Most Americans take clean drinking water for granted as a convenience of modern life. The United States has one of the world’s safest drinking water supplies, but new challenges constantly emerge.

Nationwide, 327 million Americans each drink two to eight glasses of water on average every day. If 8% of that supply doesn’t meet EPA standards, that’s up to 209 million unsafe glasses of water per day, or 2.3 billion gallons of water – enough to fill a quarter of a million bathtubs. In short, high compliance numbers do not mean everything is fine.

For more than 40 years the Safe Drinking Water Act has provided a consistent set of national standards for monitoring and managing contaminants to ensure the safety of water. The Environmental Protection Agency develops these standards and works with states and water utilities to ensure that drinking water supplies conform to them. Thanks to rules implemented under the Safe Drinking Water Act in the 1980s waterborne disease declined in the United States but in recent decades has crept back up.

Sickened by tap water

What are the most common violations? Of the 10,083 systems that were in violation of a federal standard in 2015, 72% were based on the Total Coliform Rule or other microbial violations. This means that bacteria were found in the water, and that there was a potential for waterborne disease due to fecal contamination or inadequate treatment.

Climate change is producing more intense storms and flooding, which is significantly affecting water quality. Extreme precipitation and floods wash contaminants from sewage and animal manure into water supplies. It is clear that rainfall is associated with widespread transport of fecal contamination from humans and animals into rivers and lakes.

Grade: Incomplete

No other industry would accept an 8% failure rate, and I do not believe U.S. water professionals see that figure as acceptable. In my view, the first step is to put more resources into water supply monitoring and diagnostics that can detect emerging pathogens, such as protozoa and viruses.

Today, water utilities could identify whether fecal pollution was coming from humans or animals using new technologies and this would allow them to target impaired waterways before outbreaks occurred.

Another valuable step would be funding pilot and demonstration plants that could demonstrate new treatment systems’ potential to reduce waterborne disease risks. For example, in Ohio a consortium of cities, consulting engineers and universities is assessing new treatment systems for combined sewer and stormwater discharges. Creating more such facilities would support innovation and adoption of promising new strategies.

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