Safe Water, Fresh Look at the Tap

NYC Water NYC Infrastructure graph: gothamist.com

NYC Water NYC Infrastructure graph: gothamist.com

Imagine this. With minimal warning you are told on one of the hottest weeks of Summer with a heat index over 100 that your tap water will be shut off for the foreseeable future.

NYC Water NYC Infrastructure graph: gothamist.com

NYC Water NYC Infrastructure graph: gothamist.com

India, Pakistan, Africa? None of these. It happened to 100,000 residents of Prince Georges (PG)  County, Maryland–a community just outside Washington, DC–in July 2013.

Life is full of work-arounds. You avoid a traffic snarl by taking a back road. People in Prince Georges County were told to fill bath tubs and buy bottled water. One resident recalls purchasing 42 gallons. Businesses too were on their own.

Problems like this in part help explain the controversy surrounding tap water in America. But so do marketing efforts that confuse people. Inside the beltway, DC Water promotes tap only. Home water treatment company Brita, a division of Clorox, challenges people to ban the bottle. Some, like Culligan, have even used print advertising to suggest that people may not actually know what’s in their tap water.

Most of us carry around two sets of ideas. In a new study, the Young & Rubicam advertising agency concluded that while we may profess one idea, we often conceal another motivation.

People may say that they are either for or against tap water or bottled water, but in reality they may consume both, or even substitute a different beverage for water. Working around all the vested interests in drinking water in America, Michelle Obama and the Partnership for a Healthier America launched a simple and sweet initiative to encourage each of us to make an easy choice to improve our health and well-being.

Uniting the World of Drinking Water

Mrs. Obama’s big idea? Drink more water. “I’ve come to realize that if we were going to take just one step to make ourselves and our families healthier, probably the single best thing we could do is to simply drink more water every day,” the First Lady said during a kickoff event in Watertown, Wisconsin on September 12. Still, a spokesman for Mrs. Obama was asked to clarify if this includes bottled water. It does. “Whether it comes from a faucet, an underground spring, a rambling river or a plastic bottle, the message is: ‘Drink up.”

Partisan rancor being what it now is, however, an initiative to get Americans to drink more water–backed by the American Beverage Association and the International Bottled Water Association–ignited controversy and prompted skepticism among some citizen interest groups promoting tap water over bottled water and others who challenge the 8×8 convention. While the health benefits of drinking water are well understood, there is confusion about whether we need to drink eight 8-ounces glasses each day.

Further, environmental groups that want people to avoid drinking from plastic water bottles were also uncomfortable with the announcement, even though for close to a billion people on our planet there is no such thing as safe and pure water from a tap and these groups, it seems, typically fail to include other plastic food and beverage containers when discussing this issue.

Others went so far as to say that we don’t have a hydration crisis in this country. They are right, of course, we don’t. What we do have is a healthy hydration crisis and an energy drinks crisis and an obesity crisis.

That’s why Mrs. Obama’s simple message resonates. “Since we started the ‘Let’s Move!’ initiative, I’ve been looking for as many ways as possible to help families and kids lead healthier lives,” she said on September 12 in Watertown. Mrs. Obama talked about the improvement she has seem in her own two teen daughters’ health and mentioned how much more alert they are since they began drinking more water.

[Full disclosure, I’ve been beating the water-is-the best-form-of-hydration drum since 2009 on my H2OforHealth radio show blog and had the opportunity to champion this message at the inaugural Healthy Beverage Expo in June 2013.]

While tap water per se is not a sponsor of the “Drink Up” campaign, it does benefit. In an email exchange with Greg Kail, director of communications for the American Water Works Association, he told me that AWWA “seconds the First Lady’s advice to drink plenty of water” and that the association is encouraging its utility members to leverage the Partnership in America’s “Drink Up” campaign while also touting the high quality of the tap water delivered to Americans every day. Coincidentally, the associations’ theme for its 2014 annual conference is “Uniting the World of Water”.

Tip of the Iceberg?

