U.S. water system needs better enforcement, smart investment to ensure quality

By Peter H. Gleick
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

In 1908, Jersey City, N.J., became the first city in the United States to chlorinate its municipal tap water. Other municipalities rapidly followed suit with water filtration and purification systems, and the United States witnessed what were arguably the most dramatic and rapid improvements in public health ever achieved. Over the next couple of decades, cholera and dysentery effectively disappeared. Health experts estimate that half of the entire decline in urban death rates and three-quarters of the drop in infant mortality from 1900 to 1940 resulted from the improvement in water quality.

The dramatic drop in illness contributed to the increase in labor productivity, industrial output and school attendance that occurred at the beginning of the 20th century and helped the United States become the dominant industrial power of the time. The country's remarkable drinking water system sets it apart from the rest of the world. Even today, there are relatively few countries where inexpensive, high-quality, safe drinking water is widely available from the faucet 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and where the population trusts it enough to drink it.

That trust is slowly being eroded by the failure to adequately maintain and upgrade our drinking water systems, and by efforts on the part of some in the private sector to disparage tap water in order to encourage consumers to spend money on filters, home water purification systems, bottled water or other commercial products. The infrastructure that delivers water to our homes also contributes to problems that further erode our trust, notably in older cities such as Washington, where levels of lead and chlorine spikes threaten some neighborhoods or where breaks in water mains temporarily cut off supplies. A recent water-main failure in Boston cut off water for 2 million people for several days.

An alarming change

In the past 25 years, American consumption of tap water has dropped by more than 35 gallons per person per year, replaced largely by bottled water and carbonated soft drinks. We now drink more bottled water than milk or juice -- nearly 9 billion gallons last year, at a high cost to consumers and the environment.

As a scientist who has worked on local and global water issues for three decades, I have watched the tidal wave of bottled water with alarm.

How does a salesman persuade consumers to buy something that is essentially the same as a far cheaper and more easily accessible alternative? He promotes the perceived advantages of his product and emphasizes the flaws in his competitor's product. For water bottlers this means selling safety, style and convenience, and playing on consumers' fears. Fear is an effective tool -- especially fear of invisible contamination. If we can be made to fear our tap water, the market for bottled water and private water systems skyrockets.

"Tap water is poison" blared an advertisement for home delivery of bottled water that recently appeared in my neighbor's mailbox. "When we're done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes," the president of the Quaker Oats' beverage division, Susan Wellington, told a group of industry analysts in 2000. Is it any surprise that bottled water sales have exploded?

In some ways, Americans are victims of our own success. The rules to protect tap water quality put in place in the 1970s with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act require systematic testing of our drinking water -- and, significantly, rapid reporting of any serious problems to the public. As a result, every time a municipal system discovers such a problem, the reaction of the average citizen is far more likely to be to go buy bottled water or expensive filters than to be thankful that public employees are keeping an eye on their water.

And there are valid reasons for concern. There is plenty of evidence that tap water in some places isn't as safe as it could and should be. Investments in maintaining and improving water systems, their pipes and treatment plants are falling behind the need. Regulatory agencies have fallen far behind technology: Today, monitors are not only capable of detecting very low concentrations of contaminants, but they can identify traces of chemical compounds such as painkillers, antibiotics, endocrine disruptors such as progesterone, and even caffeine -- but these pollutants are unregulated and have unknown public health implications.

Thus, water-quality problems inevitably arise, and when they happen and are discovered, we hear about them. Trust in our tap water system erodes even further and more people buy more bottled water.

Not any safer

Ironically, there is no reason to believe that expensive bottled water is any safer than our tap water. The federal regulations, monitoring and enforcement for bottled water quality are no better, and often are weaker, than those for municipal systems. Similarly, people who rely on well water are drinking untreated water from sources that are unregulated, unmonitored and vulnerable to contamination. As for home water filters, they often filter out things that aren't even found in our tap water, or fail to filter out things that are.

If local water agencies priced their water properly -- remember, Americans pay fractions of a penny per gallon of tap water, compared with $4 or more for a gallon of bottled water -- they could reinvest those revenues in community water systems to upgrade, expand and operate the best water purification and treatment systems that technology and money can buy. Old distribution systems can be upgraded and replaced, including old connections that leach lead and other contaminants into otherwise safe water. People like to complain about their utility rates. But most of us pay far, far less for our water than we do for electricity, cellphones, Internet service or cable television, and experience shows that when customers have confidence in the services they are getting, they are willing to pay for them.

I've studied water systems for years. I drink unfiltered tap water in my home and almost everywhere else in the United States. I'm proud that my water agencies do such a good job at providing safe water and that the federal government has set standards for water quality that are the envy of much of the rest of the world. But in places where our water systems and agencies are falling short of their responsibilities, we should complain and force officials to respond. In the end, the answer must not be to abandon our tap water systems and let the rich buy bottled water or personal filters while the poor drink contaminated water.

America pioneered something unique: high-quality, reliable, affordable tap water for all. The technologies and institutions we put in place are aging, and they need help. We can abandon them and let private industry sell us bottled water at a far higher cost, or we can fix our community water systems and remain the envy of much of the rest of the world.

I'd drink to that.

Gleick is president of the nonprofit Pacific Institute, an environmental research institute based in Oakland, Calif. This article is adapted from his book "Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession With Bottled Water."

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