USA - These five cities could be one natural disaster away from a catastrophic water crisis
When torrential rainfall in August 2022 pushed the Pearl River in Mississippi to surge well beyond its banks, floodwaters spilled into the suburbs of Jackson and led an already-hobbled water treatment plant to fail.
It was the final stroke in what experts described as a yearslong issue in the making, which eventually left tens of thousands of residents in the city without clean drinking water for weeks.
What happened in Jackson, experts say, is a bellwether for what’s to come if America continues to kick the can down the road in addressing its aging and crumbling water infrastructure. The climate crisis threatens to make those issues even more pressing.
When sea levels rise, summers become hotter or heavy rains lead to more flooding, the country’s water infrastructure – largely built last century and only designed to last roughly 75 years – will be more strained than ever, threatening a system vital to human life.
At the rate our climate is changing, America’s water infrastructure is not equipped to handle the challenges to come, said Erik Olson, the senior strategic director for health and food with the National Resources Defense Council.
“America’s water system relies on last century’s infrastructure that often can’t protect our health from hazardous contaminants,” Olson told CNN. “And our outdated system is completely unprepared for this century’s challenges of intense heat, drought and flooding.”
The American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s drinking water infrastructure a C-minus in its 2021 report card. And climate change-fueled extreme weather disasters promises a gauntlet of even tougher tests.
The 2021 infrastructure legislation signed by President Joe Biden includes about $30 billion for drinking water, and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Actanother $550 million for water infrastructure. But experts say those figures are not enough to make up for decades of disinvestment and mismanagement across the country.
In Jackson alone, it could cost $1 billion to $2 billion to repair the water system, and the water industry estimates that the total nationwide costs will top $1 trillion. “Federal investments account for just a few percent of the total needs,” Olson said.
To better understand the issue, CNN examined five cities or regions across the country that show signs of vulnerability under a rapidly warming planet – from coastal flooding in New York to saltwater intrusion in California’s groundwater.