Residents of Benton Harbor received an important advisory this week from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services heading into the weekend: there will be no free bottled water distributed on Sept. 5 due to the Labor Day holiday.
For some, in a city of about 9,000 people where nearly half of the predominantly Black population live in poverty, that could mean having to go a day without clean water for daily tasks such as brushing teeth, drinking, cooking, rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula.
Since October 2021, health officials have urged locals in Benton Harbor to depend on bottled water due to an elevated presence of lead in testing of the city's water, which had first surpassed the Environmental Protection Agency's contamination threshold dating back to at least 2018.
There is no safe level of lead in drinking water because "lead is a toxic metal that can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels," according to the EPA.
The issue of clean drinking and aging infrastructure in American cities garnered renewed focus this week as a water crisis unfolded in Jackson, Mississippi, following record flooding from heavy rainfall that severely damaged the capital city's main water treatment facility, knocking out water pressure and drinking water to nearly all of the tens of thousands of people who rely on it.
The crisis prompted Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves to declare a state of emergency Tuesday, while also activating the National Guard, with some 600 members now deployed to Jackson to aid water distribution at seven sites set up around the city.
But officials, including Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, decry that issues at the facility are not just a result of recent severe weather, rather in part due to the lack of maintenance over an immense period of time.
Jackson has been under a citywide boil water notice since July 29 due to pump issues at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant.
"This is a set of accumulated problems based on deferred maintenance that's not taken place over decades," Lumumba said at a press conference earlier this week.
It would cost at least $1 billion to fix the water distribution system and billions more to resolve the issue altogether, Lumumba estimated.
Back in Benton Harbor, under an executive directive by Gov. Grethen Whitmer, the city has been in the process of replacing all of its lead service lines for nearly a year. State funding in the "Building Michigan Together Plan" signed by Governor Whitmer directed $45 million to the City of Benton Harbor for infrastructure improvements, with a goal of 100% replacement of the lead service lines by spring of 2023. The resources also included allocation of free drinking water for the city's residents.
"I cannot imagine the stress that moms and dads in Benton Harbor are under as they emerge from a pandemic, work hard to put food on the table, pay the bills, and face a threat to the health of their children," Whitmer said in a statement last year. "We will not rest until the job is done and every parent feels confident to give their kid a glass of water knowing that it is safe."
To date, more than 85% of Benton Harbor's lead lines have been replaced with new copper lines, according to the city's dashboard.
That represents more than 3,900 water service lines replaced or verified non-lead, with around 600 remaining to complete.
More broadly, aging and insufficient infrastructure is an issue the current administration has attempted to address. President Biden last fall signed a massive bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill aimed at addressing the nation's core infrastructure needs, including $55 billion for water.
But with a fast-changing climate and increasing occurrence of rare weather events, many cities with already vulnerable water systems are being pushed to the brink.
In August, historic flooding devastated eastern Kentucky killing dozens of people, displacing hundreds more and knocking out power amid grueling summer heat. Water service connections were severely impacted. At one point, more than 45,000 people were under boil water advisories. Kentucky National guard soldiers helped distribute thousands of cases of bottled water to flood-wrecked areas.
Climate change and its impact are delivering a reality check to cities with decades-old infrastructure.
Jackson Mayor Lumumba in an interview with ABC News live this week, said, "We've had hotter summers, colder winters and more precipitation each year and it's taking a toll on our infrastructure. And so we need the support to not only create sustainability and equity in our system, but to also weatherize our system."
Over in Benton Harbor, for now, resident Leslie Pickell is "excited" the lead service line replacement process is heading in the right direction.
"This is a good thing for our community and I truly look forward to the day when there is not a single lead service line in my city," Pickell said in a statement provided by the office of Gov. Whitmer after a recent visit with homeowners in the city.