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Water as a Human Right: Challenges to our Water

March 22, 2021
This post is a transcription of the Water as a Human Right: Challenges to our Water episode in our River Talks podcast.  
Catherine Price

Welcome to the Cumberland River Compact’s River Talks podcast. Our podcast explores topics related to the health, enjoyment, and protection of the Cumberland River basin’s, water, people, and special places. In this season of River Talks, we are exploring water as a human right and how this has been championed and challenged in our state. We will take a close look at the past, present, and future of water in Tennessee through four episodes that weave together the perspectives from a variety of experts in water access, water distribution, and water equity.

Throughout the series, we will deconstruct current issues and develop a collective understanding for a path forward. Be sure to subscribe to River Talks, so you’re notified of every new episode in this series.

We would like to thank Humanities Tennessee for their support of this series. Humanities Tennessee is a nonprofit organization that fosters community and civility in Tennessee through engaging programs that examine and reflect upon ideas, stories, history, arts, and culture. Learn more at

Catherine Price

Challenges to our water system are nothing new in the early days of our city’s distribution of drinking water was a challenge. Water that was pumped from the rivers and cleaned and basic ways was then bottled, barreled, and sold. Those without means to purchase water were left out and forced to pull water directly from streams or rivers. Many of the challenges we see today from aging infrastructure to where our population is growing represent the impacts of decisions that were made in the past.

In this episode, we’re going to go deeper into some of the present challenges to water and what we are seeing for the future. We’ll consider how these challenges impact whether water is safe, sufficient, and accessible. And finally, we’ll look closer at the last component of water as a human right, affordability.

On our last episode, we talked about how some of the issues we see today are results of decisions made in the past, but some of these decisions actually worked out really well. But as we look into the future, we’re starting to see that new issues arise. Here’s Ron Taylor with Metro Water Services on some of those impacts.


Ron Taylor

Some of the decisions that we made in the past are brilliant. The location of the two water treatment plants in Nashville was recommended in a study from the 1880s. The site and the elevation for our key facilities has been an educational experience, if you remember back to the 2010 flood, one or two water plants in Nashville was flooded. The other, the older two plants retaining service throughout that flood event. How did that happen? Well, the older of the two plants was cited before we have regulated flow in the Cumberland River. So they knew floods were going to be higher. So that plant is higher. The newer the two plants was actually built dams. And the thought was, oh. We know what 100 year flood plain is now it’s lower. What we didn’t realize, though, was the future impact of climate change and now we’re going to have more intense floods that can further change what we consider to be the flood plain.

So we decided things really well at times. And then in hindsight, maybe we could have decided them different now. And so you’ve got brilliant engineering that took place in that era without the analytical techniques we’ve got now.

Catherine Price

And many of these decisions were good decisions that helped us ensure clean and accessible water.

But we’re still faced with sometimes unforeseen consequences. Here’s Jenny Dodd, the director of the Division of Water Resources with the Tennessee Department of the Environment and Conservation.

Jenny Dodd

As I mentioned, we’re really lucky to have an abundance of water in Tennessee. And I feel that the regulations that we have over the last 40 years have done a really good job of making sure that that water is clean water. And so in a lot of ways, we’re very we are reaping the benefits of regulations that have been in place and of operators and municipalities that have been working to make sure that they are providing clean water for decades.

And so we’re reaping the benefits of that. At the same time, we are struggling somewhat with, again, the maintenance of distribution systems. In the early days of EPA, there were a lot of federal dollars that were put into grants towards expanding public water systems and not just in Tennessee, but in other states also. And that was a good thing because it did expand drinking water into areas that would not have had it without those federal grants.

But we got used to having grant dollars and not necessarily loans that have to be paid back. And so not every facility planned for the maintenance and replacement and upkeep that have to happen.

Catherine Price

We will come back to these grants and loans at the end of this episode. But needless to say, the concerns around infrastructure are ubiquitous in the past, present, and future water in Tennessee. But there are some new challenges that are emerging right now.

Jenny Dodd

Additionally, there are contaminants of concern that are relatively new. There are emerging concerns because the science isn’t necessarily there to tell us how much of a problem and at what levels if there are synergies between certain chemicals. So it’s hard to write scientifically defensible regulations when the science isn’t complete at this point. So we have some contaminants of emerging concerns like PFAS.

Catherine Price

OK, just a quick note here on PFAS. PFAS is a group of manmade chemicals that can be found in products like water repellent, fabric, nonstick cookware and in firefighting foam. It has been around since 1940 but is one of those pollutants of emerging concerns.

