FLINT, Mich. – Most Americans have heard of the water crisis in Flint, Mich. It was a deplorable act of political stupidity and greed. While some contractors made money, and surely some politicians did too, the people of that city were poisoned.
But Flint is just the most infamous example of problems with America’s drinking water. Tap water across the nation is on the verge of poisoning more and more people, assuming there is enough water to drink at all.
Because of aging infrastructure, cities like Chicago are seeing the lead content in its water spike. And now small, rural towns are on the hit list too.
The Advocate, Louisiana’s largest daily newspaper, just exposed the drinking water problems for the residents of St. Joseph, a small town near the Mississippi River. For years, residents were told the brown water was “just” iron oxide. And another 400 towns in Louisiana could be on the hit list.
Recently, The Advocate reported that more than 450 homes in the town of St. Joseph will receive bottle water from the state health department for at least the next eight months.
Toledo, Ohio has issued several alerts as well, while lead amounts in the Chicago tap water is spiking thanks to lead pipes installed in the 1980s.
(Other city’s have suffered similar problems including the Washington, D.C. water system’s lead poisoning problems of 2001, and the sewer sludge that was pumped in to the New York City (see below) and Washington, D.C., recreational waterways.)
Unfortunately, lead poisoning from old pipes isn’t the only water problem Americans face.
Aquifers in Florida (that state’s primary water source) are poisoned too. Three years ago, a chemical spill poisoned the tap water in West Virginia. And the hits keep on coming: hog farms in N.C. pushed fecal matter into drinking water after Hurricane Floyd; Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas reported poisoned drinking water from oil drilling; and still there is more.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a total of 41 states report unsafe levels of lead in their water. If you live in Alabama, Arkansas, Hawaii, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota and Tennessee, you’re OK. For now.
And then there is the issue of a lack of water. Arizona, California and Nevada are all too familiar with water scarcity. Huge swaths of the U.S. suffer water scarcity issues at least one month of every year. (For what it’s worth, one area of Brazil hasn’t had rain in five years.)
On the positive side, this last month’s West Coast storms brought much needed relief to California, but experts told local media that the problem is not solved.
“California is a dry state and probably always will be in most years, but we certainly don’t have a statewide drought right now,” said Jay Lund, a professor of engineering and director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis, to the East Bay Times. “We have to be careful about crying wolf here. You have to maintain credibility with the public when there are critically dry years, so you have to call it like it is when conditions improve.”
Business Insider published a sobering article called “15 Depressing Facts About The Coming Water Crisis.” It’s worth reading.
With all that in mind. Let’s not forget that Flint, Mich. is the first “canary in the coal mine.”
But Wait, There’s More: The Brain Drain
California, and many municipalities across the nation, have serious water problems caused by retirements. Yes, retirements. It seems that college kids are not interested in working for water utilities. And so as the Baby Boomer generation begins to retire en masse, there are few prospects interested in replacing them.
What happens to the drinking water supply when no one wants to work at the company or municipality responsible for building and maintaining the system that delivers water to your home?
Luckily, someone is trying to tackle the problem, at least in California where advertising agencies are trying to convince younger generations why they want to work for their local water utility. Other cities and municipalities aren’t as creative.
What Can You Do?
In some respects solutions to the water crisis are within reach. For instance, citizens can encourage their political leaders to support water infrastructure investments.
Technology is also catching up to the problem. Desalination plants are becoming more popular even though they are prohibitively expensive. Luckily, technology and pricing will improve quickly.
Also, the private sector is stepping up to invent ways to pump water literally out of thin air.
SuntoWater Technologies is a company doing just that. The company is taking orders for the water generator, a device about the size of a small air conditioning unit, that literally generates water from the air.
“For home and business owners that are worried about the availability and quality of their water, this new home appliance offers a real and cost-effective solution. And best of all, the process is totally natural and comes from the 12.9 trillion tons of water that exists in the atmosphere,” said Benjamin Blumenthal, CEO of SuntoWater Technologies.
Of course, at $9,000 a unit, consumers may need another source for clean drinking water while they save their money.
Shawn Tipping, managing partner at Game Plan Experts, recently wrote an article for his company blog about steps consumers can take to avoid poisoned water now and in the future. In the article he says that lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury and other heavy metals cannot be removed from water without sophisticated equipment. But in an interview with Paratus Business News, he said there are affordable systems available to consumers that can make lead poisoned water safe to drink
“The EPA has what is called an action level, which means when lead exceeds 15 parts per billion (ppb) you need to actively minimize your exposure. You can contact the EPA directly to find out how your community’s water has been tested and the results for lead levels as well as many other contaminants,” said Tipping. But once you find out your water has contaminants like lead “our strongest suggestion is to use bottled or filtered water for consumption on a daily basis. This will eliminate or drastically reduce the possibility that you are digesting water with lead contamination.”
