Residents of Jackson, Mississippi, recently experienced a week without water service. And an advisory to boil the water that flows from taps in that capital city of 150,000 people has been in effect since late July. These are just some of the alarming news related to drinking water that have emerged as summer ends in the US. Other reports speak of arsenic in tap water in a New York City public housing complex, potentially related to sewage or runoff Escherichia coli bacteria in west baltimore water supply and a lawsuit Alleging neurological problems related to thousands of gallons of jet fuel that leaked into drinking water in Hawaii last year.
As a result of the drinking water contamination crisis that hit Flint, Michigan, in 2014, a growing number of similar incidents have received national attention, eroding confidence in neglected drinking water and wastewater treatment systems once considered among the most sophisticated and robust in the world. Some ground will be gained as billions of dollars from the Biden administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Act begin flowing to states to improve local water systems, including replacing dangerous lead pipes running from lines water utilities to building pipes. But money alone can’t solve larger structural and systemic problems plaguing the country’s thousands of aging public and private water and wastewater systems, experts say.
Upmanu Lalla hydroclimatologist at Columbia University and a luminary in his field, he is the co-author and director of numerous studies that document the increase in contaminated drinking water in the US. He and his colleagues evaluated a national dataset of 17,900 water utilities and other community drinking water systems, revealing that violations of the US Safe Drinking Water Act related to with water quality more than doubled between 1980 and 2015. In the past year, drinking water systems serving nearly 21 million people in the US were cited for such water quality violations. In other studies and projects, Lall and his colleagues have also examined rational and effective ways to build more resilient water and wastewater systems globally and address water scarcity.
For more information on the national context and implications of Jackson’s water system crisis, american scientist spoke with Lall about what the future holds for America’s water and wastewater systems, and what can be done to improve the outlook and ensure safer drinking water for generations to come.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
How do the recent drinking water problems in Jackson fit into the larger picture of US water distribution systems?
Jackson is one of many cities where things like this are happening. It is perhaps one of the biggest crises of its kind. And it is a more chronic. Smaller water issues, unless they’re something like Flint, just don’t get reported. So the larger context is that what happened got people’s attention.
How far can the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act go to address problems like those that afflict Jackson residents?
Some of the major water concerns the infrastructure bill proposes to address is replacing a bunch of lead service lines and putting money into figuring out why PFAS: perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. [often called “forever chemicals” because of their persistence in the environment]are present in the water and what to do about it. These are good things. I don’t want to criticize them. But what they talk about is that when a particular issue becomes prominent, then Congress or other bureaucracies start paying attention to it. But the only problem they should pay attention to is that the entire infrastructure system with water and wastewater is failing. And many leaders and officials don’t understand that because it’s too big a problem. The problem with what they’re doing is that when you focus on “Okay, we’re going to replace a bunch of lead service lines,” you’re spending money on that issue, but you’re not addressing the basic issue on the whole board. .
What should leaders and officials focus on when it comes to our water and wastewater systems?
Here’s the challenge: Water and wastewater systems can be broken down into the following components. One is storage, such as reservoirs and dams. Then the second is transportation, which is the pipes that bring you the water or the sewers that return the wastewater, as well as the associated pumps. And finally, there is the treatment system, these are the three components that we have to deal with. The average age of American dams is around 60 years. They were designed to last 50 years. And the state of maintenance or the condition of about two-thirds of the dams in the country are actually unclassified and unknown. With respect to transportation, the number of water main failures is estimated to be around 850 per day in North America.
And then treatment systems: We have increasing reports of pathogens in drinking water, leading to “boil water” advisories. That trend has led more and more people to drink bottled water or purchase filtration systems. So, in its entirety, each of the components is aging and failing, and the reliability of the service in each component is now a question mark. That is why one has to think about how they can be upgraded collectively.
Smaller communities, in particular, do not have the financial or technical resources to really decide what to do. And as a result, we have a systemic risk of failure.
How does climate change figure into this problem?
The systemic risk of failure is amplified by climate change. If you have a drought, you have less water available, a higher concentration of chemicals entering the water, and limited treatment capacity. At the other extreme, for example, almost four years ago, heavy rains flooded the Highland Lakes area, which supplies water to Austin, Texas. The reservoirs filled with sediment. The city’s treatment plan did not have the capacity to handle that much sediment. So the city water utility asked residents to go on a water rationing spree and issued a boil water advisory that last week in very humid conditions.
Beyond its current regulatory and other roles, what else could the federal government do to ensure safer drinking water for people in the US?
There is no central planning for water investments in the US Compare that to the energy situation, where we have the Energy Information Administration and the Department of Energy. Whether they do a good job or not, there are at least a few people charged with thinking about what needs to be done and putting some requests for money on the table. In contrast, we have seven or eight different federal agencies with some type of jurisdiction over water. And that structure is then replicated at the state and local level. The federal government invested heavily in water infrastructure in the mid-20th century and until around 1980. As a result, we were state of the art. Now is the time to renew those efforts in a thoughtful way that makes better use of new digital technologies to ensure performance.
Could the country get out of this problem by spending?
It’s a bigger problem than that. Again, I will make the comparison with the energy situation. Energy policymakers are seriously working on how to replace fossil fuels, how to expand transmission capacities, how to improve system reliability. Much of this is done in the private sector, but there is some facilitation from federal government sources and state sources. There is no corresponding story about the water. So the challenge is not money. It’s having some group that’s really working on what should be the 21st century architecture for the US water system. Because otherwise what happens is we have a piecemeal approach, like focusing on replacing pipes of lead.
What kind of solutions does your research point to?
Obviously we have to think about how we replace all these aging components. But then if we want to design a system for the 21st century, we probably want to have some digital capability such that when someone turns on a tap or uses water to flush a toilet, shower, drink or cook, in each case, an instrument in the The site should assess the relevant chemicals of concern and indicate whether or not it has a problem.
It also turns out that 70 to 80 percent of the cost of our water systems in the US is on transportation: pumps, pipes, and sewage. So suppose you locate the treatment. Every neighborhood, or possibly every house or building, could have a treatment system and then get immediate feedback with sensors on whether or not that treatment was effective. Then we might have the ability to take the wastewater that is generated locally and treat it to our drinking water standards. Rainwater that falls off roofs could be captured and treated to our drinking water standards. All this begins to be feasible. We can start looking for a system that will still need wells and other water supplies. But it could probably reduce your water withdrawal from nature by 70 percent or so in many settings. It would have a much higher reliability and quality of service.
Similarly, with agriculture, which is the biggest consumer of water, there are options like agrivoltaics and changing which crops are grown where. So you start thinking about restructuring the whole system, that’s not just a matter of freeing up money. It’s more a matter of having good planning and high-level thinking and then putting money behind these plans and innovations.
What happens if we don’t pursue such changes to the water storage, transportation, and treatment systems in the US?
A big concern is the California drought. The agricultural industry there is at extremely high risk of dying. And that will have an impact on the food supply. More broadly, we will see a slow-evolving Jackson-like epidemic of water system failures. So it won’t be an acute catastrophe, but there will be something that will continue to slowly unfold until you’re like, “Hey, what the hell is going on?”