Monday, August 18, 2014

Great Nations have 24/7 Water

In the news recently was a rather spectacular water main break in Los Angeles. It made the national news because California is in the throes of the worst drought in recorded history and the image of 50 million gallons of wasted drinking water was new worthy. What did not make the news were water main failures in Washington DC, Maryland or elsewhere. There are about 240,000 water main failures annually in the United States- almost 660 water mains break a day. These water main failures disrupt traffic and are expensive to fix, but also pose a health hazard. The positive pressure in water pipes is what keeps bacteria from the failing and leaking sewer systems out of the failing and leaking water pipes. Clean water and water water pipes were generally run together in our cities and suburbs are crumbling and contributing to disease outbreaks and water supply disruptions.The National Institute of Health (NIH) believes that 36,700 infections and 18,400 illnesses occur each year due to contamination in public water systems; 2,200 infections and 1,100 illnesses occur each year from private wells.

The last U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment was done in 2011 and released in 2013. The survey showed that $384 billion in improvements are needed for the nation’s drinking water infrastructure through 2030 for systems to continue providing safe unlimited drinking water 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week to the 297 million Americans who depend on them. (It is estimated that 16 million households depend on private water supplies. Getting households to properly test and maintain their wells and septic systems is also a problem.)

The lion’s share of the costs estimated by the EPA is for treatment ($72.5 billion to expand or rehabilitate infrastructure to reduce contamination) and distribution ($247.5 billion to replace or refurbish aging or deteriorating water mains). The water bill that most pay barely covers the cost of delivering the water and essential repairs for all those water main failures. There seems to be significant resistance to increasing water bills to pay the true cost of water and the system to deliver that water. As a matter of fact there were public protests over having to pay delinquent water bills in Detroit this summer. Protestors claimed clean water as a right that should be free.

In Charleston, West Virginia and Toledo, Ohio the entire cities were without water when the treatment plant could not treat the source water for an “unexpected” contaminant. The first steps towards a clean water supply and public health was to disinfect drinking water in the cities (and develop sewer systems). Treating drinking water with either Chloramine or chlorine lowered microbial densities of coliform bacteria, heterotrophic bacteria, Legionella bacteria preventing disease and death. However, these bacteria and the other substances on the primary drinking water list are not the whole story, nor are they the only substances in our water today. Our water treatment plants should be more robust as more and more contaminants begin to appear in our national water supplies. Our modern world is filled with chemicals, they exist in pharmaceuticals, household products, personal care products, plastics, pesticides, industrial chemicals, human and animal waste; they are in short, all around us. These chemicals include organics, inorganic, polymers, and UVCBs (chemical substances of Unknown or Variable composition, Complex reaction products, and Biological materials).

All the water on Earth has been here since shortly after the earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago (or so). There is no mechanism on Earth for creating or destroying large quantities of water, the water here continually cycles through the water cycle. The water we’ve got is what's been here, literally, forever and contaminants are building up. In their study of surface water used for drinking water supplies the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found a diverse group of contaminants in the source water used by our cities and towns. The concentrations were low, but the contaminants were ubiquitous. This would indicate a variety of different sources and pathways for these contaminants to reach our drinking water supplies. The concentrations were low, (about 95% of the concentrations were less than one-part per billion); nonetheless, the most commonly detected contaminants in source water were generally detected in finished drinking water at about the same frequency and concentration. Our drinking water treatment systems do not remove these contaminants and we need to change that.

The USGS found that as the amount of urban and agricultural lands increased within the water shed, the numbers of contaminants in the rivers also increased. Rivers receiving municipal and industrial discharge, as well as discharges from other point and non-point sources from stormwater runoff are impacted by man-made organic contaminants, most of which are unregulated. Only about 40 of the 260 substances the USGS tested for are regulated the rest are unregulated. The USGS groundwater testing was a little better. It found trace levels of an herbicide (atrazine or simazine) or an herbicide degradate (deethylatrazine), and the solvents perchlorethene or trichloroethene widely distributed in samples from shallow unconfined aquifers without a confining geological layer, though the deeper confined groundwater aquifers remained mostly free of man-made contamination. Only about 1% of the groundwater tested had 10 contaminants detected at concentrations greater than human-health recommended levels. Groundwater remains cleaner than surface water for now.

USGS led research published in Environmental Monitoring and Assessment this summer found two fish species, smallmouth bass and white sucker, exhibiting intersex characteristics (male fish with immature eggs) caused by hormones and hormone-mimicking compounds. Intersex fish have been found in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna, Delaware and Ohio River basins, indicating that the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals are more widespread than previously known. Previously, sampling within the Chesapeake Bay watershed found signs of reproductive endocrine disruption in the Potomac River basin. Our regional drinking water comes from the Potomac River. Our water treatment plants do not address these contaminants. Our water treatment systems are taken for granted and forgotten. We as a nation need to continually improve and maintain our water infrastructure. However, we do not seem to have the discipline or political will to do it.

As an alternative to maintaining and improving our water treatment and distribution system, a recent article in the New Scientist magazine by Naomi Lubick suggests that the future of water is “off-grid” water treatment where homes and businesses would do the final finishing of the water. The failing water systems in our cities would continue to deliver water in the volumes we demand or when the system has supplies and the water mains are functional and local final treatment would bring it up to drinking water standards. This local treatment would happen in buildings with self-contained treatment systems or suburban neighborhoods that would also have local treatment systems. This is a frightening suggestion. What would evolve from that plan is a better and safer water supply for the affluent who could afford to live in buildings and gated communities with advanced water storage and treatment systems while others would have an inferior system as the main supply system deteriorated. Welcome to the future of water in America-life in India.
This image is actually from Peru

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