Most of us probably take our tap water for granted, but recent events remind us that we shouldn’t. Salmonella contamination of the water supply in Alamosa, Colorado sickened over 300 people and left residents avoiding showers and drinking bottled water for a week. Abel Pharmboy explains that the city was one of the few that didn’t have a water chlorination program – but that’s changed now, and the episode reminds us that trace amounts of chlorinated acid byproducts in the water seem less alarming when compared to potentially fatal bacterial illness.
Meanwhile, in Iowa, manure and commercial fertilizers spread on frozen ground contributed to record-high levels of ammonia in the water. Des Moines’s utility had to draw on alternate water sources to keep taps running in the metro area, and use four times the usual amount of chlorine. As alarming as such instances of contamination are, though, water supply and infrastructure should probably be more of a concern.
A recent Popular Mechanics article focuses on the need to rebuild the nation’s aging infrastructure; its list of “10 Pieces of U.S. Infrastructure We Must Fix Now” includes the Atlanta water system. The AP’s Colleen Long points out that water-system infrastructure in need of repair is a nationwide issue:
The tunnel is leaking up to 36 million gallons a day as it carries drinking water from a reservoir to the big city. It is a powerful warning sign of a larger problem around the country: The infrastructure that delivers water to the nation’s cities is badly aging and in need of repairs.
The Environmental Protection Agency says utilities will need to invest more than $277 billion over the next two decades on repairs and improvements to drinking water systems. Water industry engineers put the figure drastically higher, at about $480 million.
Water utilities, largely managed by city governments, have never faced improvements of this magnitude before. And customers will have to bear the majority of the cost through rate increases, according to the American Water Works Association, an industry group.
Engineers say this is a crucial era for the nation’s water systems, especially in older cities like New York, where some pipes and tunnels were built in the 1800s and are now nearing the end of their life expectancies.
“Our generation hasn’t experienced anything like this. We weren’t around when the infrastructure was being built,” said Greg Kail, spokesman for the water industry group. “We didn’t pay for the pipes to be put in the ground, but we sure benefited from the improvements to public health that came from it.”
He said the situation has not reached crisis stage, but without a serious investment, “it can become a crisis. Each year the problem is put on the back burner, the price tag is going to go up.”
And, of course, several regions of the country are worried about securing enough water to supply growing populations, especially as heat waves and droughts become more frequent and severe.
Given those concerns, you might think it would be hard for bottled-water companies to take water from regions with supply concerns – but it’s not. Revere reports that Florida has granted Nestle the right drill wells in a state park and draw out hundreds of millions of gallons of water, in exchange for just $230 and the promise of jobs. Meanwhile, Florida is in a dispute with Georgia and Alabama about how much water each state draws from shared waterways.
In California, Nestle is promising larger payments ($250,000 – $350,000 annually) to the town of McCloud, but some residents still question whether they should give up such a crucial natural resource. Samantha Young of the AP reports that opposition to bottled-water companies is cropping up in communities across the country:
Community and environmental groups are taking an increasingly aggressive stance, asking water bottlers to scale back their plans or filing lawsuits seeking to have them stopped.
In drought-stricken central Florida, residents and commissioners in Lake County are urging the regional water district to deny a pumping permit to Niagara Bottling. The company wants to pump about 480,000 gallons a day. Meanwhile local officials are planning for water shortages they say will come as early as 2013 when the aquifer runs dry.
In southern New Hampshire, residents are trying to block New Hampshire-based USA Springs from pumping more than 300,000 gallons a day from the 100 acres it bought in the area. The state has given the company a permit that critics fear will deplete local homeowners’ wells, lower the Bellamy and Oyster rivers and drain wetlands.
“They are people who want to bully their way in and take our water,” said Barrington resident Denise Hart, a board member of the citizens group Save Our Groundwater. “This water is our lives, our community and our public health.”
Opposition in Wisconsin forced Nestle to abandon plans by its Perrier subsidiary to build a $100 million bottling plant east of Wisconsin Dells. Residents sued Perrier and the state for failing to properly evaluate the environmental effects of pumping up to 500 gallons per minute from wells near a spring. They argued the bottling operation could deplete a local aquifer used by the community.
In Michigan, about 200 miles northwest of Detroit, residents are engaged in a legal dispute against Nestle Waters North America Inc. over groundwater pumping that a court said might reduce flows into a local lake.
Last September, the city council in Napa, the heart of Northern California’s wine country, rejected Crystal Geyser’s application to tap into the city’s aquifer to bottle mineral water. The mayor and others worried about the effects on the city’s groundwater supply and the industry’s contribution to global warming.
Seeing worsening water shortages ahead, Vermont’s legislators are considering a bill that would make the state’s groundwater a public trust. Blue Gold author Maude Barlow warns that this might not stop bottlers:
But she said that even with a new law in place, Vermont might be targeted by litigation brought under the North American Fair Trade Agreement saying the state’s efforts to limit water withdrawals interfere with international trade in bottled water.
All communities should be planning for our water infrastructure and supplies in the coming decades. Inaction now could spell disaster later.