highest rates ever recorded leading to serious groundwater depletion and pulling even more uranium into wells.

What is the Impending Administration’s Stance on Water?

As American citizens we should be asking what is going to be done to help secure our drinking water.

The federal government needs to develop and implement a plan that presents solutions for the water infrastructure, pollution and scarcity issues that are currently plaguing our society. In the U.S., federal laws are first sponsored and voted on by Congress before being passed to the president. Considering this lengthy process, it will likely be the incoming president who will sign any water bill that passes through Congress.

That’s why understanding the candidates’ stance on America’s water issues should be a priority before heading to the polls on November 8.

The White House. Credit: .craig/Flickr

The White House. Credit: .craig/Flickr

Donald Trump’s Proposed Water Policies

Donald Trump’s official website does not mention anything about water infrastructure or recent water pollution crises. Prior to officially announcing his run for presidency, Trump actively tweeted about the need to solve U.S. infrastructure problems across the board, saying “the only one to fix the infrastructure of our country is me—roads, airports, bridges. I know how to build, [politicians] only know how to talk!”

Since announcing his run for presidency, howeverm he has not officially outlined his policies for addressing any infrastructure or water issues. When Trump did address the extreme drought that California has been suffering through for the past five years in a campaign rally, he appeared to be drastically misinformed. Trump told California farmers who gathered at a rally in May that “there is no drought.” He stated that the water issues in California were “so insane” because they were man-made, caused by regulators “taking the water and shoving it out to sea.”

U.S. Rep.Representative Kevin Cramer (R-ND), one of Trump’s advisors on the Clean Water Act, explained Trump’s opinion more clearly after the speech. Cramer suggested that Trump was opposing an update to the Clean Water Act that expanded the number of U.S. waterways regulated by the federal government. With Environmental Protection Agency-regulated streams, not all available water is sent to farms and communities for use, as some is kept in the streams to preserve biodiversity and wildlife. This preservation practice ultimately allows some water to flow out to sea.

For the most part, Trump’s position on water pollution and water infrastructure are non-existent. In the cases where he did express views, they either did not present solutions or were scientifically inaccurate.

Hillary Clinton’s Proposed Water Policies

In contrast, Hillary Clinton’s official stance on water issues and possible policy prescriptions are clearly outlined on her website in a nearly 600-word write-up titled “Improving Water Security.”

Some of her solutions include, but are not limited to, increasing federal investments in water conservation, funding water infrastructure, expanding water reuse, and establishing a water innovation lab. Each of these solutions is explained with a paragraph describing the problem, naming the agency or organization that will be involved in solving the problem, and how the federal government will be involved.

In addition to taking advantage of preexisting funds available for water conservation by a number of U.S. agencies, Clinton plans to invest $100 million annually in the Bureau of Reclamation’s primary water conservation grant program, WaterSMART. This is more than triple the current investment. These funds will support infrastructure modernization and environmental restoration projects that can save water.

While Clinton appears to be in staunch support of improving water security and safety across the nation, her position has not always been consistent. In 2005, when she was a U.S. Senator from New York, Clinton voted against a measure to ban the manufacturing of a known carcinogen that had affected drinking water supplies in 31 states across the nation. The International Business Times suggested that she was swayed to vote against the bill because ExxonMobil was one manufacturer of the carcinogen and also a major donor to the Clinton Foundation.


Researchers at the Columbia Water Center at the Earth Institute have assembled a steering committee to develop a U.S. water roadmap that will act as a guide for our future political leaders as they address America’s water challenges. The roadmap highlights the five key challenges: risk management; infrastructure design, planning and operation; financing; rights and allocation; and decision-maker knowledge.

For each of these challenges, the committee will offer both technical and policy solutions. Solving these problems will not be simple. The steering committee will collaborate with academics, industry experts, utilities, and infrastructure managers to conduct further research and find solutions.

The policy choices the future leaders of our nation make are imperative to solving this crisis. The development of the water roadmap will serve as a national guide so that all decision makers, including our future presidential candidates, can make informed and effective change.

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