Imagine a day without tap water. Can you do it?
Imagine a day without tap water. Can you do it? And while we’re at it, do you know where your tap water comes from?
We’re not talking about the bottled water you pay way too much money for in the store. When you turn on your tap, do you know where that running water comes from? Do you know if it is safe to drink? Is there enough to meet your needs? These questions are getting harder and harder to answer.
October 20th is “Imagine a Day Without Water” and we’re asking you to go a step further and first imagine where your tap water comes from, then imagine that you don’t have access to it anymore.
Public Supply Water Use
The majority of people in the US (about 86 percent) get their drinking water from a public supply source. This is likely tied to their town or city and is provided by a public utility or private company. As of 2015, approximately 39 billion gallons per day were withdrawn for public water supply. That’s a lot of water. Most of it (61 percent) came from surface water sources. This means that most people on public water supply get their water from rivers, lakes and glaciers. Other sources include desalinated brackish water or seawater and municipal groundwater wells.
There are local, regional, state and federal agencies that manage all those water resources that are extracted, treated and delivered to your home. In most cases the water is safe and plentiful, but what happens when it’s not? Threats to public water supply exist and are a constant challenge for water supply systems that aren’t vigilant and properly funded and managed.
One of the most recent examples of a challenge to public water supply happened in Mississippi’s own capital city of Jackson.
The city’s under-funded, aging infrastructure deteriorated to the point where it couldn’t handle intense rains that shut the system down in August, cutting off drinking water access to 150,000 people, most of whom are Black and one-quarter of whom live at poverty levels. But there are examples all over the country of people struggling with massive water main breaks that force them to boil their tap water to make it safe.
In addition, pollutants threaten the safety of public water supply. Two well-known recent cases include Toledo, Ohio and Flint, Michigan.
Harmful Algal Blooms in Toledo caused by increased nutrient levels from wastewater treatment plant discharges, urban runoff and agriculture, made their way into local water supplies, wreaking havoc on Toledo’s water system. Half a million people were unable to drink, bathe in, brush their teeth with or cook with their tap water for three days. The crisis prompted the city to declare a Bill of Rights for Lake Erie, which, unfortunately, did not last. The algal bloom that caused the emergency comes back year after year and a lot of people in Toledo remain skeptical about the safety of their drinking water.
Flint, Michigan is a city of about 100,000 people, the majority of whom are Black and almost half of whom live at poverty levels. City officials switched their water supply to a more polluted (and cheaper) supply from the Flint River, but they didn’t properly test and treat it and a lot of people got sick from lead and other pollutants contained in their tap water. The situation was an environmental justice nightmare and the case made national news as water managers scrambled to rectify the problems, which took years.
As customers and drinkers of water everywhere, we all expect that, when we turn on the tap, the water delivered to us through public supply sources will be clean and safe, and will always be there. Unfortunately, when we don’t prioritize clean water and properly funded water system infrastructure, our expectations might not be met.
Domestic (Private Supply or Well) Water Use
About 15 percent of the US population – more than 43 million people – rely on private water wells that pump groundwater from aquifers. Most of these wells serve single households, but some serve private water systems that don’t have more than 25 people or 15 connections for at least 60 days of the year.
There is no governing body that oversees the quality of domestic water supplies or the amount of water used. That is the responsibility of the well owners. Regular testing by well owners is crucial to maintain the health of users who drink, bathe and clean with the well water.
Water quality contaminants can include bacteria and other pathogens and elevated concentrations of nitrate, arsenic, radon, lead, and organic compounds, all of which have health risks associated with them if they find their way into tap water. Sources of these contaminants include seepage through landfills, failed septic tanks, underground fuel tanks, fertilizers and pesticides and runoff from urban areas.
This is especially a problem in rural America. In states like Iowa and Wisconsin, where industrial livestock operations have contaminated groundwater and private drinking water wells with nitrates and other compounds, farm lobby interests have succeeded in weakening agricultural environmental regulations in order to prevent holding the operations accountable. People can’t or don’t want to use their tap water because of the contamination.
Rural areas near agricultural operations are also struggling with wells running dry. The megadrought in the Southwest has hit California particularly hard, because as farmers and communities aren’t able to use the surface water sources they would typically rely on, like irrigation water from canals and reservoirs, they turn to groundwater and pump. In fact, so much pumping has gone on in California that state and local entities have imposed pumping restrictions and moratoriums on drilling new wells. In California alone, more than 1,200 wells ran dry in 2022. But the problem is plaguing communities across the West, and many families are left with no tap water. Climate change, which has been shown to be exacerbating the drought, will only make things more difficult in the future.
Where Does Your Water Come From?
The year 2022 has turned out to be another year of extreme weather events. The extreme drought in the Southwest caused water supplies to dwindle. All around the US, floods like those in the Midwest in August caused catastrophic damage, including damage to drinking water infrastructure. The massive Hurricane Ian just devastated parts of Florida bringing both a storm surge that wiped out infrastructure on barrier islands and inland stormwater flooding far from coastal areas that continues to threaten water supplies.
Whether it’s drought or deluge, climate change is making already intense weather events worse, and all of these events affect our ability to access clean, safe drinking water. At a time when more than two million people in the US lack access to running water and basic indoor plumbing, “Imagine a Day Without Water” is a good day to learn about where your tap water comes from. It’s also a great time to understand potential threats to your tap water, so you can take steps to make it safer and keep it flowing now and into the future.
Written by Robin Madel and first published on October 20, 2022.