Blades and all of Delaware deserve clean water

Yesterday, the News Journal featured my piece on the water crisis in Blades and the need for federal investments in our drinking and wastewater infrastructure. Until we get serious about funding modern, safe drinking water systems across the country, small towns and the families who live there will continue to bear both the financial and public health burdens of our inaction. I hope you’ll take a minute to read by op-ed below, and here.

“Blades and all of Delaware deserve clean water”

Late last month, I stood with officials from our state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and the town of Blades as we heard good news — the town’s drinking water is safe to drink again.

Just a few weeks before my visit, tests discovered that the public drinking water in Blades was contaminated with chemicals known as perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs. With PFCs present at nearly twice the federal health advisory level, the town alerted its 1,250 residents, as well as businesses and schools that use public water, to stop using that water for drinking and cooking.

When I visited Blades just days after that announcement, I was heartened to see an all-hands-on-deck effort by the National Guard, DNREC, the DHSS Division of Public Health, the Blades Volunteer Fire Company, town officials and others — all of whom came together to address the issue in a timely and efficient way.

Fast forward to late February’s visit to Blades. After working to secure emergency funding, a new carbon filtration system was up and running and doing its job. I’m proud of the way that everyone — at the local, state and federal level — worked together to give the people of Blades clean water and peace of mind once again.

In Blades, we were dealing with a public drinking water source. But 1 in 6 Delaware residents depends on private wells for their drinking water. In those instances, the responsibility to test the water falls on homeowners, many of whom may not know how to do that or what resources are available to help them.

It turns out that our state’s Division of Public Health offers water-quality test kits for just $4 that can determine if bacteria and many chemicals in your water fall within safe parameters. A standard test will measure the presence of substances like coliform bacteria and nitrates, which can become harmful to one’s health if present at too high a level.

To pick up your test kit, please go to the office in your county.

Should your test detect contamination, there are officials at DNREC and the DHSS Division of Public Health who can help homeowners determine what steps to take to ensure that their water is clean and safe. Every family in Delaware should be able to turn on their tap and be confident that their water is safe to drink — no matter their ZIP code or water source.

First State residents should know that, regardless of where they live, help is available.

When it comes to ensuring safe and clean drinking water, there is no one solution, but smart, incremental improvements can make a real difference. For example, when I served as governor, we began addressing the high levels of agricultural runoff that had been polluting our waterways for far too long.

To find a solution, we formed the Nutrient Management Commission, bringing together farmers and other Delawareans to develop best practices for addressing agricultural waste in order to reduce pollutants that move through our water system and eventually find their way to the Chesapeake Bay. The commission came up with a common-sense solution: have farmers check the nutrient levels in their fields, develop a plan to keep those nutrients at non-polluting levels and get the training needed to implement the plan.

These efforts have translated into real results and have had a decidedly positive impact on the health of Delaware’s water, decreasing levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment here while also helping to reduce the number of “dead zones” in the Chesapeake Bay. It has taken time and the sustained efforts of many Delawareans to produce these improvements, but smart steps like these have led to a much healthier bay and to cleaner water to drink.

After decades of collaboration across our state, pollutants in our creeks, rivers and ponds have decreased and, as a result, advisories for fish caught in Delaware waterways have recently been relaxed. As someone who has wonderful memories of fishing with my father and grandparents as a young boy, it’s welcome news that, thanks to the combined efforts of many, First State families can now feel more comfortable in making a decision to eat what they catch.

In Delaware, we have seen that smart investments can dramatically improve our water quality. But states cannot tackle this challenge on their own — the federal government has an important role to play, too. Our country’s outdated drinking water infrastructure systems continue to be strained by population growth and stagnant federal investments. Most of our country’s 1 million miles of pipes were laid more than 50 years ago, and investments in our drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities have not kept up with demand, leading to a needed $1 trillion investment in drinking water infrastructure over the next 25 years, according to the American Water Works Association.

In Washington, D.C., we have finally restarted the conversation about updating our generations-old infrastructure systems, from roads and highways to drinking and wastewater systems. Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s initial infrastructure proposal focuses more on cutting environmental protections — like those that address water pollution — rather than making the historic investments in our infrastructure that are badly needed in many parts of America after decades of underinvestment at the local, state and federal level.

President Donald Trump’s proposal also makes drastic cuts to federal investments in local water and wastewater programs under the assumption that private investment will make up the difference. Leveraging federal dollars with private investment to help rebuild our infrastructure system may work in certain instances, but we have also seen that approach further exacerbate the divide between communities that have state-of-the-art water facilities and those with outdated facilities in critical need of upgrades.

Until we get serious about funding modern, safe drinking water systems across the country, small towns and the families who live there will continue to bear both the financial and public health burdens of our inaction.

We had a successful outcome in Blades thanks to everyone’s hard work. However, if we are serious about making lasting progress, we must focus on the root causes of these all-too-common drinking water crises, rather than just addressing the symptoms as they arise.

The people who sent us to Washington to represent them expect Congress to think ahead and address problems before they become crises, and I believe strongly that, with some hard work and a bipartisan spirit, we can show them we’re up to the task.