Making water safe is everyone’s responsibility

posted Dec. 4, 2017 8:43 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Jim Massey, Editor |

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If there is one natural resource that we take too much for granted, it would be water.

We can’t live without it, but we often don’t think twice about wasting it and sometimes contaminating it. 

That might come back to bite us all.

According to a recent study by Michigan State University Professor Elizabeth Mack, not only do we need to be concerned about maintaining a safe and adequate water supply, but we’re looking at a future where millions of people may not be able to afford what water we do have. 

In a story printed in the June/​July edition of Kiwanis magazine, titled “Water, water everywhere ... but is it safe to drink,” Mack said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calculates that water and wastewater spending should make up no more than 4.5 percent of a household budget. By the year 2022, as many as 35 percent of American households could see water bills that are unaffordable.

“People in the U.S. look at the number of households impacted by water access and affordability issues and say, ‘No way, not in this country,’ but the truth is very different,” said Jason Hubbart, director of the Institute of Water Security at West Virginia University. 

When the 2016 water-quality tragedy unfolded in Flint, Mich., the state of the country’s water infrastructure was brought front and center. According to estimates, it will cost $1 trillion to repair and renovate the nation’s water system, and another $36 billion to buffer those systems against the impact of a changing climate.

In the Kiwanis magazine story, Hubbart said projections indicate it will get warmer in the West and wetter and warmer in the Midwest. Mack said research indicates the U.S. will see an increased incidence of higher-intensity storms, with increased flooding in many areas. The U.S. water infrastructure system wasn’t designed to handle the volumes of water it will likely see, she said.

In Wisconsin, Florida State University Assistant Professor of Geography Chris Uejio, along with the Wisconsin Department of Health and the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, looked at the impact of climate change on untreated groundwater sources with the chance of a future rise in gastrointestinal illnesses affecting children under 5. 

Wisconsin, where about one-quarter of the population gets its water from private wells, is projected to see dramatically increased levels of rainfall as climate change proceeds, which could increase the level of pathogens washed into the area’s groundwater supply, the study showed. 

The study looked at five northern Wisconsin municipalities with minimally treated drinking water and found that if climate change proceeds as currently projected without additional facilities for groundwater treatment, it could lead to an increase of childhood gastrointestinal infection from 1.5 percent to 6 percent in those children.

Uejio said some tests have shown that about 27 percent of the country’s groundwater supplies contain viruses that cause illness in humans.

Uejio said the time has come to address effects of climate change on the nation’s water resources.

“Ninety-seven percent of the scientists in the field state that (climate change) is a reality and that humans are causing the rapid increase in the change,” he said. “The climate is changing, and we need to be able to adapt to it.”

Experts quoted in the magazine article said state and federal governments aren’t paying nearly enough attention to the water problem and it will only get worse with neglect and time.

Alan Roberson, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Associations, said people shouldn’t look to the federal government for funding.

“Especially given the political situation now, I’d be skeptical about looking to the feds for any solution,” he said. Roberson said he believes the federal government needs to be part of the solution, working with state and local officials to target the areas in the most dire need first.

In California, officials have been talking about a public-goods tax where water users would pay a fee on their water bill to help with infrastructure repairs and to help fund assistance programs for those unable to afford water. 

Agriculture can and has been doing its part to clean up the ground and surface water. More and more farms are planting cover crops to keep soil in place and allow water to infiltrate, and many farmers are doing what they can to prevent manure and chemical runoff into streams and groundwater.

After all, farmers drink the water that flows from wells on their farms, too.

It will be up to everyone to do their part to keep our water clean and safe to drink. 

Admitting that climate change is happening and that people can do something to reverse the trends will be a good start.

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