But Not a Drop to Drink: The Threat to America’s Drinking Water

water fountain But Not a Drop to Drink: The Threat to America’s Drinking WaterFor those of us who worked closely with environmental professionals during the eight years of the Bush Administration, we know that it was a time of declining resources and reduced political support for environmental regulation. It was demoralizing and more than a little scary. Last weekend an excellent piece of environmental reporting by the New York Times writer Charles Duhigg highlighted declining drinking water quality throughout the United States. While New York City’s drinking water appears safe from the threats cited in the Times piece, it provides a clear indication that it is quite dangerous to let our attention ever wander from this critical issue and vital resource.

Summarizing his reporting Duhigg observes that:
“Almost four decades ago, Congress passed the Clean Water Act to force polluters to disclose the toxins they dump into waterways and to give regulators the power to fine or jail offenders. States have passed pollution statutes of their own. But in recent years, violations of the Clean Water Act have risen steadily across the nation, an extensive review of water pollution records by The New York Times found.”

The Times has also created an excellent data base on violations of water pollution rules and state enforcement of those rules. In this region, New York’s legal authorities managed only 6.4 enforcement actions per 100 violations, in contrast to New Jersey’s 53.5 per 100 violations. Connecticut was even worse than New York with only 3.7 enforcement efforts per 100 violations.

Protecting our drinking water is a fundamental function of government. Just as we expect our streets to be safe from crime and our nation protected from the threat of terrorism, our health and welfare also depend on the provision of safe water to drink and clean air to breathe. This is basic and non-negotiable. A Times “quote of the day” last weekend came from this piece, when West Virginia resident, Jennifer Hall-Massey asked “How can we get digital cable and Internet in our homes, but not clean water?” 

It is of course not an issue of technical competence, but profit and political will. There is big money in the cable and internet business and plenty of competition. Water supply is a public utility that is delivered by government and funded by use fees and general revenue taxes. This monopoly means that we have no choice when selecting a water supplier. Our water supply is also more fragile and vulnerable than the infrastructure that delivers Internet and cable TV.

The cause of this attack on our water supply is untreated and poorly managed industrial dumping of toxic substances. While this is rampant in the developing world, America, from the mid-1970’s to the late 1990’s made enormous progress in reducing these practices. Apparently, part of the lasting environmental legacy of the Bush-Cheney years is the backsliding reported by the Times in this article.

The new Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Lisa Jackson is making the right noises about increasing enforcement, and I suspect the New York Times piece will strengthen the hand of environmental professionals inside the agency that are trying to push this agenda. The article also makes the point that the focus on climate change may be pushing attention and resources away from more traditional concerns such as water pollution.  I doubt that is true, the real issue is not enough resources are going to either issue.

In any event, the issue of clean drinking water has far more political potency than climate change. Most of the impacts of global warming are in the future, and it is difficult for the average person to understand the connection between cause and effect. Moreover, the causes of climate change come from many places and the impact will also be felt in many places. Water pollution is locally caused and felt. The impact is nearly immediate and some of the impacts, like illness and skin rashes, are very visible. Because climate change is a global problem that crosses all borders, it creates real challenges for our planet’s political system which is based on sovereign nation states.  While some water pollution issues cross borders, in the U.S. the borders they cross are mainly state borders rather than national ones.

We know how to keep our drinking water clean. We have laws that require it and institutions capable of administering those laws. What we need is the political will and resources to use those institutions and enforce the laws we have. Unlike climate and health care, the structure is already in place and a national consensus was established long ago to ensure clean drinking water. The challenge to the Obama administration and the EPA is clear. What is less clear is if they are up to the task.