WASHINGTON – As the White House rolls out a campaign to promote its $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, advocates are pushing them to include a water shutoff moratorium, citing new research on the link between COVID infections and water service termination and the emergence of new variants of the virus across the country.
Almost half a million COVID infections could have been prevented if there had been a national moratorium on water service shutoffs, according to new research from Cornell University and the national advocacy group Food & Water Watch. During the same period, from mid-April through the end of 2020, 9,000 COVID deaths nationwide could have been prevented with a robust moratorium on water shutoffs.
The study found that states that had instituted policies to prevent water shutoffs had significantly lower growth rates for COVID infections and deaths. If similar policies had been adopted across the country, the study model estimates that COVID cases might have been reduced by 4 percent, and deaths by 5.5 percent, in the states without a moratorium.
Late last week, Michigan Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Debbie Dingell met with White House officials to make the case for allocating $1 billion for water assistance.
“This research clearly shows us that the pain and suffering caused by COVID pandemic was exacerbated by political leaders who failed to take action to keep the water flowing for struggling families,“ said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “These findings should move us to fight even harder for water justice everywhere: A full moratorium on shutoffs and a massive federal investment in our public water infrastructure. Congress must pass the WATER Act to invest in communities, promote climate resilience, and ensure public water for all.”
The patchwork nature of local and statewide moratoria policies — many of which expired over the course of the year — left millions of people vulnerable to losing service. By June, 34 states had imposed either a full or partial moratorium on water shutoffs, protecting nearly 247 million people. But by the end of the year, just 12 states had a moratorium in place. By December, 65 percent of the country — 211 million people — were not covered. This total included 75 million people of color and 2.6 million households in the lowest income quintile, which are the households most at risk of having their service shut off.
“Our model uses more than 12 thousand data points to capture the relationship between days when a state had a moratorium in place and the level of COVID-19 infection and deaths.,” said Dr. Xue Zhang, Post-Doctoral Associate in the Departments of City and Regional Planning and Global Development at Cornell. “Using modeling typical of other public health studies, we find states with moratoria had lower infection and death growth rates. We hope what we learned from the pandemic can contribute to universal access to water in the future.”
“Access to water is absolutely critical during the pandemic,” said Dr. Mildred E. Warner, Professor of City and Regional Planning and Global Development at Cornell University. “This study shows the importance of a national standard for access to water, especially for low-income households. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed so many structural inequities in our society, and access to drinking water is one that demands our attention.”