The Importance of Clean Water

The Importance of Clean Water

When water and wastewater in this country is polluted it is devastating, but US water and wastewater treatment systems don’t all receive the funding they need to keep working properly.

Water and Wastewater Systems Need Funding to Work Properly

Water is one of the United States’ most vital resources, and when the country’s water is polluted, it is devastating, not only to the environment, but also to human health and communities of all sizes. Even though local, state and federal governments make large investments each year to keep the country’s water clean and safe, the nation’s water systems still do not receive the amount of funding needed to keep them working properly. 

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) releases America’s Infrastructure Report Card to assess the condition and performance of the country’s infrastructure by assigning letter grades based on physical conditions and needed investments for improvement. In 2017, water and wastewater systems received grades “D” and “D+”, respectively.

Drinking Water Treatment Systems

In the United States, there are approximately 156,000 public water systems – defined as a system that regularly supplies drinking water to at least 25 people or 15 service connections. Of those systems, 8 percent serve 82 percent of the people. Almost 300 million people rely on public water systems to treat and deliver just over 42 billion gallons of clean water to homes, schools and businesses each day. Water for the majority (80 percent) comes from surface water sources – rivers, lakes, reservoirs and oceans; the remaining 20 percent comes from groundwater aquifers.

Before water gets from the system to its customers, it is treated to remove chemicals, particulates (e.g., soot and silt) and bacteria. Then clean, potable water is transported throughout a nationwide network of a million miles of piping for activities like drinking, cooking, cleaning, bathing, lawn watering and so forth.

Another approximately 13 million households in the United States rely on private drinking water wells that supply water to an individual residence or a private water system that serves no more than 25 people at least 60 days of the year and has no more than 15 service connections. The safety of that water is the responsibility of homeowners and is not regulated by the federal government.

According to ASCE, the country’s drinking water systems deliver consistently high quality water, although legacy contaminants like lead, nonpoint pollution like nitrogen and phospohorous runoff from farms and leaking septic systems that cause harmful algal blooms and emerging contaminants like pharmaceuticals are becoming increasingly problematic.

Since 2010, Environmental Working Group (EWG) has analyzed testing records from water utilities from all 50 states and has assembled a database of 30 million records. In their analysis, EWG found dozens of contaminants all across the US. Perhaps one of the most egregious and impactful water contamination cases is still ongoing in Flint, Michigan. When the city changed its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, the new source brought foul smelling, discolored and lead-laden water to city residents. The contamination affected mostly low-income and black residents who were left to cook, drink and bathe in it for more than two years. While steps are being taken to make the water safe again, the crisis hasn’t been completely resolved, and the case has served as a watershed moment for exposing the often dire consequences of actions taken based on lack of funding and poor decision making.

Unfortunately, water contamination issues abound throughout the country, from the Kansas town whose residents have, for years, consumed nitrogen-contaminated water, to the outbreak of toxic algae caused by farm runoff into Lake Erie that sickened people in Toledo and nearby communities. In every case, underfunded water treatment infrastructure prevented proper treatment of source water to drinking water standards.

In addition to water quality issues, much of the piping used to deliver treated water is old and subject to corrosion, and water main breaks that waste trillions of gallons are an ongoing issue. For example, Hoboken, New Jersey had a particularly unfortunate stretch of water main breaks in 2018. The town experienced 17 water main breaks over a 65 day period, leaving residents frustrated and in some cases even stranded as the flood of water stalled public transit.

Investments in Drinking Water Infrastructure

Improving the nation’s drinking water infrastructure to ensure quality and maintain supply won’t come cheaply. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) estimates that it will take $1 trillion to restore existing service and expand new service to meet the needs of a growing population over the next 25 years. The 2018 EPA Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment indicates a more modest amount at only $476.2 billion over the next 20 years.

Unfortunately, federal funding for drinking water infrastructure is falling far short of needs. During fiscal year 2018, final allotments from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (federal funds received by, or allotted to, each state) have totaled only $1.7 billion for all states. As a result of chronic underfunding, much of the country’s aging drinking water infrastructure either no longer works properly or is in dire need of upgrades, hence the “D” grade. The problems are exacerbated by strain from a growing population, continued development and the variability of water supplies which is exacerbated by climate change.

A report from The Value of Water Campaign entitled, “The Economic Benefits of Investing in Water Infrastructure” assessed how investments in the nation’s water infrastructure can affect economic growth and employment. The report found that closing the gap between infrastructure needs and investment creates jobs and strengthens the economy by generating over $220 billion in economic activity. The report projected that closing the gap will save businesses $94 billion in annual sales and save 505,000 jobs over the next 10 years.

One glaring result of under-funding water infrastructure is regular, and often major water main breaks. According to the EPA, in the United States there are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks every year that waste trillions of gallons of potable water and billions of dollars. These main breaks can affect millions of people, cause loss of service and result in non-potable water and “boil water” orders.

Wastewater Treatment Systems

After it is used, water typically goes down a drain or is flushed down the toilet where it either enters an onsite septic tank or a sewer system that conveys it to a wastewater treatment plant.