The culprit of the PG County water crisis was a failed section of a 50-plus year old, 54-inch concrete water main maintained by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. And in interviews with the media, WSSC officials stressed that the mandatory restrictions –families were advised to take short showers, flush toilets infrequently, postpone washing clothes and dishes, not refill pools, and not water their gardens or wash cars –and the cooperation of residents were necessary in order to keep enough water on hand in case of a fire emergency.

Looking at the big picture, the PG County water main failure is not an unfamiliar scenario. At its website, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department proclaims the following mission statement: “to exceed our customers’ expectations through the innovative treatment and transmission of water and wastewater, and the provision of services that promote healthy communities and economic growth.” That’s a tall order for financially distraught Detroit; but the truth is that having a mission to provide quality tap water is becoming increasingly challenging for a majority of water systems in the U.S.

Big Costs

An analysis performed by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) in 2012 concluded that it will take more than a trillion dollars over the next 25 years to repair and expand America’s drinking water infrastructure. EPA’s 20-year estimate (2011 – 2030) is $384 million, or $49 million more than reported to Congress in 2009, just to maintain the existing level of drinking water service for close to 90 percent of America. (For more than one-in-ten Americans who rely on private wells there are no national drinking water standards as home wells do not fall under USEPA jurisdiction.)

One reason why the need for upgrades has never been greater, according to a 2013 report by the American Academy of Microbiology (AAM), is mycobacteria, common inhabitants in drinking water systems. Mycobacteria attach themselves to the interior surfaces of water distribution pipes in slimy coatings known as biofilms. Mycobacteria are responsible for an estimated 20,000 infections each year plus millions of individual cases of waterborne diseases. Related hospitalization costs are close to $1 billion annually. (1) According to Norman Pace, PhD, Distinguished Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, while microbes living in the water distribution system have many important effects, scientists cannot yet detect the difference between a healthy, stable microbial community and one that threatens public health or infrastructure resilience. Nicholas Ashbolt, a microbiologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, goes further. Dr. Ashbolt has identified water systems as a “hot spot” for the emergence of antibiotic-resistant microorganisms. Their presence, he says, increases the likelihood of engineered environments contributing to antibiotic resistance. (2)

Who Should Pay? 

The long held position of the tap water industry is that local governments, municipal and regional water authorities, and private water companies responsible for supplying safe drinking water should have the primary responsibility for funding EPA-mandated guidelines. But communities are challenged to pay for big ticket infrastructure fixes without substantial rate increases. The Wall Street Journal took note recently, writing that water fights caused by rate increases are simmering across America. (3)

Congress has authorized “assistance programs”–most notably the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund–but these have consistently received fewer funds during each reauthorization. So, in May 2013, with the backing of AWWA and other water utility groups, the U.S. Senate passed the Water Resources Development Act of 2013. If enacted, local ratepayers would still be responsible for the cost of infrastructure upgrades, but the federal government and states would work to create a credit support program. Given the reluctance of the House of Representatives to approve additional funding for new initiatives, however, ultimate passage does not appear likely as of this writing.

The irony of badly needed repairs and new treatment technologies is that in the face of climate change public water suppliers must increase rates while simultaneously reaching out to customers to reduce their water consumption and purchase water efficient appliances.

Effects of Climate Change 

Climate change has been referred to as “global weirding.”  Towns and cities near rivers and along coastal regions must sometimes cope with rising streams and ocean swells that can cause power outages and jeopardize water flowing to taps.

Global warming is an even bigger factor. 2012 was the warmest year on record in the contiguous United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2013 “State of the Climate” report. (4) The Southeast and West–especially the arid Southwest–have experienced ongoing increases in the severity and length of droughts.

Warmer temperatures increase the rate of evaporation. In turn, this contributes to the degradation of water taste and quality, including the growth of algae, and can damage infrastructure. Texas, for example, lost enough water in the 2011 drought to fill two Lake Meads. But, even as the amount of water available in these areas is increasingly limited, demand continues to rise with population growth.

