drinking water

We Must Work Together to Build Resilience in Communities Facing Climate Change 

By Kelly Overstreet

EPA brings in students every summer to work, learn practical environmental skills, and enhance their educational experience through our Pathways Intern Program. The Big Blue Thread is proud to feature several blogs written by these interns, focusing on what motivates them to work in the environmental sector and what attracted them to EPA. We’ve already posted blogs by Andrew Speckin and Sara Lamprise. Our third blog is by Kelly Overstreet, who continues to intern with our Program Operations and Integration staff.

151006 - CREAT logo

In August, I attended a fascinating Climate Change Workshop, sponsored by the Nebraska Silver Jackets, with my EPA colleague Robert Dunlevy. Silver Jacket groups partner with federal and state agencies to manage flood risk at the state level. Bob made a presentation on EPA’s Climate Resilience Evaluation and Awareness Tool (CREAT), a software tool to assist drinking water and wastewater utility owners and operators in understanding potential climate change threats and assessing the related risks at their individual utilities. As an intern, I went along to gain some valuable, direct experience in collaborative problem-solving.

Bob Dunlevy and Kelly Overstreet

Bob Dunlevy and Kelly Overstreet

As we drove north to the workshop at the Lewis and Clark Missouri River Visitors Center in Nebraska City, Bob used the trip as a teaching opportunity, noting sites of loess (windblown sediment), commenting on the heights of various rivers and streams, and discussing the variety of unique geological structures here in the Heartland. Many of these lessons were anecdotal, relating to his 25 years of experience working with communities as an EPA representative.

Bob reminded me of the unique position EPA plays as a U.S. regulatory agency. We have a broad mission to ensure that “all Americans are protected from significant risks to human health and the environment where they live, learn and work.” In achieving that mission, we as federal employees must focus on our individual contributions to help achieve EPA’s overall goal.

In economics, there is the phenomena of “agglomeration economies.” While the concept can get quite technical very quickly, the general idea is that businesses are most successful when they exist in proximity to each other. This allows for the exchange of tacit knowledge between businesses that provide goods and services both laterally across sectors and vertically within.

However, such knowledge doesn’t only exist in the private sector. Upon arriving at Nebraska City, I had the opportunity to witness the power of tacit knowledge firsthand. The workshop offered a series of lectures and talks from several federal, state, and local agencies directly involved in flood resiliency and adaptation measures.

View from Lewis and Clark Missouri River Visitors Center

View from Lewis and Clark Missouri River Visitors Center

Not surprisingly, we joined representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, all with different missions and different sets of tools for accomplishing their goals. And yet, through the collaborative process of sharing knowledge and asking questions, I left with a much stronger sense of the challenges we face in coping with extreme weather events.

Sometimes our role in EPA’s mission can feel piecemeal, but to best achieve our mission, we must form partnerships and foster relationships. Each of us has a different focus and knowledge set, but as long as we continue to have conversations, like at the Silver Jackets training, we don’t have to be limited by the specific priorities that shape our service.

About the Author: Kelly Overstreet is a Student Intern at EPA Region 7, who worked full-time this summer and will continue part-time during the school year. She is a graduate student at the University of Kansas, earning master’s degrees in urban planning and human geography. Kelly’s graduate research focuses on how municipal climate planning can address issues of environmental justice and social equity. She’s a cat lady, and proud to show off her pet photos.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Improving Drinking Water Infrastructure is a Priority

By Stan Meiburg

This week in Chicago, thousands of water professionals met at the Water Environmental Federation Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC) to discuss pressing issues facing America’s water sector. Maintaining America’s drinking water infrastructure has been one of the most important topics at this year’s meeting.

Cities and towns across America are facing significant drinking water infrastructure challenges.  Many of the drinking water mains in Chicago are over a century old.  The situation in my own city of Washington, DC is no different – half the drinking water mains in Washington were put in the ground before 1936.

This issue is personal for all of us.  Few things are more important than knowing that the water that comes out of the tap is safe for our children to drink.