Across the US, approximately 20 percent of households use septic systems or small, clustered systems to handle their wastewater.  When residential septic systems fail or are not properly maintained, they become a major factor in water quality issues, such as harmful algal blooms and red tides caused by nutrient pollution (too much nitrogen and phosphorous). The impact varies by watershed and even sub-watershed; there is no federal agency that has oversight of septic systems and they aren’t regulated under the Clean Water Act, although local and state agencies often establish management rules. The cost to connect homes to sewer systems (if that is even an option) can be steep and consists of the connection fee to the sewer main as well as plumbing work to complete the job. Costs run in the thousands to the tens of thousands, so for many, it’s not feasible.

The remaining 80 percent of households, as well as schools and businesses, rely on wastewater treatment systems, which are overseen by a utility or public works department. Wastewater consists of water sent down a drain after use and sometimes stormwater that is collected in sewers and sent to a plant for treatment.

The nation’s 14,748 wastewater treatment plants are a critical part of protecting public health and the environment in this country. Nearly 240 million Americans rely on sewers and wastewater treatment systems to keep untreated wastewater from being released into the environment, and by 2032 that number is expected to grow by 56 million. Wastewater plants remove solid waste and other contaminants and treat the water to federal drinking water quality standards before releasing it into receiving waterways.

Wastewater is piped to treatment plants through over 800,000 miles of public sewers and 500,000 miles of private sewers, and in some locations, stormwater drains. The EPA distinguishes sanitary sewer systems that carry only wastewater from those that also carry stormwater. These are known as combined sewer systems, and they’re found in 860 communities which are concentrated in the northeast and Great Lakes region of the US, primarily in older cities. Both types of systems – sanitary sewer and combined sewer – can leak untreated wastewater into public waterways especially when inundated with too much water.

Investments in Wastewater Infrastructure

Treatment plant upgrades and stringent regulations have significantly improved water quality in the US since 1972, when the Clean Water Act went into effect. Even still, the EPA and states have identified over 70,000 water bodies in the US that are listed as threatened or impaired, which means they don’t meet water quality standards.

Every five years, the EPA releases the National Water Quality Inventory of water bodies throughout the US, which recently found that:

  • 46 percent of river and stream miles are in poor biological condition (National Rivers and Streams Assessment, 2008-09).
  • 21 percent of the nation’s lakes are hypereutrophic (i.e., contain the highest levels of nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen, algae and plants) (National Lakes Assessment, 2012).
  • 18 percent of the nation’s coastal and Great Lakes waters are in poor biological condition and 14 percent are rated poor based on a water quality index (National Coastal Condition Assessment, 2010).

While the causes of impairment are varied, and agriculture was found to be the major source of contaminants, municipal sewage discharges are often seen as a second greatest source of contamination. Releases of raw sewage from sewer and septic systems cause aquatic impairment, property damage and disease.

There are at least 23,000 to 75,000 raw municipal sewage leaks from sanitary sewer systems each year. These are called Sanitary Sewer Overflows, or SSOs. Line breaks resulting from lack of maintenance are the most common cause; others include blockages (from grease, toilet wipes and other things that shouldn’t be flushed down the toilet), defects that allow stormwater and groundwater to overload the system, power failures, improper sewer design and vandalism.

Combined sewer systems often get overloaded following heavy rain and snowmelt events, resulting in overflows that can cause the release of untreated human and industrial waste, toxic substances, debris, and other pollutants directly to nearby streams, rivers, and other water bodies. These are called Combined Sewer Overflows, or CSOs, and the amount of rainfall required to create them varies, depending upon a wastewater treatment plant’s capacity. The EPA estimates that over 850 billion gallons of untreated wastewater and stormwater are released in CSOs every year.

The EPA has estimated that $271 billion is needed to meet current wastewater needs and accommodate future capacity increases, but compared to what is needed to finance wastewater and stormwater treatment upgrades, the federal government supplies minor amounts of funding through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. Over the last five years, federal financial assistance (which primarily comes from discounted loans) totaled just over $7 billion. The US Conference of Mayors estimates that 98 percent of water and sewer investments happen at the local – not federal – level.

For a detailed discussion of local spending on water and wastewater infrastructure, check out Local Government Investment in Water and Sewer, 2000-2015, from the US Conference of Mayors.

Beach Closures Result From Wastewater and Storm Water Overflows

Recent water quality analyses by the Surfrider Foundation found that of 6,097 water samples collected from 446 distinct sampling sites located in coastal states around the US, 11 percent contained medium levels of bacterial contamination and 19 percent tested high in bacterial contamination at levels that exceed the national water quality standard set by the EPA to protect public health in recreational waters. According to Surfrider, “The majority of the water samples that failed to meet health standards were collected from freshwater sources such as rivers, creeks and marshes that are influenced by stormwater runoff or at beaches near these outlets. This is consistent with national trends, which show that stormwater runoff is the number one cause of beach closures and swimming advisories in the United States.”

Ultimately, the quality of the nation’s water is directly linked to the quality of people’s lives. Government at all level reaps multiple benefits through fully funding water and wastewater infrastructure. As the country faces a growing population, an increased need for water and wastewater services and increasing climatic threats to water security, shrinking infrastructure budgets threaten the very resilience that will be necessary to overcome many of these challenges.

By supporting clean water initiatives and similar measures that improve water and wastewater treatment systems, everyone can have a hand in ensuring clean, safe water for themselves, their families and their communities.