OK, back to Jenny Dodd,

Jenny Dodd

Micro Plastics and then the pharmaceuticals that we continue to study. Scientists at EPA and state levels are looking at these, trying to make sure that we are protected and at the same time understanding the science as we write these regulations. But that’s an additional challenge for the drinking water plants to be able to manage all of that.

Catherine Price

Here’s more on contaminants of emerging concern from Ron Taylor.

Ron Taylor

We learn more and more in our drinking water sector about what may be potentially harmful long term to some of our customers. That group of contaminants of emerging concerns is constantly changing. So we’ve got to be ever vigilant, thinking forward about what technology we implement for drinking water, to manage those contaminants, to protect our customer base.

Catherine Price

Contaminants of emerging concern are a direct threat to the ability to provide safe water. One of those core components of water is a human right, but it is something we can all make an impact on. Jenny Dodd explains.

Jenny Dodd

Contaminants of emerging concern tend to be contaminants that are not coming from a single industry or a group of industries. It’s more of a collective issue. They’re coming from our homes. They’re coming from the micro. Plastics are coming from the plastics that we use. They’re coming. They the past is coming from products that we buy and that we use. And the algal blooms that we’re now struggling with are coming from nutrients that come from a host of different areas.

And so it’s a lot harder in some ways because it’s a collective problem. And all of us are contributing to some of these newer pollutants. And it’s not as simple as working with an industry or a group of industries to reduce their pollutants. But it’s more of what we do in our daily lives that we’re going to have to take a look at and try to determine how do we reduce these contaminants. So it’s it’s an exciting time, but it’s a challenging time too.

Catherine Price

As we look towards the future of water, there are even more challenges on the horizon.

Ron Taylor

The distribution quality of drinking water is an issue. The key to maintaining the quality of water is to minimize the time between it comes from our treatment plants to the consumer drinks it. The longer our transmission lines are, the larger the pipes. The more tanks that it sits in, water treatment tanks, you know, are great for maintaining supply. We have a water line, but the longer the water sits in those tanks, the more it becomes.

So balancing water supply for drinking water versus drinking water quality is an ever-present challenge in our industry.

Catherine Price

OK, keep this idea in mind. We’ll come back to it in a unique way during our final episode. OK, here again is Ron Taylor.

Ron Taylor

Nutrient removal is going to be an ever-present issue in order to control the growth of harmful algae. We need to manage the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus discharge into our surface waters. And so it’s going to become important for point sources like treatment plants to provide nutrient removal to control that. That costs energy, so managing energy, energy efficiency is going to become or continue to be a really present challenge.

Climate change, the fact that we’re going to have more frequent droughts, may make it really difficult for water supply to be adequate in areas away from large receiving streams.  And it also means we’ve got more floods. And so you’ve got to manage the impact for our key facilities during those intense flood events.

Construction is certainly a challenge for Nashville. Fiber construction a couple of years ago we thought was going to be great. We’re going to have competitive pricing. Fiber construction for utilities is a challenge, to say the least. Directional drilling is pretty accurate, but some of the subcontractors that are fiber companies use aren’t all that diligent, and they frequently drill through our water lines and our sewer lines. If they hit a water line, we kind of know about it because it tends to sprout up in the air. If they hit a sewer line we might not find out about it for years. So that’s been a challenge.

The runoff from construction is an environmental concern. And we’ve got a strong, strong motive to address that, but it also has identified then opportunities to incorporate green infrastructure for that redevelopment and new construction to reduce the impact of runoff rainfall events.

Catherine Price

One thing we often forget about when we think about our water system are the people that make all of this happen. We’ve heard from only a handful of people in our water sector in Tennessee, but there are thousands of people who work to support our water system. These people work in construction, engineering, biology, chemistry, and, of course, finance, administration, and management. But the workforce in the water industry is aging, according to the Water Environment Federation.

It is projected that in the next 10 years, thirty-seven percent of the water utility workers and thirty-one percent of wastewater utility workers will retire. That leaves a huge gap. The skilled people able to manage our water system. And Tennessee is quickly approaching the point of not enough trained operators. Ron Taylor describes this challenge more.

Ron Taylor

Aging workforce is a real challenge in our business. We have a lot of our operators who are approaching retirement age and they’re really well qualified.

