Flint Water Crisis: A Closer Look at Where Our Water Comes From

Joel Anderson  |

People have been giving a lot more thought to their tap water these days. For those of us living in California, the worst drought in 1,200 years has led to increasing calls for conservation. Suddenly, we’re reading about the level of snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas and learning that the process by which water comes out of our faucets is a lot more complicated than we had previously recognized.

Of course, that has been entirely eclipsed by another story involving tap water that has seized the entire nation: the contaminated water crisis in Flint. As a native Michigander, I can hardly express the sort of disgust I feel about the way government has so abjectly failed the people of Flint, and that’s with the bar for expectations for quality governance in Flint exceptionally low already.

On the whole, though, it does speak to a simple fact for which most Americans can be very thankful: most of us can take the source of our water for granted. We can simply hop in the shower or turn on the faucet and rely on clean water flowing out, a privilege that a large portion of the human population can’t claim. So, why don’t we take a moment to look closer at our nation’s water system, and how public utilities function, to ensure that most of us can rely on water flowing out of the taps when we turn that handle.

On the Ground...or Under It

Let’s start at the source.

American water comes almost exclusively from two sources: groundwater and surface water. Surface water being rivers, lakes and reservoirs, while groundwater is the water that seeps into the ground that can be accessed by drilling wells.

While 90% of public water systems are groundwater systems, the portion of the American population relying on groundwater is only 36%. This is because surface water presents a much cheaper and more efficient way to access large quantities of water. It also tends to use very large, very high-capacity installations, allowing them to serve more people with fewer systems.

American city-dwellers tend to be fairly lucky in this regard as well. Several of the largest cities have access to surface water sources that don’t require a great deal of treatment, as they come from the upper portions of protected watersheds. New York has the watershed of the Catskills. Boston can rely on the Quabbin and Wachusett Reservoirs, and San Francisco draws over 80% of its drinking water from the legendary Hetch Hetchy Reservoir that gathers snowmelt from the Sierra Nevadas, to name a few.

Keeping Water Clean Must be a Priority

Of course, anyone who has taken an extended backpacking trip can tell that, even the freshest stream in the highest mountains can be real trouble if you drink straight from it’s banks. Before water reaches people’s taps, it has to be treated to ensure that it’s free from any dangerous chemicals or bacteria.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in charge of ensuring that people’s water meets the federal standards, tracking six types of pollutants that must remain below specific levels: microorganisms, disinfectants, disinfection byproducts, inorganic chemicals, organic chemicals, and radionuclides.

The first step in water purification is usually coagulation and flocculation, where positively charged chemicals are introduced to the water and bind themselves to dirt. This forms “floc” which is larger and settles to the bottom during sedimentation, and is then removed during filtration. The final step is disinfection, which usually involves chlorination and treatment with ozone and UV lights to kill off any living biological material.

Beyond that, fluorination has proven results in protecting the teeth of people who drink it regularly. What’s more, plenty of different water sources present their own issues requiring treatment through other means.

What are We Using Water For?

If your assumption is that we’re drinking most of it, you’re way, way off.

For starters, hydroelectric electricity is the single largest form of water use in the country, followed by irrigation. Those two uses, utilizing 161 billion and 115 billion gallons of water a day respectively, both dwarf the 42 billion gallons that go to public use.

And even there, drinking water is actually a relatively small portion of total household use. The toilet represents more than a quarter of total water use in the average household, followed by the clothes washer at just over a fifth of water use and over 15% to the shower. The faucet is just 15.7% of the water that flows to your house.

Who is in Charge of All This?

If one question has really been raised by the crisis in Flint, it’s that of who is shepherding our water to us. In Flint, an emergency manager tried to save money by drawing water from the Flint River rather than purchasing Lake Huron water from the City of Detroit. Unfortunately, the water from the Flint River had a lower pH and higher saline content which corroded the coatings on the lead service pipes and resulted in dangerous levels of lead in the drinking water.

As stated above, the EPA’s role as a regulator is to check on water across the country to ensure that this sort of thing doesn’t happen. However, in terms of who actually controls a local water supply, it is most typically a public utility.

Water utilities typically involve a natural monopoly in that the infrastructure they utilize is the only option for any particular locality. As such, none can operate as a normal business would. Frequently, the utilities are managed by a commission with government appointed commissioners to ensure that the people’s interests are being met.

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