12/18/14

Keeping drinking water safe still presents challenges

Earlier this week, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). This law allows us to feel safe taking a sip from a water fountain or filling a glass from the tap virtually anywhere in the United States. It’s undeniably a feat worth celebrating, but it’s not to say that delivering safe drinking water to millions of Americans is without its challenges—as this year’s events in Charleston, West Virginia and Toledo, Ohio prove.

One of the largest challenges lies in the system itself. Much of our drinking water infrastructure is more than a century old and in desperate need of repair. Leaky pipes and broken water mains cost the country around 6 billion gallons of water every day—roughly 16 percent of our daily use. In the Great Lakes region alone, the annual water loss is enough to supply 1.9 million Americans with safe drinking water for a year.

In northeastern Illinois, the cost of leaky pipes is heightened by overtaxed aquifers and legal limits on how much water can be pulled from Lake Michigan. And as the region’s population grows, there is increasing concern that demand for clean water will outpace supply if communities don’t take steps to encourage conservation, including adjusting water prices to reflect the real costs.  

Treating water to meet national standards poses its own problems. In fact, some of the chemicals used to treat contaminants regulated under SDWA have themselves proven toxic under the right conditions.

Water suppliers today also face the question of how to deal with emerging contaminants like pharmaceuticals and chemicals found in personal care products. Our wastewater and drinking water systems weren’t designed with these in mind and often don’t eliminate them. These chemicals have been found across the country in the rivers and lakes we rely on for fresh water, including Lake Michigan. In fact, a 2008 Associated Press investigation found pharmaceuticals and their byproducts in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans. They’re present in very small concentrations—too small to be toxic to humans. But the long-term risk to humans is still largely unknown. What is clear is that at least some pose a significant threat to aquatic wildlife.  

One of the biggest culprits in lake and river pollution is stormwater runoff. When it flows into waterways, runoff brings everything with it—from gasoline and trash on city streets to fertilizers and pesticides from lawns and farms. These pollutants and the algae growth they spur on can make it more expensive to treat drinking water. In rare cases, water quality can drop so low that it doesn’t meet federal standards even with treatment. And concerns about pollutant-laden stormwater runoff continue to grow in the Midwest as storms get bigger.  

Fortunately, while public water systems and communities continue to grapple with these and other challenges at a larger scale, there is a lot individuals can do day-to-day. For example, properly disposing of unwanted medicine can help keep pharmaceutical chemicals out of waterways and drinking supplies. Homeowners and gardeners can also adopt natural lawn care practices that reduce water usage and prevent landscape chemicals from washing into nearby rivers and lakes. Even simple practices like washing your car with a bucket and sponge or waiting for a full load to start the washing machine can go a long way towards conserving water. 

Visit EPA's Conserving Water site for more information and tips. 

ShareThis