Water pollution, old infrastructure contaminates water supplies: Part II of II

by Antonia Sohns, contributing author

In early March, states from New Jersey to California dealt with bursting water mains that flooded streets, consumed cars in sinkholes and left residents without water.

Across the U.S., aging pipes are breaking apart. The EPA estimates that approximately 240,000 water main breaks occur each year. Not only do these old pipes lose an estimated 14 to 18 percent of the nation’s daily water use and cost $2.6 billion in losses as drinking water pours into the streets, but the leaks also provide entry points for contaminants.

Aging pipes threaten water quality by leaching contaminants such as lead into the water they carry. Although lead pipes were banned by Congress 30 years ago, approximately 6.5 million remain in service according to the American Water Works Association. Chemicals are added to the water supply to prevent lead and other chemicals from leaching from the pipes, but too often a pipe repair or modification to the water chemistry results in lead exposure. In 2001, lead concentrations in Washington, D.C.’s tap water remained 20-times the federally approved level for three years after the city changed its water disinfection processes. In Flint, the change in water supply from the Detroit water supply to the more corrosive Flint River resulted in high levels of lead in the water.

Most of the drinking water infrastructure in the U.S. was built more than 50 years ago. In older cities, water pipes may have been in the ground for a century or longer. In Alaska, South Dakota and Pennsylvania officials believe that some communities continue to rely on historic wooden water pipes that once installed were never replaced.

The nation’s sewer systems are also severely outdated. New York City, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and others, operate combined sewage systems to treat wastewater and stormwater, but the capacity of these systems’ was developed for fewer people and before such extreme weather conditions. Therefore, the volume of water entering the system during times of heavy rain exceeds capacity and results in the discharge of billions of gallons of raw sewage into local surface water every year. This problem will continue as the nation’s sewer systems have not been properly invested in to support growing populations or to adapt to increasingly variable rainfall with the onset of climate change.

Increasing strain on water infrastructure

These aging water systems are burdened by increasing populations and are struggling to treat and remove new and persistent chemicals found in the wastewater.

Water treatment is failing to remove chemicals and pesticides, as treatment facilities are not aware the contaminant is present in the water or they are not required to remove it from the drinking water supply. For example, perchlorate, a chemical used with explosives, road flares and fireworks that is known to disrupt the thyroid, development of the brain and possibly lead to developmental disabilities and cancer, was found in the water of 33 states and has contaminated the drinking water of at least 20 million Americans. In 2017, the SDWA will introduce a new rule to regulate the presence of perchlorate in drinking water, but thousands of other chemicals like trichloroethylene (TCE), hexavalent chromium, and atrazine remain in drinking water supplies nationally.

Recent studies have also revealed the presence of pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics and hormones, in water supplies due to over-prescription, improper disposal, urinary excretion and waste from the manufacturing process. In 24 major metropolitan areas, at least one pharmaceutical was detected in tests of drinking water supplies from a survey of 62 major water providers.

Furthermore, wastewater treatment plants are receiving requests from oil and gas companies to treat their drilling wastewater. Pennsylvania lawmakers restricted companies from sending wastewater to the municipal water treatment facilities, as they are ill equipped to remove radium, bromide and other toxins from the fluids. There is additional concern that when the wastewater mixes with chlorine at the treatment plants, a chemical known as trihalomethane may be produced, which can cause bladder cancer and miscarriages.

The ubiquity of chemicals in the environment, society and water supplies complicates treatment in wastewater facilities and elevates the pollution levels in our drinking water. In addition, these issues are magnified since many interactions between chemicals and the cumulative risk of exposure on human health remain unknown.

The need for long-term water policies and investments

Despite the palpable and immediate need to protect water supplies, federal and state action is not being implemented or allocated rapidly. Of the largest federal aid program for improving U.S. drinking water systems, the drinking water State Revolving Fund, approximately $1.1 billion in congressional appropriations remains unspent due to improper management and project delays.

Since Flint, there has been bipartisan support for a $250 million agreement to increase funding for the SRF nationwide and provide startup funding for the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program. Yet, lead-contaminated cities and drought-stricken California are still waiting on Congressional action to finance mechanisms to help build and upgrade wastewater and drinking water treatment systems.

Tell Congress to take action for Flint families NOW!

Over the next 25 years, U.S. drinking water infrastructure will need $1 trillion in investments, according to the American Water Works Association. All levels of government must reinvest in infrastructure, and improve drinking water safety by investigating unregulated chemicals and increasing regulation of harmful contaminants. These efforts will be expensive, but when compared to the approximate $150 billion to treat cancer annually, and the total economic and social costs related to diminished water supply and decrepit water infrastructure, it is apparent that protecting water is the only option.

Current governance and legal frameworks are failing to protect communities from exposure to contaminants that may leave a legacy of health concerns. In response to Flint, Reverend Jesse Jackson said, “Somebody made a trade off. And the people of Flint have been betrayed.” Without long-term policies and investments, damaging chemicals will continue to threaten public health and communities will live crisis to crisis.

All Americans can take action to ensure that federal and state governments are investing in our nation’s drinking water supply and water infrastructure. Action can come in the form of petitioning for further aid to help the residents of Flint, or by putting pressure on state legislators, Congress and the EPA to increase funding to control water pollution and to finance water infrastructure repairs. Individuals can test the water quality in their tap or in their private well to ensure that the water supply is healthy and they can share that information with their community. Stay connected to water issues through national networks or updates from water associations and participate online or in person in events like World Water Week and Drinking Water Week. It is never too late to get involved in the conversation; water impacts every aspect of our lives.