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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Thirst for Safe Water: Positive Developments

Air Date: Week of

There are new technologies and new community-based efforts that are helping clean up water at its source and keep it clean. In the final installment of our series, Living On Earth’s senior correspondent Peter Thomson looks at some of the positive developments in "The Thirst For Safe Water."


CURWOOD: The days of catastrophic epidemics of water-borne diseases are long gone in the U.S. But, millions of Americans still get sick from microbes and chemicals in their water supply. Fear and uncertainty have led many to look for solutions in their own households, such as buying bottled water and filters. But not everyone can afford these amenities, and there's no guarantee they're absolutely pure. But, there may be a solution in broader community efforts. In the final installment of our series, Living on Earth's senior correspondent Peter Thomson looks at some of the positive developments in "The Thirst for Safe Water."

(Sounds of a container being filled from a running tap)

THOMSON: In the kitchen of her modest Philadelphia home, Alice Ginsberg
sticks a clear plastic container under her faucet and turns on the tap. (Sound of running water)

GINSBERG: I use a water filter that we just put in the refrigerator and fill it up with tap water and change the filter every few months. We really hate the way Philadelphia water tastes without the filter, and also cause, ya know, we've heard a lot of stories about contaminants in the water. In fact, there was one time when there was so much in it, in the newspaper, that we wouldn't even drink water in a restaurant.

THOMSON: What were the contaminants they were talking about?

GINSBERG: I haven't the faintest idea. I just know they're bad and I don't want them in my body or my son's body.

THOMSON: Do you know that this gets rid of them?

GINSBERG: I know its better than nothing.

THOMSON: Alice Ginsberg is able to pay for that extra measure of security. And she has good reason to worry. Recent research suggests a link between elevated levels of murkiness in Philadelphia's water and the numbers of people who visit city hospitals for gastrointestinal problems. The city disputes that research. It says its water is as good as any in the country. But that may be faint praise, because nation-wide, microbes and chemicals in drinking water are making many people sick.

OLSON: We probably have something in the neighborhood of seven million people every year getting sick in the U.S. each year from drinking their tap water. But that's just on the microbial side.

THOMSON: Erik Olson is a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C.

OLSON: For the chemicals, estimates have ranged in the neighborhood of nine, ten thousand cancers per year.

THOMSON: Mr. Olson says one of the main reasons for these illnesses is antiquated treatment systems. Most of the country's large watersystems, including Philadelphia's, disinfect their water with chlorine, then filter it through sand and coal. It's old technology, and Erik Olson says its not up to today's challenges.

OLSON: What we now know is there are a lot of organisms, like cryptosporidium, other germs, that can get right through those treatment plants. And there are also many chemicals, like synthetic organic chemicals, industrial chemicals, pesticides, that can slip right past the existing treatment technology.

THOMSON: But there are alternatives.

(Sounds of waves lapping, birds, motor boat)

THOMSON: Ten miles north of Philadelphia, the Delaware River is a broad expanse of murky brown water. It carries effluent from upstream factories, runoff from farms, and treated sewage from scores of towns within its watershed. On the river's west bank, sits one of Philadelphia's stately old brick and stone pump houses. It draws Delaware River water into the city's treatment system. On the other side of the river there's a drab concrete and steel pump house. It also draws water from the Delaware, but its treatment system is far more advanced.

DIXON: We built the plant with an eye toward the future.

THOMSON: Kevin Dixon is responsible for water quality at the New Jersey-American Water Company. When three rural southern New Jersey counties began draining their underground aquifer a few years ago, Mr. Dixon says they had no choice but to turn to the polluted Delaware. But they did have a choice of treatment technology. Instead of the chlorine disinfectant used in conventional treatment, this plant uses ozone gas. And in place of sand and coal filters, it uses granular activated carbon; like the stuff you'd find in a fish tank.

DIXON: Between the combination of the ozone and the granular carbon, we feel we can deal with any threat that would be present on the water.

(Sounds of whoosh and whir of vacuum pump)

THOMSON: Inside the New Jersey-American plant, partially-treated water
surges through a labyrinth of pumps, pipes and pools. One of its first stops is an ozone chamber.

DIXON: Ozone is the most powerful disinfectant in the world today. It's very effective at destroying bacteria and viruses, and it's also very useful in damaging the shell that protects organisms such as cryptosporidium.

THOMSON: The parasite cryptosporidium is a major new threat to drinking water. In 1993, it killed more than 70 people in Milwaukee and made hundreds of thousands sick. Cryptosporidium is one of the hardest microbes to get rid of. Even chlorine doesn't work very well against it. But Kevin Dixon says the combination of ozone and granular activated carbon does.

DIXON: The ozone is able to soften that shell and actually crack it, so that the rest of our treatment process can really cause it to be destroyed and removed in the treatment plant.