Tipping said that boiling water is not the solution, but many systems are available on the market including point of use filters, distillers, reverse osmosis, and water softeners.
“We strongly prefer gravity fed charcoal filters like the Black Berkey Purification Elements,” he said. “The Black Berkey Purification Element formulation has been tested by state and Environmental Protection Agency accredited laboratories to exceed NSF/ANSI Standard 53.”
The NSF International (originally, but no longer known as the National Sanitation Foundation) is a public health and safety organization that develops standards and certification programs to help protect the world’s food, water, consumer products and environment. Manufacturers, regulators and consumers use NSF studies and benchmarks to measure health standards, quality and the safety of products available in the marketplace.
In response to the Flint water crisis, NSF created a Consumer Guide to NSF Certified Lead Filtration Devices for Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water that lists all NSF-certified filters for lead reduction in tap water. As a result, officials in Flint distributed three NSF/ANSI certified water filters to their residents:
- ZeroWater 23-Cup Dispenser, model number ZD-018
- Brita faucet filter, model SAFF-100
- PUR Faucet Mount, model number FM-3700B
While Berkey water filters have not been submitted for testing directly through NSF, they have been tested by several EPA-accredited laboratories including the Department of Toxicology and Environmental Science at Louisiana State University, Spectrum Labs, and the University of Phoenix. This extensive testing confirmed that the Berkey purification elements greatly surpass the EPA and ANSI/NSF (Std. 53) protocol.
Tipping adds that due to the product’s ability to remove or greatly reduce contaminants such as viruses, pathogenic bacteria, inorganic minerals, micro-organisms, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and heavy metals, Game Plan Experts are strong advocates of Berkey products. In addition, relative to many of its competitors, Berkey is also deemed to be a cost-effective solution for daily consumption, as well as long-term water purification.
The Canary in the Coal Mine: How Flint Happened
Vice News produced one of the better pieces on how the Flint crisis happened. And while the news organization is often politically biased, readers should ignore the politics they disagree with and focus on the very clear story of how the crisis unfolded. Unfortunately, the original story is no longer available. So here’s the important stuff. While most media will focus on the protests, and recriminations, Vice does a good job of showing that and the humanitarian side.
So what happened in Flint?
- The city decided to switch its water supply from Lake Huron (primarily) and the Detroit River to the Flint River. It would save money.
- The Flint River was polluted with chemicals that were more corrosive than the Lake Huron/Detroit River water. But Flint’s water treatment plant never bothered to account for the increased level of pollution by putting in corrosion inhibitors.
- Over a short time, the Flint River corroded the city’s water pipes, which began leaching lead into the drinking water. Coliform had been detected in 2014 causing a few “boil water alerts.”
- Before the crisis was revealed, children were poisoned, some suffering permanent brain damage. Legionnaires Disease has killed at least 12 people.
- Now the government needs to replace the entire water piping system, of which 1 percent was complete about six months ago.
- President Obama flew to Flint and said things were getting better. He took a sip of filtered water to make his point. Then declared it a state of emergency and pronounced that FEMA would save the day.
- There has also been criminal cases filed against local and state officials in regards to the crisis.
- A Democratic Congressman went on record saying President Obama’s response was a joke, and other localities have crumbling water infrastructure, and people should beware.
- The Democratic mayor of Flint, Dayne Walling at the time (the guy who “flipped the switch” for the new water supply) was drummed out of office as he sought re-election.
- The Republican governor is also on the hot seat for his administration’s slow response to the problem.
A much more detailed report is available in several places like Wikipedia, but crowd sourcing is always suspect. The Atlantic does a great job of breaking it down, and it also touches on the fact that other cities are suffering. Flint is but the canary in the coal mine.
Here is a quick “debrief” by Vice News. If we can find the original report, we’ll post it. In the meantime, this quickly covers the basics and what’s wrong.
Canaries in the Coal Mine
In April 2015, The Business Insider reporter Ellie Kincaid also did a pretty good job of breaking down America’s looming water crisis.
California isn’t the only state with water problems
Americans tend to take it for granted that when we open a tap, water will come out.
Western states have been dealing with water problems for a while, but they won’t be alone for long.
As drought, flooding, and climate change restrict America’s water supply, demands from population growth and energy production look set to increase, according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
These two changes squeeze our natural water reserves from both directions. The stress is becoming clear and will soon manifest as water scarcity problems all over our country.
The California problem
Over the last four years, Californians have gotten a big wake-up call, as drought forces them to reconsider water as a scarce commodity.
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the region’s water supplier, will deliver 15% less water to cities in the greater Los Angeles area starting in July. The supplier won’t cut off delivering water if demand is more than the quota, but it’ll charge local utility companies that sell residents water up to four times more than the normal rate for the excess. And naturally, the utility companies will pass the cost on to their customers.
