Our water in the US is supplied by lots of sources. Groundwater makes up about 25% of water used, while surface sources like rivers, lakes, or reservoirs make up the remaining 75%. Most of our water is used for thermoelectric purposes, irrigation and public supplies (2005). But water is also important for industry and farming, since it can be used for almost every step of producing everyday goods like food, paper, chemicals, petroleum, or metals. The water cycle doesn’t end there, though. The water used in production needs to flow somewhere, and a lot of times it goes back into rivers.
In a 2004 fact sheet by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), US water sources were declared too impaired by pollution to support their use: ‘In 2004, states reported that about 44% of assessed stream miles, 64% of assessed lake acres, and 30% of assessed bay and estuarine square miles were not clean enough to support uses such as fishing and swimming. Less than 30% of U.S. waters were assessed by the states for this report. Leading causes of impairment included pathogens, mercury, nutrients, and organic enrichment/low dissolved oxygen. Top sources of impairment included atmospheric deposition, agriculture, hydrologic modifications, and unknown or unspecified sources.’
Knowing the numbers is one thing, but knowing what that means for the general public is another. What does it mean to live near a contaminated river or reservoir? If the pollution exceeds a certain level of concentration, it means that your community’s main water source is not fit to drink. More than 100,000 miles of rivers and streams in the US have poor water quality due to factory farming. One single agricultural company, Tyson Foods, causes 104 million pounds of pollution in our surface sources of water within four years. One can only imagine the impact that the whole of US agriculture must have on our water supplies – not to mention other industries and big oil.
With public awareness growing and environmental movements on the rise, how can industrial and agricultural pollution still happen at this large scale? A big portion of water pollution is backed by outdated policies or lack of those that control the amount of pollution. Policies that do exist are enforced poorly and inconsistently which lets industries bypass or ignore laws. Unplanned industrial growth and a number of small scale industries with lack of funding for better technologies influence water quality as well. Often times, it is lower income and marginalized communities suffering the most.
The main issue that stems from water pollution is the impact on health. Polluted water can contain chemicals like fertilizers and pesticides, industrial wastewater, heavy metals, and even radioactive waste. The impacts on communities can be dreadful, and ecosystems are being harmed beyond repair. Failing ecosystems put a strain on many parts of our modern day lives. Fish living in contaminated waters can easily ingest pollutants and carry them into the natural food chain. Habitats are being lost and species are on the brink of extinction, major disasters like oil spills damage public and private properties. The list of consequences seems endless. We all know that coming in contact with these pollutants can cause diseases like cancer, painful rashes, issues with liver and kidney, and disturbance of the nervous system. Children are especially vulnerable: In the Flint water crisis, officials found lead levels in the water causing low IQ, shortened attention span, and increases in violence and antisocial
behavior. It can adversely affect major organs of the body and the effects are irreversible.
All these facts might feel almost insurmountable. But let’s focus on what we can do to change the way people look at our water, and to reduce pollution and the effect it has on our lives. There are many approaches to help keep our water sources clean.
Look at your own water footprint and the footprint of the food you’re eating and the goods you’re using. See what you can change about your lifestyle that would reduce it. See how we impact our water sources.
Look for companies that use environmentally friendly methods and sell biodegradable products instead of chemical cleaners and harming industrial practices. Buy local.
Advocate for your cause. If you change opinions of your friends and family, and if you educate them about water and all the issues revolving around it, they might do the same. It only needs a small number of people to start a movement. Spread the word.
Join an organization, donate or volunteer. See what you can do in your community. Join CHEJ and help communities affected by pollution
Learn about our water sources and how they are used, who influences them and who uses how much.
Check out these links to learn more:
Just yesterday, the federal state of emergency in Flint, Michigan over lead-contaminated water expired. What comes next for a community continuing to deal with a public health crisis?
Residents in Flint have been understandably concerned about the August 14th deadline, as Michigan Radio reports. President Obama declared a Federal State of Emergency over Flint’s poisoned water on January 15th of this year, making 5 million dollars of federal money available to help with the crisis. With the state of emergency in place, the federal government has covered 75% of costs necessary for providing bottled water, filters, filter cartridges, and home testing kits to Flint residents. This aid isn’t going away, according to state officials; instead, the state will be picking up the tab for the necessary supplies –estimated to cost 3.5 million dollars a month, based on current water needs (approximately 10,000 cases of water a week.)
Will those needs remain steady, or have they reached their peak? Current testing suggests conditions in Flint are improving. NPR reports that Virginia Tech researchers, who first exposed the lead contamination, found no detectable levels in half of the homes they tested last month. One expert described Flint as “entering a range that’s considered normal for other U.S. cities.” Unfortunately, water contamination is not unique to Flint, and what’s considered ‘normal’ around the U.S. may simply not be safe enough.
Lead is not the only threat to water supplies across the United States. In addition to known and regulated contaminants, emerging contaminants that have yet to be evaluated may be impacting our water supplies. According to the EPA, many streams that supply water nationwide are not covered by clean-water laws. In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Jeffrey K. Griffiths, a public health expert at Tufts University and former chairperson of the EPA’s Drinking Water Committee, noted that we have “lots of really good professionals in the water industry…but it doesn’t take much for our aging infrastructure or an unprofessional actor to allow that protection to fall apart.”
Given the financial aftermath of the Flint crisis, it’s unsurprising that some ‘unprofessional actors’ were hesitant to disclose the unsafe drinking water conditions. The cost of supplying water to Flint residents is just the beginning; Governor Snyder’s original application for federal aid estimated that as much as 55 million dollars would be needed to repair damaged lead service lines in Flint. The consequences are steep for a city whose crisis originated with a water supply switch intended to cut costs.
Most critically, the crisis in Flint has called into question the trust that we place in our federal, state and local officials to disclose threats to our safety presented by unsafe water. In Flint, the lead contamination persisted for years before it was discovered, and even longer before it was disclosed to the public. Even if water treatments and infrastructure repairs are ultimately successful and lead is undetectable in every Flint household, residents may never again trust their water supply, or the reports they are given about it by their local and state officials. Water can be treated and pipes can be replaced, but trust is much more difficult to repair. In the meantime, at least Flint residents will continue to have access to clean, bottled water. Whether they will trust their faucets again in the future is another matter entirely.