Being an operator for water plant or wastewater plant is a really challenging role. You need to be an expert in biology and chemistry. You need to have laboratory skills, to be a mechanic, electrician for serving electronics. That’s a lot of skill sets for any one person. So developing compensation structures to attract and maintain that workforce is a real challenge for us and all the utilities in Tennessee.

Catherine Price

One of the final core components of water as a human right is that it must be affordable water for much of the United States is paradoxically both underpriced and unaffordable.

Ideally, the water rate or what you pay for, the water you use is set up in a way that covers the costs of providing water without undue burden, but that often isn’t realized. We’ve heard so far that delivering water is expensive, the infrastructure is aging, and the capital investment needed to update the system is costly. There are also costs associated with protecting source water areas and implementing practices that help water naturally infiltrate back into our groundwater and at our utilities.

A skilled workforce is needed to understand the engineering, chemistry and biology that impacts our water system. Nobody likes to see any bill they pay go up, especially for something as basic as water. This has led to a situation where water is priced artificially low despite the high costs associated with delivering water. Although the cost is relatively low, the burden of that cost of water disproportionately impacts low income communities and residents. That may mean a decision each month about what bills to pay.

And if we uphold the notion that water is a human right, cutting off water due to lack of payment does not align. So let’s take a closer look at how water is priced, if you’re interested in learning about the specific water rates in your community, reach out to your utility. We’ll be speaking generally about the pricing of water. Most of the funding to support the distribution, maintenance, and sanitation in our water system is financed locally from ratepayers and often requires local elected officials to approve changes.

That, of course, leads to some political battles over the cost of water. Utilities may also receive funding from municipal, state or federal funds. These additional funding mechanisms are typically in the form of loans, not grants. That means the money will have to be repaid eventually. These funds can be crucial to finance the most needed infrastructure concerns. In Tennessee, we have a state revolving fund that can assist utilities. Here’s Jenny Dodd to explain more.

Jenny Dodd

EPA and the state put dollars into the state revolving fund, which in Tennessee TDEC the division of water resources. We manage the state revolving fund and those are low-interest loans that are that we can make to drinking water and wastewater facilities to go towards maintaining their system, to go towards building new systems or upgrades to their various systems, so and like I said, they’re low-interest loans. They are really affordable. But again, they’re not grants.

So it’s they do have to pay them back. And so there’s planning for that. And the other part for that, I think is a challenge for our systems out there, is that as they. As they get these loans or use their own money to do upgrades to their systems, they’re also these systems are usually put in place for 20 or 30 years and they’re having to guess at what regulations will look like over those next 20 or 30 years.

And I mean, and that there’s some crystal ball work there that they have to do when they’re making decisions about spending 20 or 30 million dollars for something that’s supposed to last 20 to 30 years. And you don’t know what the regulations will always look like in that 20 to 30 years, what parameters of concern might pop up in the next 10, 20 years.

So it’s again, it takes a very thoughtful and pragmatic person to do these jobs.

Catherine Price

The rates that users pay for water varies across the country, but the national average is about 40 dollars per month, depending on where you live. Your bill may also include fees for stormwater and sewer. Water systems use a variety of methods to price water and usually differentiate between residential, commercial, and industrial use. There are several common rate structures. First, a flat fee where all customers are charged the same fee regardless of the amount of water used next, a uniform rate, a constant per unit price applied to all units of water consumed on a year-round basis.

Next, an increasing block rate where the price of water increases as you use it more. This is common in urban areas where water shortages may be more common. In contrast, there’s also the declining block rate where the price of water decreases as you use more. This approach is common in more rural areas with larger industrial users and areas with plentiful water supplies. There’s also seasonal rates that vary according to the time of year, and this might be common in areas with seasonal demand, like vacation communities.

And then finally, water budget-based rates. Households will be given a water budget based on the anticipated needs of that household, either by the number of people living in the house or the property size. In general, the US pays less than other countries on water, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to consider water affordability. Water is essential for public health, public safety and maintaining a standard of living. The way our rate structures are set up can have consequences if water becomes unaffordable.

In Episode one, Doctor Bucy shared how the cost of water in the early days of our cities forced many residents to draw untreated water directly from the river. Today, we still see water affordability as an issue, especially in low income communities, communities of color, and communities with large, young or old populations that already experience a burden of vulnerability. And water affordability is a core component of water as a human right.

And our final episode will look at what it takes for us to thrive in the future. We’ll consider how we can address water scarcity and, sure, water affordability and build a healthy environment.

This project was funded in part by a grant from Humanities Tennessee, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.