The good news is that our nation’s 51,000 community water systems continue to do a tremendous job of meeting that challenge.  Last year, 93 percent of all community drinking water systems met all the nation’s health-based drinking water standards, all the time.

But aging drinking water infrastructure is an issue we’ll have to address to continue to provide the highest quality drinking water to the American people. The Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund (DWSRF) is a federal/state partnership designed to create, in each state, a perpetual source of financing for drinking water infrastructure.

Last year, the DWSRF financed nearly 900 projects, served over 40 million people, and provided nearly $2 billion in financing. In fact, one out every 8 Americans lives in a community that was served by the DWSRF last year alone.

Most of our nation’s community water systems are small—92 percent of them serve fewer than 10,000 residents. And most small systems consistently provide safe, reliable drinking water to their customers, but many face significant challenges in financing needed maintenance and upgrades. EPA is working with states and other federal agencies to provide targeted support to small systems through the DWSRF and other programs.  For example, over the past two years, EPA awarded approximately $32 million to provide training and technical assistance to small public water systems.

In addition, the water treatment infrastructure we build today has to withstand not only today’s realities, but tomorrow’s uncertainties. Climate change is driving more extreme storms, floods, droughts, fires, and extreme temperatures today—and water infrastructure needs to be resilient. EPA is helping water systems become resilient to climate change with practical and easy-to-use tools from our Climate Ready Water Utilities initiative.

And earlier this year, EPA formed a new Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center to identify new and creative opportunities to support the water sector, including leveraging of private funds. The Finance Center will draw on local expertise all across the U.S. to help communities move forward with important projects in the water sector.

The states are also responding to the urgent need to support drinking water infrastructure. EPA has worked with the states to greatly increase the rate of spending under the DWSRF, achieving a 40 percent, or $500 million reduction in the amount of DWSRF unliquidated obligations in the last two years alone.

As I listened to the presentations this week, I was reminded that the American people enjoy the cleanest drinking water in the world. EPA looks forward to continuing to work with the water sector to make sure this is always the case.

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Right on track

by Jennie Saxe

Take a drink on Amtrak!

Take a drink on Amtrak!

I love traveling by train. Here in the Northeast, I’m a little spoiled by the many rail transit systems that spider-web across the region. But with family in New England, my office in Philadelphia, and friends in Washington, DC, one of my favorite modes of transportation is Amtrak.

Here’s a fun water-related fact about traveling on Amtrak: every passenger rail car that has a café, restroom, or drinking fountain is considered its own public water system. Amtrak has about 1,500 of these mobile water systems, each of which must be monitored for water quality. Detailed maintenance procedures and monitoring plans are key to protecting public health, as trains roll from coast to coast.

Amtrak has been randomly sampling drinking water for over 20 years, and has been following a more detailed schedule and reporting results to EPA since 2012. Recently, EPA and Amtrak amended the 2012 agreement to extend the monitoring requirements and modify sampling schedules based on the results from all 1,500 cars to date: very few samples from 2013 and 2014 were positive for coliform bacteria (an indicator that something could potentially be wrong with the water) and no samples were positive for E. coli (a bacteria that signals contamination, and could make passengers sick).

Some additional protections are part of the agreement between EPA and Amtrak. Trains do not fill at stations that have a problem with their water supply, and passengers and crew would be notified if water testing showed a problem.

Riding the rails this summer? Grab your reusable water bottle and fill up! When it comes to protecting the health of rail passengers, Amtrak is right on track.

 

About the author: Dr. Jennie Saxe joined EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region in 2003 and works in the Water Protection Division on sustainability programs.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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America’s Heartland Depends on Clean Water

By Mark Hague

The Heartland thrives on clean water, a resource we must both conserve and protect. Agricultural interests, public health officials, recreational small businesses, and all the rest of us rely on clean water for our lives and livelihoods. While EPA oversees the protection of water quality under the Clean Water Act passed in 1972, every Heartlander understands its value to our daily lives.

