Today, Let's Drink to Clean Water … and Then Do More to Protect Our Water Supply


Monday’s Chicagoist headline, “It’s Okay to Drink the Water, Chicago,” is accurate but perhaps a little dismissive of the larger issues about drinking water which should be raised in all our minds by the recent drinking water scares topping news across the country.

This weekend’s public drinking water ban in Todedo, Ohio follows the ongoing “severe, extreme, and exceptional” drought (if the California State website doesn’t say it all, I don’t know what does).  These come on the heels of continuing commentary on communities with nitrate-laced well water and generally antiquated standards of clean water which don’t regulate 99% of chemicals used within the US today.

And on top of that … there’s sewage flowing into the Chicago River again today.  Just as there was on 7 days last month and 11 the month before that.


ONE: Really Pay Attention

We need to be careful to avoid what President Obama called a “Shock to Trance” approach to dealing with these issues.  Everyone wakes up to the issue at hand during a crisis, but as soon as the immediate problem is addressed – as soon as the drinking water is reported safe again, for example –  we cease to think about the larger issue and go back to business as usual.

TWO: Limit Unnecessary Water Use

We’ve talked at length about the Importance of Saving Water at Home and the Value of Low Flow Fixtures in previous posts but it really can’t be said enough.  Tap water seems like its infinitely available … until its not … but each drop is prepared for us with a great deal of energy and chemical input.  The less we use, the less that needs to be treated, the less potable water that will be re-mixed with sewage, with chemical-laden storm water and need to be treated again.

THREE: Keep Phosphorous (And Other Pollutants) Out Of The Water … Directly

Algal Blooms like the one which caused the toxic water scare in Toledo this weekend are a result of eutrophication – the result of abundant nutrients, warm water and light.  The warmth and sunlight come from nature but the nutrients (in their extreme over abundance) are gift wrapped and delivered to the rivers, lakes and oceans by us.  Pollution from industrial processes, effluent from industrial ag livestock production and even runoff from 128,000 kilometers of lawn being fertilized all contribute to the overabundance of algal bloom-inducing nutrients in our water supply.


A delightful public service website with the slogan “Don’t P On Your Lawn” points out how easy it is to switch to phosphorus free fertilizers.  Another alternative is to HAVE LESS LAWN overall.  Don’t P On Your Lawn, pretty much says it all.  Don’t.

FOUR: Keep Phosphorous (And Other Pollutants) Out Of The Water … indirectly.

But as shown in the diagram above, the overabundance of fertilizers isn’t all coming from residential runoff.  A lot of it is also coming from commercial agriculture – both from heavily fertilized fields and from the (ahem) “waste” produced by livestock.  All that manure is often spread back on fields (to have something to do with it) which only increases the cycle of nutrient runoff.

Searching out sources of sustainably raised meat or limiting the amount of commercially produced meat in your diet will help reduce the impact of this run off.

Burning fossil fuels (both in coal-based power plants and in the engines of our cars) introduce excess nitrogen oxide compounds into the atmosphere and that too accounts for some of the excess nutrients feeding toxic algal blooms in our water ways.  Cutting back on driving, putting your electronics on power strips and switching off the lights are all ways that you can indirectly keep your drinking water cleaner.

FIVE: Encourage Sensible Water Legislation 

It’s not safe to assume that our clean drinking water is protected by the full power of the law, either.  As a New York Times series on Toxic Water in 2009 pointed out the Safe Drinking Water Act is woefully out of date in the types, and concentrations, of chemicals that it limits in our water supply.  The cutoff of public water in Ohio this weekend isn’t the first supposed wake up call the public has experienced.

Last year a smaller Ohio township suffered the same toxic water problem and nothing was done to modify the situation.  In fact, a five year old EPA report literally titled “An Urgent Call To Action” noted the dangers of nutrient polluted water sources across the country and begged for greater accountability of upstream pollution sources for the costs and effects of their behavior on downstream users but … little has been done.

As the Toledo Commissioner of Public Utilities put it in NYTimes coverage, “the whole drinking-water community has been raising these issues,” but the polluters are not volunteering to pay for cleanup costs.  Why should they, when there is only minimal legislation to enforce change?  We need to encourage legislators to address this problem.  If they believe it will cost them votes (instead of just campaign contributions) they may feel motivated to address the issue more fairly.

We’re Still So Lucky, Let’s Not Throw That Away

Even WITH all these problems, America is generally blessed with an abundant supply of available, cheap, and safe drinking water as compared to many other parts of the world.  Let’s hang on to what we have while we do have it!

Note: algal bloom photo  via Nara Souza incorporated in sketch collage