The water companies’ cuts are a reaction to California Governor Jerry Brown’s executive order that cities throughout the state reduce the amount of water they use by 25% — a groundbreaking mandate from the Governor’s office to limit water use for the first time ever.
A looming national issue
While the rest of the US hasn’t been ordered to reduce water use, that doesn’t mean we have a free pass to use as much water as we want. Many states — 4o out of 50 according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office — have at least one region that’s expected to face some kind of water shortage in the next 10 years.
Here’s what that looks like:
In some cases, shortages happen when there’s not enough fresh water suitable for human use in the lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and aquifers we can access. Rain and snowfall does replace the water we take from these sources, but that refill takes time and depends on actually getting precipitation. Drought-stricken California, for example, has a much reduced snowpack this year compared to 2010, its last near-normal year. Less snowpack means less snow to melt and refill the state’s reservoirs with fresh water people can use.
According to Tim Davis, the Montana Water Resources Division administrator, a water shortage could strike any part of the state in any given year, Elaine S. Povich reports for the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Water demand in Montana just keeps increasing, the state’s 2015 State Water Plan says, while the amount of water available changes from year to year, and even within a year, depending on precipitation. The discrepancy between demand and availability means the state is likely going to encounter a water crisis in the next few years. The state is already making contingency plans for potential drought conditions in the future, Davis told Povich.
In coastal areas of the US, rising sea levels taint fresh water coastal aquifers with salt water, which means that water can’t be consumed anymore without expensive desalination treatment. This is a looming threat for eastern and southern Maryland, according to the Government Accountability Office report.
Those worries are compounded by population growth in central and southern Maryland, which is putting pressure on the water supplies there. Though water managers in Maryland don’t anticipate statewide shortages, they told the GAO some areas may struggle to find enough water for everyone moving in, because there isn’t a feasible way to dramatically increase the amount of water available. So even those of us who live in parts of the country not experiencing drought could stand to put less stress on our water supplies.
In Colorado, officials told the Government Accountability Office they’re keeping an eye on the effects of fracking on the state’s water supply. Using water for fracking could contribute to local shortages in the drought-prone state, which only gets 12-16 inches of precipitation every year. Plus, a previous GAO report highlighted the risk that fracking can contaminate the water supply so people can’t use even the water they normally could.
Also out West, the U.S. Census Bureau projects the populations of Nevada and Arizona will more than double between 2000 and 2030. But those two states get some of the nation’s lowest amounts of precipitation, so more people will be vying to use water resources that already aren’t plentiful.
While any given person may not be directly causing these water issues, everyone plays a role in how much drinkable water there is in the US. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the average American used 88 gallons of water per day in 2010, the latest year it surveyed water use.
The entirety of humanity in America uses 27,400 million gallons per day around the house, for stuff like preparing food, washing clothes, flushing toilets, and watering lawns.
The map below from the U.S. Geological Survey shows how that breaks down by state on a daily basis, which doesn’t even include the water that goes into producing the energy, food, and products we use. (For example, it takes over a gallon of water to grow a single almond.)
This isn’t just a US problem, either. The water crisis is even worse in many other countries, especially those without good infrastructure to get water from rivers and aquifers. The UN estimates a fifth of the world’s population lives in an area where water is scarce, and another fourth of the world’s people don’t have access to water because countries lack the infrastructure to distribute it.
By 2030, nearly half of everyone in the world will be living in countries highly stressed for water, according to UN predictions. Bank of America Merrill Lynch reports that water scarcity is our biggest problem worldwide, and projects that climate change will only make it worse.
Ready access to water is not something everyone in the world can take for granted, and Americans may not be able to much longer.
Other Canaries in Our Coal Mine
Vice has kept tabs on other water problems around the nation. Just check out these three stories from 2012. The problems then are still problems today. And it’s a good bet the problem is spreading.
Part 1 of the 2012 Vice series covers the pollution in the Hudson River outside New York City. And while the story is focused on New York City, there is significant danger to surrounding areas. Be wary because it’s not just the region, many cities use the same rain water drainage plan NYC uses. When it rains, skip sending all that water through the treatment plant and forget overworking the treatment plant. Send it all, rain water, fecal matter, human waste, into the nearest river. Saves time and money…in the short term.
(Editor’s Note: These videos do include some adult language. Be careful around young children. Also, for some reason the reporter likes to wear a blue Speedo while swimming in polluted water. Maybe it’s a political statement, as if he prefers European swimwear. Regardless, it’s not pretty.)
Part 2 of the Vice series is Florida’s water problem. Too much demand, not enough aquifers, and now a lot of sinkholes. For some reason the report focused on sinkholes and the insurance problems (or fraud) resulting from the issue, but clearly a lack of water and long term issues need to be addressed.
Part 3 of the Vice series focuses on California’s water problems. Story is pretty clear and is not going away. As we all know, despite heavy rains in northern California, much of the state still suffers from one of the worst droughts in history.