July 12, 2017

Water Views

Fixing Our Water Starts With Getting Smart

This week, The Independent launches a new series called "Water Views," a dedicated column focusing on the crisis facing the waters across the East End of Long Island. We will feature local and international experts who will share a range of views about how to address the critical water quality and safety issues plaguing our drinking water, ponds, and bays.

It's a mistake to think that our water problems start and end with Flint, Michigan. With all of the publicity the sad Midwestern city drew about how incompetent local management by water officials resulted in lead-contaminated water flowing into people's homes, one would be forgiven to think that Flint's water is uniquely failing.

To some degree or another, much of the US is Flint. If we all aren't drinking water tainted by lead, almost every community in the US has a problem with its water. And many have more than one. These range from the wasteful to the dangerous.

To mention just a few of the most troubling, every city in the US has leaky pipes, with some losing more than 35 percent of its water every year. Nationally, we suffer from more than 400,000 water main breaks each year. These examples of overly deferred maintenance and ancient infrastructure cost us money in inefficient government spending and inconvenience with roads ripped up and streets closed.

But our health is also at risk. Many thousands of US communities have contaminants in their water from lead to nitrates to phosphorus to pharmaceutical residue. Big cities can generally afford expensive filtration, although not all of them screen out all pollutants. But the majority of Americans live in places without complete wastewater treatment at hand.

In addition, a large number of landfills have been inadequately sealed. Over time, the trash in the landfill begins to break down into its constituent chemical compounds which then leak into the soil below. As a result, groundwater – a major source of our drinking water – gets contaminated.

On the East End (and in communities all over the US), old or over-taxed septic systems drip nitrogen and phosphorous into groundwater, and into our water supply. Likewise, East End lawns get bombed with chemical treatments. Those chemicals make the lawn perky, but then get washed into water supplies by irrigation systems or rain.

And the list goes on.

Despite these threats to your community pocketbook and health, cities and towns accept less quality in water management than they do in fixing potholes or replacing broken traffic lights. The reasons for this are varied. Here are a few:

First, with water infrastructure mostly underground, the adage "out of sight, out of mind" often applies. We feel potholes. We see broken windows. We run from rodents in our parks. These are seen as failures of governance, creating a sense of chaos, and citizens are rightly quick to complain. Local officials – who want to remain as local officials at the next election – are quick to marshal the resources of the village, town, or city treasury and manpower to fix those problems. If more citizens were aware of one or more of the local water concerns and spoke up about them, officials would know to respond.

Second, as a nation, we have permitted our water infrastructure to age, and even to decay, to such an extent that even those focused on the problem are overwhelmed by it. The American Water Works Association (AWWA), the organization of our country's water engineers, estimates that to fix our national water infrastructure and to bring it up to modern standards we would need to spend $1.3 TRILLION over the next 10 years. With current national priorities, there is no possibility that any combination of federal, state, and local governments could finance that spending.

In the meantime, governments act like people: They procrastinate. They hope things don't get worse. They patch a bit here and there – and they pray that nothing terrible happens before the next election.

A third reason for the decline of our water quality and systems is that all of us – citizens and officials – don't know what we should know. There is a huge information gap. We obsessively collect statistics on energy production, quality, and use, but much less so when it comes to water. As a result, we often don't know we should care. We open the tap and water comes out. Is there something more that should concern us?

Well, yes. We should know what's in the water we are drinking and have a say in what we deem acceptable levels of contamination. We should know the real cost of our water so that we can help elected officials to prioritize. We should be made aware of EXISTING technologies that can improve our water future. We should be educated on what we can do – in our homes, lawns, and communities – to improve the quality of our water.

Because of a generation of consumer education, we separate recyclables and believe it to be a worthwhile use of our time. Yet there is no comparable effort to engage citizens to learn what each can do personally for conservation or improvements to water quality.

Most of all, we rely on elected officials to assure the quality and reliable availability of our water. Once citizens and consumers are educated well enough to make the case for better water, they will make their interests known. Elected officials will demand of their staffs a high level of expertise and, in turn, the officials will become smarter on the topic. Priorities will change. Money will become available. Our water will be managed better and we will all be the better for it.

But if we accept the status quo, our infrastructure will further decline, more water will be wasted, and worst of all, the quality will deteriorate. Clean, fresh water is possible, but it isn't guaranteed.

Seth M. Siegel is the author of the New York Times bestseller Let There Be Water: Israel's Solution for a Water-Starved World. Follow him on Twitter @SethMSiegel.

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