Drinking Water: Don't Take it for Granted...Or Else

People often take their drinking water for granted. So is it any wonder that many Americans aren’t aware of the more than 30-year old National Drinking Water Week (May 6-12)?

As little attention as it gets, this country’s – and the developed world’s – reliable supply of clean drinking water is one of the greatest human health accomplishments in world history. Before drinking water (and for that matter wastewater) treatment was introduced at the turn of the 20th century, waterborne diseases like typhoid fever, dysentery and cholera were the third leading cause of death among Americans. (It’s no coincidence that economic and social development around the world took off after drinking water treatment was widely practiced.)

Yet, while Americans can generally feel confident about the quality of drinking water delivered to our taps, not everything is perfect. And it’s not just citizens who've come to underappreciate this oh-so-vital resource. Case in point: The whole country got a wake-up call last year when the American Society of Civil Engineers pinned a grade of D-on the aging American water and wastewater infrastructure. With an annual shortfall of a combined $21 billion between the two systems, water main breaks and sewage spills are becoming all too common. Which leads to the first of our tal

Concerned about your local drinking water? Ensure your own abundant supply of high quality drinking water by reading your annual EPA Consumer Confidence Report and learn about your drinking water’s source and quality.

es of water woes from around the U.S., check them all out below.

Houston, Texas: Houston we have a problem! The intense, prolonged heat of summer 2011, paired with the terrible Texas drought (and the aforementioned nationwide infrastructure issues) caused city water mains to burst at an unprecedented rate, leading to water rationing in the sweltering city. Older, weakened pipes break more easily in the heat because as dried-out soil recedes, it removes necessary pressure from the outside while pressure on the inside builds from increased water use. The result: ruptured pipes. Fingers crossed for a rainy summer 2012.

Central Valley, California: According to a UC-Davis study, nitrate contamination from synthetic fertilizers and animal manure in drinking water sources is going from bad to worse in California’s agricultural hotbed, the Central Valley. This is especially true in the Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley sub-regions, where an estimated 10 percent of the 2.6 million, mostly poor people living there drink nitrate-polluted water, which can have serious health and environmental impacts over time.

Pavillion, Wyoming and Dimock, Pennsylvania: Here’s a fracking two-fer that garnered EPA involvement. In Pavillion, although an EPA study linked fracking to groundwater contamination, the EPA claims that fracking didn’t necessarily contaminate drinking water wells, a point that was contradicted in a recent study by an independent hydrologist who identified a drinking water source east of town that had been polluted by fracking. In Dimock, preliminary tests indicated that water wells that were allegedly contaminated by the fracking process were safe to drink. Affected residents felt no solace though, because standards don’t exist for many of the contaminants.

Moreover, wells were found to have elevated levels of methane, traces of hydrocarbons (diesel fuels, etc.) and heavy metals (carcinogens, neurotoxins), not to mention other reporting inconsistencies. Very reassuring!

Nassau and Suffolk Counties, Long Island, New York: While many people in these two metro New York City counties had an inkling that the groundwater from their EPA-designated sole source aquifer wasn’t in great shape, a recent Suffolk County draft water resources report confirmed that water quality was degraded. In Nassau County, overdevelopment (e.g, paved surfaces everywhere) prevents precipitation from recharging the underground aquifer system. As a result, stormwater runoff, which often carries pollutants, is redirected into local bays instead of being filtered on its way down into the aquifer. The bigger and less developed Suffolk County, on the other hand, has serious problems with nitrate pollution from agricultural and synthetic fertilizer runoff as well as human waste that is discharged into groundwater from failing septic systems, of which there are many. Budget cuts have led Nassau County to discontinue funding for vital USGS water monitoring, begging the question, “Why is it up to the county, anyway?” To find out more about these specific Long Island groundwater challenges, check out this recent GRACE-produced video.

Pensacola, Florida: Sorry, Pensacola, but a 2011 analysis gave you the unenviable distinction of having the worst drinking water of any city in the United States. Based on an analysis of five years of water quality data, 45 of 101 chemicals and elements tested for were detected, with 21 present in harmful concentrations. Of those pollutants, the worst of these were radium-226 and -228, trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, alpha particles, benzene and lead, along with traces of cyanide and chloroform. Not good.  The combination of these chemicals gives Pensacola’s water supply the distinction of being America’s most unhealthy. Let’s hope Pensacola residents have pushed the Emerald Coast Water Utility to step up.