THOMSON: He says the ozone and granular carbon also do a better job of removing chemical pollutants. Finally, Kevin Dixon says, the system reduces an additional problem known as disinfection byproducts, which many conventional treatment plants actually create.

DIXON: In a conventional plant, chlorine added to water causes the formation of organic chemicals, one group of which is the trihalomethanes.

THOMSON: These have been linked to cancer, and to miscarriages in humans.

DIXON: The level of compounds that we create through the treatment process is a mere fraction of the compounds that are created by a more conventional facility. If you can attribute health effects to those compounds, by virtue of the fact that they're not present in the supply that we produce, obviously then the water would be safer.

OLSON: This plant represents the next wave of how water is going to be treated in the United States and really in much of the industrialized world.

THOMSON: That's Erik Olson again, of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The environmental group usually plays the critic, not the booster. But Mr. Olson says the technology at the New Jersey-American plant is revolutionary. He calls it a third breakthrough in water delivery.

OLSON: The first was when the Romans started to pipe water into people's houses. The second was around World War One, when we started treating the water by filtering it through sand and using chlorine to treat it. And we are right now on the cusp of a shift to advanced water treatment technology.

THOMSON: Erik Olson says this kind of technology isn't needed everywhere, but he says more and more water systems will have to switch to ozone, activated carbon, or both. as the federal government tightens rules for contaminants like cryptosporidium and disinfection byproducts. But new technology isn't the whole answer. Just about everyone agrees these days that its just as important to clean up the sources of drinking water, and to keep them from getting polluted in the first place. So dozens of watershed protection efforts are springing up around the country.

BOLE: This is a model of a watershed. It has houses, it has farms, it has industries, it has forest. Now, what that we're gonna call this Flint Creek? Do y'all know where Flint Creek is?

CHILD: Isn't it over there by the Tennessee River?

THOMSON: At the Austinville Elementary School in Decatur, Alabama, a group of fourth graders crowds around a brightly colored plastic model of a small town. They're listening to Brad Bole, head of the Flint Creek Watershed Project.

BOLE: Why would we need Flint Creek? Why is Flint Creek important to us? What do we use water for?

STUDENT: To drink.

BOLE: To drink, that would be the main source wouldn't it?

THOMSON: Brad Bole finds out what the kids know about water quality in their community. Then he dusts his plastic model town with brown cinnamon and uses a plant sprayer to show how rain carries different substances from farms, factories and homes into the local river.

BOLE: What does he put on the grass to make it grow?

STUDENTS: Fertilizer!

BOLE: Fertilizer, yeah.

STUDENTS: Chemicals!

BOLE: Chemicals, that's right.

BOLE: The next night, a big rain comes.

(Sound of sprayer squirting)

BOLE: Uh, oh.


BOLE: What happened to all his fertilizer and chemicals?

STUDENTS: Oh! Pollution!

BOLE: It's pollution isn't it? Where does it go?

STUDENTS: The creek!

BOLE: Which creek is that?

STUDENTS: Flint Creek!!

BOLE: Flint Creek! So, what can he do to prevent that from happening?

STUDENT: Measure it.

BOLE All right, we can measure it. How do we know how much to put on there? And where do we find that information?

(Sounds of creek; birds, cicadas)

THOMSON: The Flint Creek Watershed spans three, thickly-forested Alabama counties on the south side of the Tennessee river. Much of its 150 miles of streams are a chalky, cocoa brown, so choked with nutrients from agricultural runoff and treated sewage that they support few fish. The small town of Hartselle used to get its drinking water from the creek, but a few years ago it had to shut down its pumps, it had just gotten too expensive to treat the water.

BOLE: When we first began, some people knew there was pollution going into the creek but didn't realize that what they were actually doing was contributing to that and what they don't know they can't fix.

THOMSON: It's Brad Bole's job to help people here understand their watershed, and help them get the information, the tools and money they need to start to fix it. He works in the watershed's urban and rural areas, with everyone from school kids to developers to farmers.

(Sounds of bugs, birds)

SUMMERFORD: My name is Jack Summerford, I've lived on this farm all my life. I'm 55 years old. I raise cattle and chickens.

THOMSON: Jack Summerford's pastures are exuberantly green. His oak and sweet gum trees a metropolis of songbirds and 13-year cicadas. But its not quite as idyllic as it seems.

SUMMERFORD: Ya know, I used to pollute as much as anybody, I guess. You know not intentionally, nobody else does it intentionally, they just do things the way they've always done, and they don't realize really what they are doing.

THOMSON: A few years ago, Jack Summerford had a revelation. He started hearing about what's called non-point pollution: stuff that doesn't come out of a factory pipe or a sewage treatment plant. It turned out that his simple, 150-acre farm was one of those non-point sources. Every day his hundred or so cows would wander down to the creek to drink and to cool off under big drooping trees. And they'd do what every creature does.

