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Extreme weather sparked by climate change is putting a strain on infrastructure

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Residents of Jackson, Miss., still do not have drinkable water and are being advised to boil it. The city's water treatment plant was already struggling, but a flood made a bad situation worse. Extreme weather fueled by climate change is posing a bigger and bigger threat to the nation's water infrastructure. Lauren Sommer with NPR's climate team is here to talk about more of the risk. Hey, Lauren.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So in Jackson, residents have spent weeks boiling water or relying on bottled water. Are we seeing the consequences of vulnerable water systems like this in other states?

SOMMER: Yeah, just this week, actually. There's been flooding in Georgia after some incredibly heavy rain. And it damaged the water treatment plant in Summerville. So residents there have also been told to boil their water before using it while the plant is being fixed. And this year, there have also been issues in places you might not expect, like Chicago. In April, residents there were told to conserve water, you know, delay taking showers or doing laundry.

MARTIN: Why? What is going on in Chicago?

SOMMER: Well, it wasn't that there was too little water. There was too much water, you know? In parts of Chicago, the pipes that drain all the rainwater from the streets are the same pipes that go to people's houses. So when a big storm hits, those pipes are getting a lot of runoff, plus all the normal water and sewage that comes from homes.

MARTIN: So all this combines together. And it's just too much water. And the system's overwhelmed.

SOMMER: Yeah, exactly. And so rainstorms are just getting more intense as the climate gets hotter. So there's just more water to deal with all at once, whether it's a flood or a lot of rain. And it's really testing water systems.

MARTIN: So what is the fix? I mean, what kind of investment is needed to secure water infrastructure so it's prepared to meet the effects of climate change?

SOMMER: Yeah. I mean, a lot of water infrastructure is next to water sources, as you might expect. So there's flooding or sea level rise. And water treatment plants are having to look at raising their key facilities so they're higher up, or maybe even moving the whole plant to a new location out of the floodplain. I spoke to Barb Martin, director of engineering and technical services at the American Water Works Association. And she said the recent problems are making the stakes much clearer.

BARB MARTIN: If we don't plan ahead and make the investment now that we need in our water infrastructure, really, we're all at risk, whether that be the public health of our communities or the protection of the environments that we live in.

MARTIN: The water treatment plant in Jackson, Miss., had been underfunded for years, right? And it had all these maintenance issues. When you think about trying to make these systems - prepare them for a future with more extreme weather and the effects of climate change, I mean, that's expensive on its own. But then you also have all these, you know, backdated issues that they have to fix.

SOMMER: Yeah, yeah. That's exactly it, because Jackson really illustrates how that underfunding kind of combines with climate change, right? Infrastructure is in bad shape. And the flooding was the kicker, was the added stressor that just put it over. And studies show that investment in water infrastructure is falling short by tens of billions every year. The recent infrastructure act passed by Congress will provide a lot of new funding, you know, $50 billion. But experts say, with climate change, that's not going to be enough. So cities and states are going to have to find new ways to protect their drinking water.

MARTIN: Lauren Sommer from NPR's climate team. Thank you.

SOMMER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Lauren Sommer
Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.