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By: mmatty

Quality Control: How We Share Water

Consider this water quality fact: The water that pours from your tap is not fresh by definition, in the sense of “not previously used” or “new.” In fact, it’s someone else’s used water.

Perhaps the water is new to you, but it could have been used in a dozen or more homes before yours.

Your “clean” water has been flushed down someone else’s toilet, used to wash dirty clothing, and swirled down the sink drain along with other debris. Of course, that water is treated before it flows to your tap—but it’s all the same water. Our water supply is shared.

Because our water is increasingly under the influence of other people’s use patterns, we must be careful to not take for granted the quality of our water supply, and work to understand ways we can improve the supply for everyone.

Trinity River south of Dallas-Fort Worth consist almost entirely of wastewater at baseflow (Fono et al, 2006, TRA, 2010, NAS 2012)

Downstream, Upstream—A Shared Source

So, how “used” is your water, exactly? Well, that depends on where you live, and where your water comes from. Take the Mississippi River, a water source for millions of people and one of the most important river systems in the United States. Jeffrey Hawkins Writer, a hydrologist at the United States Geological Survey (USGS), told a Nautilus magazine reporter in 2013 that the average drop of water entering the Mississippi River headwaters north of Minnesota will be used 11 times before it reaches the Gulf of Mexico.

Where is your water sourced?

No matter where you are located on the “stream,” there is someone drawing water from the source before it is treated and flows into your tap; and someone who uses the water after you dispose of it, and the water is again treated at a wastewater facility.

Our neighbors up- and downstream are positively, or negatively, impacted by how we treat our water at home—including whether we properly dispose of pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs).

And, while our used water is “cleaned” at wastewater treatment facilities and returned to the surface in lakes, rivers and streams (in a centralized treatment model), even sophisticated technology cannot remove all of the pharmaceutical products that are washed down the drains. We’re personally responsible for improving water quality. After all, Mother Nature isn’t the one depositing aspirin or Prozac into our lakes, rivers and streams.

According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), pharmaceutical traces can be found in 80 percent of United States streams. Further, a 2011 U.S. Government Accountability Office report confirmed the presence of pharmaceuticals in drinking water throughout the nation. The effects on human health are largely unknown.

The bottom line: Our actions concerning water use impact our immediate households, our neighbors, and those living in communities hundreds of miles away from us. It’s time to start thinking more deeply about how our actions impact water quality on a community and global level.

Do Not Drink: Waking Up to Water Quality

Downstream water quality is also severely impacted by nutrient pollution, which is caused by nitrogen and phosphorus that runs off from agricultural and urban land into our waterways. Aquatic vegetation responds by vigorously sucking up nutrients, and oxygen, and “blooming” spans of blue-green algae that releases a harmful toxin, microsystin, in our water supplies.

Algae blooms are threatening watersheds including the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes. In August 2014, a toxic algae bloom near the water intake in Lake Erie was responsible for toxins in the water that resulted in three days of warnings to 400,000 Toledo residents to not drink the water.

In West Virginia, a toxic chemical spill shut down the drinking water supply of 300,000 residents in Charleston, the ban lasting in some areas for up to 10 days. Months after the spill, many residents were weary of using the water to drink or bathe, according to national news media.

When we are faced with a water ban, where will we turn for clean water for drinking, cooking, washing, bathing and other sanitary needs and household necessities? We are reliant on water “systems” to provide us with clean, safe water—but how sustainable is the existing infrastructure when you consider the environmental, industrial and household (PPCPs, etc.) impact on our water supplies?

Taking Greater Responsibility for Water Quality 

It’s time to start thinking differently about our water supplies: where that water comes from, and where it goes next after we use it.

Our water sources are interconnected—we all live downstream from one another’s water supply. And, each of us can impact the quality of water and make a positive impact on its “path” by the decisions we make on a daily basis.

For one, properly disposing of hazardous waste can avoid the potential that these materials will enter the water supply. Also, simply disposing of rubbish like cigarette butts, cloth wipes and food wrappers can keep waterways clean. Heavy debris (referred to as “floatables”) is a problem in our water supplies. In 2008, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District collected 33 tons of heavy debris and rubbish from natural water resources. Finally, properly disposing of unwanted medicines will prevent toxins from passing through into rivers and lakes.

Beyond these measures, understanding how wastewater is treated and how our daily activities can impact our neighbors’ water supply will help us make better decisions about water use and disposal. As individuals, and communities, we can make a difference and improve our clean water supply as we explore new, sustainable and efficient methods of recycling water.


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