Chances are that as a kid you went on a school field trip to discover how water is treated in order to make it acceptable to drink. Given the contaminants, making it drinkable is a massive job.
Acceptable—there’s the key word. The Environmental Working Group says there are 316 contaminants identified in U.S. tap water. Some are good for your health—but not all. EPA has only established safety standards for 114. Contaminants include microbial viruses and bacteria from sewage, septic systems, livestock operations and wildlife, and pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers from agriculture and residential runoff. You’ll find permitted inorganic salts and metals and organic byproducts from stormwater runoff, industrial wastewater discharges and processes, oil and gas production, mining, farming and gas station runoff. These are joined by pharmaceuticals eliminated from our bodies that get flushed down toilets including antibiotics, painkillers, sex hormones, anti-depressants and epilepsy drugs. Then there are radioactive contaminants from coal mining, nuclear plants and coal ash spills. Radioactive tritium leaks into the river from Watts Bar Nuclear Plant at a higher rate than previously reported. TVA is being asked to produce more for nuclear bombs.
This chemical cocktail in water threatens our aquatic species and human health.
While less than half of established water contaminants have safety standards requiring testing, there is NO testing or treatment required for pharmaceuticals and no one seems to be required to test for specific radionuclides such as cesium, iodine and tritium, either.
Relying on your plastic bottle of water won’t help. That water comes often from municipal taps and is even less regulated. Further, bottle production and our poor recycling habits represent an environmental assault. Instead, try a reverse osmosis system in your home and refill reusable bottles. Filtration can remove some radionuclides, but they don’t really go away. They’re in the filter.
Water companies are required to issue annual water quality reports to their customers. Tennessee American Water Company’s (TAWC) 2010 online report shows results for 15 contaminant types and then declares our water drinkable. How can that be said when there are 99 others with set standards (some may not exist in local waters), not to mention the other 202 without set standards?
Other utility districts exist here and some people use wells, but TAWC uses Tennessee River water to serve the most people. A high percentage of that water comes from South Chickamauga Creek watershed since it empties into the river at the Riverpark just upstream from TAWC’s intake on the same shore side. South Chickamauga Creek, like all creeks in Chattanooga, is listed on the state’s impaired streams list. Presently more money is spent on treatment than on pollution prevention, but it is slowly dawning on some that money is better spent on treatment-by-watershed before water gets to the water company. The Catskills watershed providing drinking water to New York City is an excellent example.
Space doesn’t permit listing all possible actions or ordinances needed to assure the quality of our drinking water. The recent Future River Fest provided information about water quality protection. Actions include transitioning away from coal and nuclear energy sources that pollute enormous amounts of water daily. Meanwhile, use electricity wisely and efficiently. Preserve floodplains, wetlands, and trees. Use best management practices to prevent sediment runoff. Resist use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Take oils and other toxics to Hawthorne Street instead of dumping in storm drains. Do not flush pills or goldfish. Add roof plants and use rain barrels to prevent stormwater runoff. Ask for pharmaceutical collection stations. Insist on strong water regulations and enforcement at all government levels.
We need clean water! River Rocks!