New pumping and irrigation systems along the High Plains Aquifer have made it easy for farmers to withdraw billions of gallons of water they use to irrigate arid land. Sixty years ago the aquifer had sufficient water to fill two Great Lakes. But wells are drying up. Recently, NPR reported on one irrigation well in Kansas that daily pumps a thousand gallons of water per minute. With an estimated 40,000 irrigation wells in Kansas alone, the NPR report included this description: “In 2011, Kansas wells sucked out enough water to keep Niagara Falls thundering full force for three weeks. … (and in Kansas) in some spots, the water table has plunged more than 100 feet. Wells are running dry, and tensions are rising.” (5)

EPA’s Water Infrastructure Survey contains little information about the climate readiness of water utilities. But, included in President Obama’s Climate Action Plan announced on June 25 was the call to “strengthen government and local community planning … by increasing water storage and water use efficiency to cope with the increased variability in water supply.”

Water Innovation & Marketing Discussion

Like President Obama, in their book, The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy, authors Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley suggest that “innovation” is at the epicenter of the new urban economy.

In this vein, recently I met with a seasoned tap water industry executive and problem solver. Dennis Siegert’s title is Director, Municipal Utility Solutions for Johnson Controls. His company offers asset management services to the water industry, which Siegert prefers to call “monetizing inefficiency”.

My interview with Siegert, arranged by the PR firm representing Johnson Controls, a $40-plus billion multinational corporation with more than 1300 worldwide locations and 168,000 employees, took place at the Hyatt Hotel restaurant across the street from the downtown Denver, Colorado Convention Center in June 2013. We were both attending the annual convention of Denver-based American Water Works Association. Over create-your-own salads, Dennis and I had a multi-faceted discussion about the health of public water systems and the options people have if they choose not to drink tap water.

Message In A Bottle

Three days prior to our get-together, I had delivered a talk on healthy hydration at the inaugural Healthy Beverage Expo, held in Las Vegas in conjunction with the World Tea Expo. According to the Institute of Medicine’s general guidelines for drinking water, women should consume approximately 2.7 liters (91 ounces) of total water–from all beverages and foods–each day. Men need a daily average of approximately 3.7 liters (125 ounces). (6) Discussing water consumption with Dennis while sipping hotel drinking water, I mentioned that research shows that in homes with foul-tasting or discolored tap water, most people won’t pour a glass from the faucet–even if the water is deemed safe to drink by the utility.

Sometimes they drink bottled water or filter the tap water, but more often they drink a soft drink or other beverage. Furthermore, in a recent supermarket industry survey, seventy-three percent responded that nutrition and health are an important factor when choosing what to drink. What is a given in the beverage industry–that taste and convenience are the most important factors in selecting a beverage–is missing from the conventional mindset of the tap water industry when addressing the issue of tap vs. bottled.

While all agree that bottled water is a godsend in times of emergency, the disdain for bottled water runs thick among tap water providers. So Siegert and I discussed several attitudes about bottled water. Utility professionals generally hold that bottled water is less regulated than tap water (actually they are regulated by two different federal agencies: tap water by EPA and bottled water by FDA); they say that marketing people dupe consumers into buying bottled water (the reality is that Big Cola spends far more in advertising and promotion of sugary drinks than is spent to market bottled water. Siegert also suggested that public water suppliers are just beginning to sufficiently market what they do in contrast to how effective bottled water is sold).

While only a tiny fraction of water supplied by utilities is actually consumed all of it must meet the government’s minimum standards for safe drinking water. The exceptions are water fountains at airports, schools and other public parks, which are not subject to federal regulations.

Still, some think that utilities should become rivals to established bottled water brands by bottling their own. The reality of this misconception is that the major bottled water producers–Coke, Pepsi and Nestlé Waters–work on huge volume profit margins and have national distribution. While some public water systems have tried selling their water in bottles, what they found was that they can neither compete with the scale and efficiency of the major bottled water suppliers nor do they possess the management expertise necessary to compete in the highly-competitive retail beverage arena.

Finally, tap water bottled after treatment and prior to entering the distribution system and encountering home plumbing is dramatically different from water treated in a facility relying on good manufacturing practices and factory-sealed bottles. Summing it up, University of Colorado’s Dr. Pace, says that “Water drawn from the faucet is markedly different from the water that leaves the system’s treatment facility.” (7)

New Solutions

A key factor in maintaining positive customer relations is accurate meter reading. One means of doing this in a cost-effective manner is with automated meter reading like the system used in Kingsport, Tennessee supplied by Johnson Controls that enables city workers to read water meters remotely. Mobile meter reading, according to Johnson Controls estimates, will save the city close to $16 million over the course of its 17-year contract.

