By Scott Simonton, PE, PhD
My great-grandfather was a farmer in WV, on land near the Big Sandy River and the Kentucky border. The details of the story that’s in my mind – I think from my grandmother and from his death certificate – was that one day during the winter of 1923/1924, he travelled to town, which was the county seat. I don’t know why he went there, and it wasn’t terribly close to home so it would have taken at least a bit of effort, but in my imagination it was something important. I don’t even know if he had a car – while the Model T had been out for 15 years or so, it may have still been out of reach for a WV farmer. While in town, as was common in the day in rural America, he took a drink of water from the public well. The water probably appeared clear and clean, without an odor or bad taste. He couldn’t know that the water was contaminated, and within a few days or weeks of taking that drink, on February 8, 1924, he died of typhoid fever at age 35.
It really wasn’t long ago that typhoid fever was a common water-borne disease, spread from sewage contamination in water supplies. Often, one could trace the spread as eruptions of the disease appeared in a town, and days later in the next town downstream. It is a disease that once killed thousands every year in the U.S. Even today, 150,000 people a year die of typhoid fever globally. However, in the U.S. and the developed world, it is nearly unheard of and almost always reported in people (400 or so a year in the U.S.) who contracted it during international travel.
Typhoid fever, and many water-borne illnesses, are now rare in the U.S. in large part because of wastewater and water treatment and disinfection infrastructure that began to be built in the early 1900’s, and that construction and implementation accelerated in the mid-1900’s to today. Now, about 90% of Americans are on some form of public water supply – I’ll discuss the 10% that aren’t at another time. These systems are largely well maintained and managed, and well regulated by USEPA and the States, generally under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Clean, safe water is certainly the norm in the U.S. and most of the developed world. Most Americans give no thought to where their water comes from, or where it goes after they’ve used it, as we take for granted that clean, safe water will be delivered to us and that our wastewater will be carried away.
But our water-supply infrastructure isn’t perfect by any means. In fact, while it is designed especially to address water borne disease, it is less effective at treating organic and inorganic contaminants. Water treatment is usually fairly basic, and amounts to essentially taking water from a river, settling out the dirt, running it through a sand filter, applying some disinfectant such as chlorine, and sending it on to consumers. While basic, it is effective, especially for preventing water borne illnesses. However, the water treatment plants are only a part of the potable water supply system, as we also rely heavily on protecting our source-water.
Protection of the source water is mostly accomplished through the Clean Water Act, which regulates pollutant discharges to our surface water supply. Industrial and commercial facilities and wastewater treatment plants are limited in what they can discharge to surface waters, and since it’s passing in 1972 the CWA has caused a tremendous improvement in surface water quality in the U.S.
It does not take much imagination to see that this system has vulnerabilities all along the way.
Our water treatment and distribution systems are often taken for granted to the point that gaining support to fund much-needed maintenance and modernization can be difficult, especially when it means increased water bills. Many of these systems are 50 years or more old and are in need of repairs – I have personally been in water treatment plants for small rural communities where parts of the system are held together with bailing wire. It is difficult to get support for increased fees as customers turn on a faucet, get plentiful clean water, and don’t see a problem.
These older systems can also contain components that seemed perfectly fine at the time of installation – such as lead pipes – but which we now know are problematic. Not all of these systems have acquired the attention and subsequent improvement efforts of Flint, Michigan, and replacement of these components is expensive.
As our understanding of toxicity has improved, so has our recognition of threats to our water supply not easily addressed by standard water treatment practices. While the Clean Water Act requires surface waters be protected so that only traditional water treatment processes be necessary, many systems find it essential to add additional treatment – such as the addition of activated carbon for the removal of organic contaminants – to insure quality water can be delivered.
Our source waters are especially vulnerable and under threat – again we are reminded daily of these threats.
While the CWA’s system of regulating discharges of pollutants to surface has made vast improvements in water quality, it is not a perfect system. It does allow contaminants to be discharged to surface water but in an amount that should be protective of human health and aquatic life. This system relies almost entirely on voluntary compliance, which while certainly proven effective, has its problems. My experience has been that the vast majority of the regulated community wants to protect the environment as much as anyone, and voluntary compliance usually works. Nevertheless, as with anything, there are “cheaters”, accidents, and a simple lack of awareness on the part of the regulated community and sometimes a lack of vigilance by the regulators that can lead to unacceptable threats to our water supply.
As I write this, the full impact to water from the East Palestine, Ohio rail accident are far from fully understood. The Vinyl Chloride spilled in the accident has some particularly nasty toxicity characteristics, is very mobile in the environment, and is especially hard to clean up once it gets there. It could be a threat to surface water and groundwater for years.
Other recent events remind us how vulnerable we are to accidental releases of this nature. The 2014 spill of about 7500 gallons of coal cleaning chemicals in WV impacted the water supply of nearly 300,000 people, who were under a do-not-use advisory for at least 5 days.
In 2020, high levels of 1,4-dioxane – a byproduct of plastic manufacturing that is a likely carcinogen – were found in the Delaware River basin, which ultimately is the source of drinking water for about 13 million people.
These types of events combined with the developing understanding of emerging threats such as PFAS, show that our water supply and infrastructure are not as well protected as we would like, and that a vigilant approach to both source-water and infrastructure is critical. A large part of this vigilance calls for a better understanding by the public about where their water comes from and how it is treated and delivered.
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