Think at the Sink during Drinking Water Week

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By Katie Henderson

This week is national drinking water week, and the theme is “What do you know about H2O?” Have you ever considered how water travels from its source and ends up in your kitchen sink?

In 2006, I worked as a volunteer in South Africa. One day I drove across the province to visit a game preserve, leaving the city where I spent most of my time. The contrast between the city and the country was always jarring, and this day I drove farther into the countryside than I’d ever been. Gradually towns dissipated and were replaced by clusters of domed huts. Off to one side of the road, I spotted a woman and her daughter carrying buckets of water into their village. It is hard to describe the dissonance that I felt during this recreational outing to look at elephants with a liter of bottled water tucked into my seat. I’d never had to haul water into my home; I just turned on the tap and safe, clean water poured out. UNICEF estimates that many people in developing countries, particularly women and girls, walk six kilometers a day for water.

The Safe Drinking Water Act authorizes the EPA to set drinking water standards, protect drinking water sources, and work with states and water systems to deliver safe drinking water some 300 million Americans. In the U.S., the last century has seen amazing improvements to drinking water quality. Mortality rates have plummeted and life expectancy has climbed as a result of better science and engineering, public investment in drinking water infrastructure, and the establishment of landmark environmental laws like the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. Some historians claim that clean water technologies are likely the most important public health intervention of the 20th century.

Today, we can celebrate the fact that the vast majority of people living in the United States have access to safe drinking water. Ninety-two percent of Americans receive clean, safe drinking water every day, and EPA is working to make that number even higher by partnering with states to reduce pollution and improve our drinking water systems. However, we should be aware of new challenges to our drinking water systems like climate change, aging infrastructure and nutrient pollution.

For drinking water week this year, stop and think about how far we’ve come by paying attention each time you turn on your tap.

About the author: Katie Henderson is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education Participant in the Drinking Water Protection Division of EPA’s Office of Water. She likes to travel, bake cookies, and promote environmental justice.