In Olathe, Kansas, a Johnson Controls’ computerized system further eliminates the need for personnel to read meters. This saves fuel costs, reduces carbon dioxide emissions, and frees city employees for other tasks. Meters loose accuracy over time. In turn, this can produce inaccurate invoices, a huge concern for customers of water utilities. Interestingly, the centerpiece of the Olathe project–replacing all of the city’s 35,000 water meters–wasn’t even on the original to do list, but ultimately delivered the biggest financial benefit.

Like many US cities, Olathe could not afford to make sorely needed improvements without raising taxes or increasing debt. But increased revenues from the new meters combined with additional savings are expected to pay back the $12 million infrastructure investment within 11 years. And the self-funding nature of the capital lease meant the debt did not appear on the city’s financial statement.

Finally, part of the business arrangement calls for Johnson Controls to repay the difference to cities it contracts with if it cannot produce the projected savings.

Water & Energy Linked

Because of aging infrastructure, public water suppliers lose on average about 25 percent of water from deteriorating pipes prior to reaching taps. In the case of a serious water main leak, the percentage can be even higher. Approximately seven billion gallons of “precious potable” are leaked each year, according to the report, “2012 Strategic Directions in the U.S. Water Utility Industry,” published by the consulting firm, Black & Veach. And large amounts of energy are required to replace water losses within a system. In fact, moving water is one of the biggest uses of energy. Water and energy are closely interconnected, so the ability to prevent water leaks can create a cost savings.

Pipes, A New Frontier?

On average 700 water mains break daily in the US (8), adding to the complexity of managing resources due to these unexpected events. For example, a stuck valve operated by the Detroit  Water and Sewer Department in March in Livonia, MI caused a massive burst of an estimated one million gallons of water gushing and spilling into nearby neighborhoods. So another area ripe for targeted improvements are water main leaks; however, replacement of big pipes is increasingly cost prohibitive.

“We have a failing infrastructure on a national basis. There is lots of focus on other (big) infrastructure, but none on water,” according to Jerry Johnson, the head of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. WSSC experiences on average 1700 water main breaks per year. (9) With the potential of introducing contamination into the distribution system, each break can possibly become a health threat.

The estimate to replace all 5400 miles of water mains operated by WSSC, for example, is estimated to be $3 billion. In 2012 the big suburban DC utility replaced 50 miles of smaller mains and Johnson says plans call for doing about the same each year going forward. But 36-inch and larger pipes–the major transmission mains–are different. One of these burst in March 2013 and another in July of this year.

On Monday, March 18 at 8:00 PM, a 33-year old 60-inch pre-cast concrete cylinder pipe (PCCP), one of the water transmission mains, erupted at a busy Connecticut Avenue intersection in Chevy Chase, Maryland–steps away from the Washington, D.C. border. It was, as the Washington Post termed it, symptomatic of WSSC’s “notoriously problematic stock” of 350 miles of concrete mains “prone to exploding without warning.”

PCCP is a newer type pipe. Not that old by industry standards, PCCP pipes are the highest priority for inspection, monitoring, repair, and replacement because unlike iron or steel pipes, they can fail in a catastrophic manner. So, after the March rupture–and with the potential for a similar catastrophe–WSSC took the highly unusual step in July of issuing a public warning  for 100,000 customers to prepare for the worst in the likely case that a 54-inch PCCP water main with the potential of bursting would interrupt service for a week.

WSSC used new technology: a wire–like a slinky–wrapped around pipe joints that when broken signals a possible calamitous event. GPS then helped WSSC pinpoint the actual location of the wire break, and crews worked diligently to repair the pipe, enabling the utility to avert an emergency and reinstate service.

New Day For Water Utilities 

No surprise then that a survey of water utility leaders found the biggest challenge is grossly inadequate funding to upgrade infrastructure, much of which is well past its useful lifespan.

