Clean Drinking Water Challenges

The Challenges of Treating a Degraded Source

Unfortunately, watersheds in many other fast-growing communities remain unprotected and threatened by development; new roads, homes, and commercial development can abruptly alter a landscape and generate nonpoint source pollution that contaminates drinking water supplies. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the leading cause of water quality degradation nationally is nonpoint source pollution (NPS) - over 60 percent of pollution in U.S. waterways comes from runoff from lawns, farms, cities, and highways, as well as leachate from rural septic systems and landfills. Advances in treatment technologies allow most suppliers to meet current drinking water standards, yet the constantly expanding diversity of contaminants, coupled with greater pollutant loads and fewer natural barriers, has made treatment more difficult and expensive, and increased the chances that contaminants will reach our tap. Some of the treatment challenges faced by suppliers drawing from intensively used source areas include:

  1. The emergence of new contaminants which suppliers may not be prepared to test or treat;
  2. Spikes in contaminant loads due to storms and flooding that make treatment more challenging;
  3. Constantly changing standards and regulations regarding new contaminants, which are present in the water long before they are identified as threats to public health; and
  4. Increased treatment and capital costs due to higher pollutant loads and changing water quality standards.

Treatment and filtration, land conservation, new development and infrastructure—each of these has a price tag that impacts decisions about drinking water protection. Although many communities realize the potential cost of protecting their watershed, they don't realize the potentially dramatic increase in treatment costs that can result from the loss of forests, grasslands and wetlands, and the natural filtration these landscapes provide.

A study of 27 water suppliers conducted by the Trust for Public Land and the American Water Works Association in 2002 found that the more forest cover there is in a watershed the lower the treatment costs. According to the study, for every 10 percent increase in forest cover in the source area, treatment and chemical costs decreased approximately 20 percent, with approximately 50-55 percent of the variation in treatment costs explained by the percent of forest cover in the source area.

The loss of natural lands to development affects not only the quality of our drinking water, and therefore the cost of treating it, but the quantity as well. That's because development increases demand for drinking water while it decreases the ability of water to infiltrate the ground and recharge water supplies. Sprawling suburban style development contributes even more to water scarcity than compact development, as it promotes more lawn areas and larger lots planted with turf grass. According to the EPA, large suburban properties consumed as much as 16 times more water than homes with smaller lots.

About Drinking Water Treatment

Drinking water treatment is one of the most critical barriers in a multiple barrier approach, as it provides a direct barrier to disease agents and is considered essential in protecting public health. Whether drinking water comes from the ground water sources or surface water supplies, it is likely treated before it reaches the tap. Even in the most pristine watersheds, natural pollutants such as animal waste and organic matter can impair the quality of water.

Modern drinking water treatment can reduce most source water contaminants to acceptable levels before water is delivered to consumers. The types of treatment necessary depend on the quality of the source water and the pollutants encountered. Water quality standards are created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency based on extensive public health research. These standards guide the amount and type of treatment needed for all ground and surface water supplies.

The Benefits of Watershed Protection: the first barrier in a multiple barrier approach to protecting source water

The considerable threats to our drinking water require an integrated and comprehensive response. Governments and water suppliers are tasked with protecting water resources from source to tap - beginning in the watershed or aquifer recharge area, continuing at the treatment facility, and extending through the distribution system. It is a multiple barrier approach; each method of protection acts as a barrier, safeguarding water from contamination.

Watershed protection is the first and most fundamental step in a multiple barrier approach to protecting drinking water. The American Academy of Microbiology, in their 1996 study on water safety, argued that one of the best tools for reducing the transmission of waterborne diseases is the establishment of watershed protection programs. Healthy, functioning watersheds naturally filter pollutants and moderate water quantity by slowing surface runoff and increasing the infiltration of water into the soil. The result is less flooding and soil erosion, cleaner water downstream and greater groundwater reserves.

With the national rate of land development increasing twice as fast as population, communities need to be proactive about protecting natural resources, particularly their source of drinking water. Although investments in maintaining and upgrading treatment systems will always be critical to protecting public health, these remedial approaches need to be balanced with investments in protection. When communities invest in land protection as a way to protect their drinking water, they are investing in the long-term health and quality of life of their citizens—guiding growth away from sensitive water resources, providing new park and recreational opportunities, protecting farmland and natural habitat - and likely saving money with reduced treatment costs.