(Sound of cow manure plopping)
... they'd answer nature's call... leaving their waste on the stream bank, or even in the stream itself. The manure coming off this farm and dozens of others here was overloading Flint Creek with nutrients and bacteria. Then, Mr. Summerford heard about Brad Bole's watershed project. He got the know-how and the money he needed to keep the cattle away from the creek using what's called rotational grazing.

(Footfalls walking through grass)

SUMMERFORD: We'll split this into 3 different pastures, and have water
troughs. We'll have alternative shade and there'll be very little pollution then.

THOMSON: The new grazing system helps keep the manure on Jack Summerford's fields, where its nutrients make the grass grow taller and fuller, and away from the creek. The watershed project also helps him and other farmers cut stream bank erosion, and learn how to manage chicken waste and other fertilizers they spread on their fields, so less of it runs off during rainstorms.

SUMMERFORD: Ya know everybody's working for the future, to see what we need to do for the future ya know.

(sound of dog splashing in water, snorting and shaking)

THOMSON: Jack's shaggy black dog Dixie wallows in the muddy creek. His neighbor John Tanner says he can already see a difference in the water.

TANNER: That creek, if you'd been on it two years ago you could see a difference from what it is today. It's not near as bad, I don't think. It don't look as bad anyway. The fellers that fish in it say the fish is better in it than it was two years ago, so evidently it's gonna be a long project but evidently we're gaining some ground.

THOMSON: And there are hard numbers to back up this casual observation.
Project leader Brad Bole says a key indicator of water quality, known as dissolved oxygen, has improved substantially in the last year. And the project has brought other changes, too. Concern over water quality was partly behind a decision to start regular trash pickup in one county, and to impose some of the area's first zoning restrictions, around part of Flint Creek long known as the "nasty branch." Jack Summerford says the locally-run watershed effort has helped change the way people here think about their environment in general.

SUMMERFORD: A lot of people are aware of it and not throwing their bottles out the windows and in the creeks and all that. I don't believe that God wanted us to destroy the Earth, we supposed to leave it like we found it. I believe that there's some scripture talking about the ones that pollute the earth will be destroyed.

(Sounds of water flowing)

THOMSON: The changes rippling through this small Alabama watershed are inspiring. But this small-scale effort also has its limitations. In five years, the Flint Creek project has drawn up conservation plans for only about 200 of the watershed's 1,000 farms. It's partly a matter of money, and partly one of willingness to get involved. Like most other watershed projects, this is a voluntary effort, and many people who are part of the problem just aren't volunteering. Also, compared to the scale of the problem, voluntary watershed projects in general can only make a small dent. The federal government says non-point pollution and agricultural runoff in particular, is the biggest threat to the nation's waterways. The EPA plans to start imposing mandatory changes on some of the worst offenders, but the problem is immense. Every square inch of land in the U.S. is part of a watershed or ground water system. And it involves just about every type of human activity. So change is coming only very slowly. But there are things that people concerned about pollution in their watersheds, and contaminants coming out of their taps, can do to try to speed things up.

OLSON: Citizens have an array of options under the law. First of all, they can demand a change from their water system and from their government to try to persuade their state representatives, their members of Congress to fix the problem.

THOMSON: That's Erik Olson again, of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

OLSON: If that doesn't seem to be working, the law authorizes a lawsuit against the water utility that's violating the law.

THOMSON: In fact, federal water protection laws provide a number of powerful levers with which to pursue better water quality, such as citizen lawsuits against government agencies which they feel have been too lax. There are also little-known parts of the laws that could have a big impact if they were more broadly enforced.

OLSON: States are supposed to issue these rules called total maximum daily loads. They say how much of a particular pollutant is allowed to be dumped into a large stream or river. And the states have not been very good about issuing these controls. What's resulted from this is very recently citizens groups have started suing states all over the country, trying to force these total maximum daily loads to be issued. And I do think that over the long term, this is going to yield real benefits for drinking water protection.

THOMSON: Ultimately, we'll only get the quality of water that we're willing to fight for and to pay for. Better safeguards will cost more money. And we'll all have to decide whether to make an investment for the benefit of everyone, or to try to quench our thirst for safe water one tap at a time.

(Kitchen tap being turned on )
Back in her kitchen in Philadelphia, Alice Ginsberg says she'd gladly pay more than she already spends on water filters to get better water straight out of her tap.

GINSBERG: I would much rather just think that anytime we drank a glass of water it was better. Actually, one year I went Christmas shopping with a friend of mine and she just went to Macy's and bought like 20 Britas. I said "why are you giving everyone a Brita?" and she said "I'm tired of going to everyones house and not being able to drink their water. So I'm just giving everyone a Brita and then I know I'll be able to drink the water wherever I go." So, I think I'd much rather just have a cleaner water supply.

THOMSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson.



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