State of U.S. Public Drinking Water Reliable But Billions in Repairs Needed to Maintain System Through This Century; Drinking Water Quality and Quantity Threatened by Global Warming
The study can be found at
February 13, 2002 Wednesday
BOSTON, Feb. 13 [AScribe Newswire] -- In a "state of the state"
review of the nation's public drinking water systems, researchers
from the Water and Health Program at the Harvard School of Public
Health [HSPH] describe how reliable and safe water is available to
nearly all 270 million U.S. residents. But, they also find that
maintenance and repair of the public water infrastructure has been
severely neglected and that at least $151 billion must be spent over
the next two decades to guarantee the continued high quality of U.S.
water. Additionally, the researchers predict that global warming
could significantly harm water availability and quality.
The article "U.S. Drinking Water Challenges in the Twenty-First
Century," was written by Ronnie B. Levin, a research scientist in
the Environmental Epidemiology Program at HSPH, and colleagues. It
appears in the February 2002 supplement issue of Environmental
Health Perspectives, Reviews in Environmental Health.
http://ehpnet1.niehs.nih.gov/docs/2002/suppl-1/toc.html Among the
Water rates have been insufficient to cover long-run costs. Water
pricing should adequately finance the maintenance of the public
infrastructure and should also include the costs of watershed or
aquifer management. Current annual spending for capital investments
and operations by water suppliers is about $36 billion and needs to
increase by $15 billion.
Finding ways to coordinate water supply decisions and operations
among decentralized water suppliers will be essential given
continuing scientific and health research that has driven
increasingly strict drinking water regulations stemming from the
Safe Drinking Water Act. In 1997, there were about 54,000 permanent
community water supplies in the U.S.by comparison in the United
Kingdom there are fewer than 30 water systems.
Global warming may have adverse effects on water distribution,
availability and quality in the U.S. in these ways:
-- A warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor, so evaporation rates
will be higher, leading to droughts followed by severe weather
events. This can result in more polluted runoff to surface waters
and less infiltration to replenish aquifers.
-- A rise in ocean levels may result in increased salt water
infiltration of coastal aquifers.
-- Warmer temperatures of surface water sources may contribute to
increased harmful algal blooms.
-- Warmer temperatures may result in higher microbial and nutrient
content of drinking water supplies, promoting biofilm growth within
the distribution system.
-- Hotter weather will also mean increased water use by consumers
for drinking water, bathing, watering lawns and irrigating crops,
-- Less snowpack in mountains and earlier snowmelt will provide less
water during the drier growing season and strain other freshwater
-- The extremes of drought punctuated by heavy rains could
destabilize natural biological controls over pests and pathogens,
associated with waterborne disease outbreaks
"Over the last century, the US has set the world standard for
ensuring a reliable, relatively safe drinking water supply to the
general public," said Levin. "But population demands, continuing
scientific research and past public policy have created serious
challenges for our public water supplies in the next century. The
longer we delay, the higher the price tag will be. There are no
According to Tim Ford, a co-author of this report and director of
HSPH's Program in Water and Health, "We have dramatically
underestimated the value of our drinking water supplies, both in the
price we pay for potable water and our attitudes toward conserving
this valuable resource. Unless significant changes are made in the
near future - to our pricing strategies, maintenance and
conservation programs - we will inevitably see a decline in the
quality of our drinking water."
"The consequences to human health from poor water quality," said
Ford, "range from increased incidence of gastrointestinal illness to
suspected cancers from long term exposures to the by-products of
water treatment. Much of our research has focused on Eastern Russia
and India, where the health risks from failing infrastructure are
all too obvious. A 'boil water advisory' is always in place - it is
hard to imagine the US population accepting similar strictures.
Without serious re-prioritization of political values and
environmental resources, this could well be where we are headed."
Harvard School of Public Health is dedicated to advancing the
public's health through learning, discovery, and communication. More
than 300 faculty members are engaged in teaching and training the
800-plus student body in a broad spectrum of disciplines crucial to
the health and well being of individuals and populations around the
world. Programs and projects range from the molecular biology of
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violence prevention; from maternal and children's health to quality
of care measurement; from health care management to international
health and human rights.
Robin Herman, Harvard School of Public Health, 617-432-4752