Equitable Adaptation Legal & Policy Toolkit

Water Quality

A group of people stand outside wearing matching light blue shirts and smiling up at the camera holding signs that say "Clean Water Now!"
Annual Water Rally in Dover, Delaware. (Credit: SERCAP Water is Life, Southeast Rurual Community Assistance Project)

Urban and rural frontline communities are more likely to be exposed to poor water quality resulting from inadequate water treatment and close proximity to polluting industries. The percentage of people without access to modern plumbing necessary for sufficient water treatment is twice as high among black people than white people.See footnote 1

Urban areas, particularly ones with shrinking populations and high levels of poverty, have experienced severe water quality challenges in recent years. Some 10 million homes, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast, have distribution pipes with lead in them. Lead can enter the water supply when pipes are disturbed, as pipes age, or through chemical reactions to changes in water supplies. For example, in the city of Flint, Michigan, where 45% of city residents live below the poverty line, the city’s water system was so under-funded the state of Michigan took over management of the city’s water supply. Without adequate testing and monitoring, the state switched the city’s water supply to river water. Corrosion controls were not added, and the new source of water caused lead to leach from the aging water pipes, seriously harming the health of Flint’s residents.See footnote 2 

Newark, New Jersey, where one-quarter of the city’s predominantly black and Latinx population lives in poverty,See footnote 3 is another recent example of a frontline community plagued by water quality problems. The city changed the acidity of Newark’s water supply, which unfortunately liberated lead from its aging distribution pipes. Water filters were distributed to residents, but about one-fourth were found to be incorrectly installed, resulting in unacceptably high lead levels in residential drinking water. With some state aid, the city is moving to replace aging lead-lined water distribution pipes.See footnote 4 

Rural areas with low incomes are at particular risk of having poor water quality. USDA finds that in “non-metro” areas (rural areas and cities under 50,000 population not connected to major urban areas),See footnote 5 poverty rates are higher than in metro areas, particularly in the Southeast.See footnote 6 About half of communities in the United States with water quality problems are small communities.See footnote 7 This can be the result of a combination of small water supply systems serving relatively few users, who also have low incomes. Such small poor communities have too small an income base to adequately finance drinking water supply and wastewater treatment systems.

Mitigating water quality risks requires policies and programs to support cleaning up sources of pollution, ensuring that drinking water is safely treated and distributed for consumption and other uses; and then properly treating and disposing of wastewater.See footnote 8 This toolkit does not address treatment of pollution sources and instead focuses on providing adequate treatment of drinking water supplied to homes and sanitation infrastructure for the treatment of wastewater.

Considerations of Water Quality Tools



  • Poor water quality can limit economic development by discouraging investment in low-income communities.
  • Poor water quality also increases health costs and morbidity thus reducing the life expectancy and economic productivity of frontline community residents.


  • Poor water quality can be harmful to human health and the environment.

Social /Equity

  • Frontline communities in urban and rural areas are more likely to be exposed to degraded water quality.


  • Funding can be a major barrier to having adequate infrastructure and programs to treat water quality.
  • Drinking water treatment and distribution systems and water treatment systems are either inadequate or aging. Hundreds of billions of dollars of investment are needed to solve the problem.See footnote 9 
  • Water quality monitoring is a necessary component of ensuring that clean water continues to be supplied to frontline communities.


  • Federal law requires that waters are suitable for drinking and provide environmental protection.
  • States may impose additional requirements.
  • Municipalities are responsible for meeting water quality requirements.

Lessons Learned

  • Investments in addressing water quality problems in frontline communities can be expensive but are necessary to protect human health in some of the country’s most disadvantaged
  • In urban areas, water quality risks are often found in communities with decreasing populations, high poverty rates, and high unemployment. These municipalities tend to have high minority and low-income populations and underfunded water systems that lack the financial resources to upgrade aging infrastructure. Water quality in aging water systems can be degraded by deteriorating conditions or changes in water supplies or treatment, threatening human health.
  • In rural areas, small, low-income, and often minority communities have inadequate water supply and wastewater treatment.
  • Both urban and rural frontline communities may be located near sources of pollution such as agriculture or chemical production that can contaminate water supplies.



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