Gunk in our Surface waters….the effect on drinking water.


Discharges into surface waters is one of the oldest methods of disposing of waste because surface waters remove the waste from the point of generation.  Downstream, reduction of the waste occurs due to dilution and natural degradation processes (due to bacteria in the water).  Failure to treat adequately will overload the natural attenuation ability of the water body, resulting in noticeable pollution. 

Other potential environmental impacts of surface discharge arise from the precipitation of metals and other heavy compounds on the bottom of the receiving water body, downstream of discharge.  Heavy metal accumulation among benthic populations and the possible recycling of these metals through the food chain is a subject of current research.  Industrial processes like mining are notorious for leaching metals.  Old mining areas that have not been active for nearly 100 years are still out there, releasing bright red to the environment.  That cannot be good right?

Historical records indicate that the regulations or standards required for water systems were generally not applied until late in the 19th century.  Up until that point, the basic philosophy was that water should be free of any organisms that cause disease and high quantities of minerals and such other substances that could produce adverse physiological impacts.  Even the ancient civilizations realized that certain waters were healthful while others were not, the latter being water that contained some unseen contaminant that caused death or disease.   With the realization that numerous epidemics, typically typhoid and cholera, were caused by water-borne diseases, people came to realize that the quality of drinking water could not be discerned simply by looking at it, tasting it or smelling it.  As a result, more stringent quality criteria were required to protect the public health.

The first formal set of standards was adopted in 1914.  It focused on limitations on the number of fecal coliforms (chosen as an indicator microorganism), that were permissible within water system.  The initial federal public health rule required that fecal coliform counts be below 2 per 100 milliliters.  By the 1920s, chlorination had become routine in many water systems because of its ability to eliminate water-borne diseases.  1925 saw a reduction in the limit of coliforms to one per milliliter due to increasing use of chlorine and the ease with which most large utility systems were able to meet regulations

In the 1940’s, metallic contamination, primarily in the form of lead and chromium, were identified as creating problems with brain development in children.  In 1942, a federal advisory committee presented a series of drinking water regulations that established the number of water samples to be taken each month, the procedures for examining those samples, the maximum permissible concentrations for lead, fluoride, arsenic and selenium (as well as heavy metals that had deleterious physiological effects) that became the primary drinking water standards.  In 1946, a minor addition added hexavalent chromium and several other metals to the drinking water standards. 

While the 1942 standards were primarily oriented toward lead paint, the fact that lead and chromium were in water supplies demanded that these issues be addressed.  As of the early 1960’s, over 19,000 water systems had been identified.  The public Health Service found that only 60 percent of the systems surveyed met all drinking water standards and that small systems had the most deficiencies (EPA, 2009a).  The public was becoming aware of the chemical and industrial wastes that were polluting many of the surficial water sources for the systems.  In addition, concerns about radioactive pollutants arose. 

In 1962, maximum concentrations for a series of substances such as cyanide, nitrate, silver and some language on radioactivity were added to the regulations. The 1962 the U.S. Public Health Service standards set the stage for the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974.  But first it was starting the cleanup of surface water – fires on the Cuyahoga River seem crazy, but I have photos.  The clean water act was passed first because surface waters are the source of many drinking water systems.  Clean up the source waters – less treatment might be required. 

As late as 1974, the major cause of polluted rivers and streams was wastewater/industrial pollution.  Utilities and the federal and state governments have invested over $250 billion in the past 40 years to address this issue, and aside from certain nutrients, the effort that been successful.  That was the focus of the clean water act, but it was not the only focus.  Agriculture and stormwater were both issues that were identified in the law as pollution but not prioritized.  Stormwater came next, but as the Mississippi river delta has demonstrates, farm runoff is a major source of nutrient pollution in America’s waterways, way more than wastewater today.  The challenge however is while utilities had a pipe that could easily be sample and regulated, pipes are not typical for farms.  Instead, overland flow, or non-point discharges are the norm. 

The problem is which to address first (in the face of a fierce lobby to do nothing).  Keep in mind, the Milwaukee and Walkerton incidents that we talk about were both agriculture driven. Agriculture can be split into two arena – crops and animal operations.  Cropland floods and contaminates waterways.  The large scale challenge must be dealt with by creating and enforcing a means to capture water quality, and limit water quantity from farm fields.  That is a tall order, but with large scale agribusiness operations, should be obtainable aside from the heavy lobbying resistance that would occur in Congress.

The animal operations are actually easier, but will encounter the same lobbyist resistance.  Many animal operations have centralized areas where manure and runoff are treated.  This is not unlike wastewater treatment operations except the budgets are smaller and the waste concentrations are much higher.  However, there is value in that manure.  Gas, biosolids and nutrients are recoverable from animal operations, assuming there was a means to pay for the cost.  Enter subsidies.  If Congress wants to provide agri-business subsidies, a quid pro quo could be to require animal operations to secure a means via a wastewater operation to treat the waste.  The solution is not cheap but would achieve two goal at once -improved stream quality and renewable power. 

Just a thought….

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