But as municipal water systems and private entities that supply tap water struggle to pay for upgrades to infrastructure; new meter reading systems–like the ones supplied by Johnson Controls for Johnson City and Olathe, and new pipe detection technologies–such as the slinky wires used by WSSC–are encouraging in that they offer a way to reduce public water suppliers’ expenses with the potential for channeling savings into new fixes.

Water vs. Sugar

Often personal taste preference dictates whether water is consumed from the tap, filtered at the tap, or bottled. For this reason alone, the Mrs. Obama’s leadership on the “Drink Up” campaign is admirable. As a drinking water advocate, I also believe that source matters less than families and individuals choosing water over sugary beverages.

Richard Johnson, MD, specializes in kidney care at the University of Colorado’s Denver campus. He told Richard Cohen, author of “Sugar Love (A Not So Sweet Story)” in the August 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine that, “It seems like every time I study an illness and trace a path to the first cause, I find my way back to sugar.” Dr. Johnson’s champions drinking water, low-fat milk, tea and coffee. His views aired during a talk radio interview in July mirror the advice of Walter Willet, MD, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Pubic Health, in his book, Eat, Drink and be Healthy, as well as Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, in his newest book, Antifragile.

Final Analysis 

The real take-away message is that drinking water in the U.S. suffers from a two-fold crisis. Public water suppliers seek to protect public health with sustainable water and energy solutions, but struggle with onerous treatment challenges and how to pay for needed infrastructure repairs and upgrades and new technology. Water professionals say the problem is exacerbated because, unlike bridges and other infrastructure, water pipes are “out of sight and out of mind”.

At the same time, public health professionals–academics, dietitians and nutritionists–focused on individual health concerns, understand the importance of drinking water in the war on sugary drinks, even as they are sometimes reticent to endorse bottled water because of it’s environmental impact. (Also, strong advocates of fluoridated drinking water include dentists. They say bottled water ultimately undermines children’s tooth protection, a charge the bottled water industry adamantly rejects given other sources of fluoride consumed through processed foods and beverages.)

So yes, we need innovative solutions and win-win fixes for America’s badly failing water infrastructure–like the services offered by Johnson Controls–and new public programs to pay for new treatment technologies–such as the Water Resources Development Act. But viewed through the lens of the “Drink Up” campaign and health professionals, the prudent strategy is for all facets of the drinking water spectrum to join together to encourage consumers to drink more water whether from the tap, bottled, or more practically and realistically, both.

Jonathan Hall is a drinking water advocate. He blogs at hallwater.com and has worked as an independent strategy and social media content consultant.

  1. “Prevalence of nontuberculous mycobacterial lung disease in U.S. Medicare beneficiaries.”  2012 Apr 15;185(8):881-6. doi: 10.1164/rccm.201111-2016OC. Epub 2012 Feb 3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=22312016.
  2. “Human Health Risk Assessment (HHRA) for Environmental Development and Transfer of Antibiotic Resistance,” Environmental Health Perspectives, Environ Health Perspect; DOI:10.1289/ehp.1206316, Advance publication, August, 2013,  http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/1206316/]
  3. “Towns Try to Take Back Water Systems,” Wall Street Journal, August 19, 2013. WSJ.com http://on.wsj.com/18l6zy8
  4. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2013 “State of the Climate” http://1.usa.gov/13G5naG.
  5. “Wells Are Running Dry In Parts Of Kansas”: NPR All Things Considered, August 6, 2013 http://n.pr/19aspuK.
  6. Dietary Reference Intakes: Water, Potassium, Sodium, Chloride, and Sulfate – Institute of Medicine http://bit.ly/1d0bKJi (Feb 2004).
  7. “A Quest for Even Safer Drinking Water,” The New York Times, Peter Andrey Smith, August 26, 2013.
  8. The source is the website water main break clock dot com.
  9. Aging Water Infrastructure”, The Kojo Nnamdi Show, WAMU-FM, August 19, 2013. http://bit.ly/18600Q2.

About Me

Jonathan Hall is a drinking water advocate. He blogs at hallwater.com and has worked as an independent strategy and social media content consultant.