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Water, A User’s Guide. Part Two: Quality

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Paddock
August 22, 2021

The availability of water is critical, especially as more of the country faces both prolonged drought and significant floods.

Water quality is just as important as its quantity. Access to safe water is not just a third-world problem. It also is a concern in the United States.

Lead is the most common pollutant. The case of Flint, Michigan is not an isolated case. Although lead water pipes were banned in the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, there are still more than ten million older pipes in water systems, leading to unsafe lead levels across the country. EPA data identified nearly 1,400 water systems serving 3.6 million Americans that exceeded the federal lead standard at least once between January 1, 2013 and September 30, 2015. The American Water Works Association estimated 6.1 million lead service lines remain in the United States and serve 15 million to 22 million people. Lead-contaminated water has been found in large cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit, Newark and Milwaukee as well as in smaller communities like Sandbranch, Texas, just 14 miles from Dallas.

Not surprisingly, most contaminated systems are in low-income and minority communities. Most of the 70,000 homes in Milwaukee that are connected to the city’s water system with aging lead pipes are in low-income and African-American communities in the city’s northside neighborhoods. The EPA determined that there is no safe level of exposure to lead; in children even low levels of exposure are linked to nervous system damage and learning disabilities.

Replacing water lines is expensive. In 2017 Milwaukee began to replace the lead lines, starting with $3.4 million to replace 300 lines that serve schools and day cares and another $3.4 million to replace 300 lines serving residences. At that pace, it is estimated to take more than 233 years to replace all of Milwaukee’s residential lead lines. To replace all 70,000 lead lines in the next 50 years would cost about $4.5 million each year. Milwaukee would be helped by the 2021 infrastructure bill; about $55 billion, or about 10% of the total proposed appropriation, is directed to clean drinking water—enough to replace all the nation’s lead pipes and service lines.

Water quality is affected by other pollutants. Over 200 industrial chemicals have been identified as toxic and many can end up in water systems. In 2016 an asphalt plant’s chemical leak tainted the water supply of Corpus Christi, Texas. The Dos Pasos, California water supply is contaminated with trihalomethanes, chemicals linked to kidney problems and cancer. Charleston, West Virginia has MCHM, a chemical foam used to wash coal, in its water.

Chemicals used in firefighting, waterproofing and carpeting have been detected at military bases and water treatment plants. Other sources of contamination are gasoline tanks buried in the ground, agricultural chemicals, residential septic tanks and stormwater runoff, as well as natural elements like nitrate, radon, boron and arsenic. These chemicals have been linked to a wide variety of health concerns.

Although the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act required EPA to determine the level of contaminants in drinking water at which no adverse health effects are likely to occur with an adequate margin of safety, these are non-enforceable health goals, based solely on possible health risks.

The significant responsibility of ensuring water quality falls, then, on state and local public administrators and involves multiple, interlocking roles such as:

  • Monitoring and enforcing federal standards and setting additional standards which reflect community preferences.
  • Authorizing the treatment of water, including chlorination.
  • Ensuring that the water meets the requirements of such diverse uses as the protection and propagation of fish and wildlife; recreation; agricultural, industrial and navigational purposes; and drinking water.
  • Being conversant in the most recent scientific data regarding water and pollutants in order to provide guidance to elected bodies and information to citizens.
  • Having a basic understanding of the engineering requirements of a water system, ensuring that the existing infrastructure meets standards and recognizing necessary new infrastructure.
  • Creating response plans in the event of a water emergency, from a water main break to the discovery of a pollutant, that affects the quality of water.
  • Monitoring the quality of water delivered by a private provider and calling for remediation as needed.
  • As required by federal law, providing the public with information about the quality of the water delivered by the system, including notifying citizens once the EPA reports drinking water data with pollutants needing an action.
  • Establishing policy, budgetary and staffing plans to meet water quality standards.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, communicating with citizens, businesses and elected officials about water quality concerns.

Ensuring water quality is an important responsibility of all levels of government and cannot be left only to employees or departments with “water” in their titles. Instead, it requires the teamwork of administrators in various departments throughout an organization, and between jurisdictions.


Author: Susan Paddock is a Professor Emerita from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with an interest in public leadership, and in state and local government. She currently lives in Las Vegas and can be reached at [email protected] or at Twitter at @spaddock1030.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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