Report Highlights Corners Of The Mountain West Lacking Running Water

Nov 20, 2019

A report out this week shows a significant number of Americans don't have access to basic services like running water. And many of the places that lack plumbing are in the Mountain West.

“Small pockets of communities without complete plumbing exist in every state,” write the researchers, who also say the gap isn’t driven by people who choose to live off-the-grid, but instead by a lack of basic infrastructure. 

“There’s good reason to believe that we do have pockets of folks who are living without the most basic resources, certainly across the nation but especially across the Mountain West,” said Stephen Gasteyer, a sociologist with Michigan State University who led the research. “We know there are pockets of real poverty in the Mountain West. What is needed is a real concerted effort to try to deal with the most basic services and get those to everybody.”

Data from the American Community Survey show that there are about 27,000 households that lack complete plumbing in the region, which is about 0.4% percent of all households in the region. That group includes more than: 6,000 homes in Colorado, 3,000 homes in Idaho, 2,000 homes in Montana, 3,000 homes in Nevada, 7,000 homes in New Mexico, 2,000 homes in Utah and 800 homes in Wyoming. 

The graphic below shows the percent of households in each county that lack complete plumbing facilities. (Hover over a county for additional details. Take a look at the data here).

Gasteyer said survey numbers like those used in the graphic above likely underestimate the scope of the problem.

“We have this census figure about access to plumbing but there are a couple problems with it,” said Gasteyer. 

For example, the American Community Survey surveys households, so by definition it doesn’t count people who are homeless, many of whom don’t have access to plumbing. Additionally, even if people have full plumbing in their homes that doesn’t mean the water is good enough to drink. 

“When we were in places like West Virginia, you would be talking to people who actually, as far as the census is concerned, have access to complete plumbing, but what’s coming out of their tap is really for all intents and purposes not potable,” Gasteyer said. “Their sanitation system, well, theoretically they have one but it’s dumping raw sewage into a pit that runs down the middle of the town.”

And then there’s another issue of data quality.

“One of the things we know about the census is that the numbers become less reliable as you move out to more marginalized populations,” said Gasteyer. “And yet what our statistics show very clearly is that those populations -- for instance, American Indians -- are statistically significantly more likely not to have complete access to plumbing facilities than the general population.”

The researchers found that almost 6% of Native American households lack complete plumbing. Compare that to 0.5% of African-American and Latinx households, and 0.3% percent of white households.

As KJZZ has reported, some communities were skipped over when the U.S. government built up the country’s water and sanitation infrastructure. 

"Our nations didn't have access to funding for infrastructure in the same way that it's federally allocated for cities and states overall," said Mahrinah von Schlegel, an anthropologist from San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico.

She said that in the Southwest, it's expensive to build pipelines across such remote sparsely populated tribal nations.

"It's been a struggle, one, to get the access to that infrastructure capital, and then, two, it's really expensive to develop some of these remote areas," von Schlegel said.

Nationwide, access to water and sanitation has been improving. But Gasteyer and his colleagues found a number of places -- including counties in Nevada and Idaho -- that actually moved a little bit backwards between 2000 and 2014. 

“Even if it’s statistically tiny, each person is significant, and so even if you see a 0.2% decrease, which is something like what we’re seeing in these states, we get concerned,” he said. 

“To be honest, at this point we don’t know what’s going on, he added. “It may be just a statistical anomaly -- that’s possible. But the key point is that we’re not seeing progress ... Really, it’s the beginning of a research project, not the end.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.