Mark Hague

Mark Hague

During the past 43 years, EPA, the states, and local partners have worked tirelessly to clean up once polluted rivers and streams. While we’ve come a long way and dealt with the biggest issues, EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have worked together to solve what remains through a new Clean Water Rule.

This new rule will help us further ensure clean waters are available to everyone here in the Heartland and downstream. The rule more clearly protects the streams and wetlands that form the foundation of our nation’s water resources.

In developing the rule, we held more than 400 meetings with stakeholders across the country and reviewed more than one million public comments.

One of our most important challenges is protecting those smaller tributaries and wetlands that are a part of the vast interconnected system of some of our big rivers, like the Missouri and Mississippi. Our small waters are often out of sight, yet still serve an integral role in ensuring clean water for all Americans and our environment.

We rely on these smaller wetlands to provide uptake of nutrients, moderate flow in times of flooding, and serve as important habitat for species that spawn or rely on larger bodies of water, like the Missouri River.

Agriculture relies on clean water for livestock, crops, and irrigation. With the Clean Water Rule, EPA provides greater clarity and certainty to farmers and does not add economic burden on agriculture.

There is no doubt our water quality has improved. As a community and an agency, we must continue to protect both large and small tributaries. Clean water is a powerful economic driver affecting manufacturing, farming, tourism, recreation, and energy production. In fact, people who fish, hunt, and watch wildlife as a hobby spent $144.7 billion in 2011. That’s equal to one percent of the gross domestic product. The fact is, we rely on the flow of clean water to provide for this economic engine.

Finally, we all rely on the healthy ecosystems in these upstream waters to provide us with quiet, natural places to fish, boat, swim, and enjoy the outdoors. Hunters and anglers enjoy pristine places, and fishing rod makers and boat builders enjoy more business. And, of course, when drinking water is cleaner, people are healthier. We all win!

The Clean Water Rule will be effective 60 days after publication in the Federal Register. Learn more at www.epa.gov/cleanwaterrule.

About the Author: Mark Hague serves as the Acting EPA Region 7 Administrator. He is responsible for overseeing the overall operations within the region and the implementation of federal environmental rules and regulations, and serves as a liaison with the public, elected officials, organizations, and others. Mark has 35 years of experience with EPA.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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The Safe Drinking Water Act: A Playbook for Public Health Protection

by Jennie Saxe

hoop close up other angleCollege basketball fans have witnessed this phenomenon countless times over the past few weeks: the game-changer. The play in a game where the momentum shifts. After this play, the outcome of the game is a lock…or all of a sudden, it hangs in the balance.

There are many game-changers in the world of water protection, and the Safe Drinking Water Act, passed 40 years ago, is one of them. Before this legislation, “Team Pollution” had momentum: the early history of drinking water is marked by outbreaks of waterborne disease and inadequate water treatment systems. But when the Safe Drinking Water Act passed, the pendulum swung the other way, in favor of “Team Protection.”

In the mid-Atlantic region, we’re acutely aware of the protections that the Safe Drinking Water Act and its amendments have brought us. The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund has allowed upgrades to water treatment plants from White Sulphur Springs, WV, to Ulster Township, PA, and countless places in-between. Source water protection partnerships, like the Potomac Drinking Water Source Protection Partnership and the Schuylkill Action Network, focus on protecting drinking water at its source. And an updated Total Coliform Rule will further protect public health in large and small communities across the region.

More than 27 million people in EPA’s Mid-Atlantic region rely on public water systems protected by the Safe Drinking Water Act. From cities in Pennsylvania to rural parts of Virginia, from municipal water systems in Washington, DC, to the smallest mobile home parks, schools, and rest stops across the region, this law protects everyone that relies on that water for drinking, cooking, and more.

If the Safe Drinking Water Act is the playbook for protecting public health, each one of us can be part of Team Protection. Make a big play – check out what you can do to protect drinking water.

 

About the author: Dr. Jennie Saxe joined EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region in 2003 and works in the Water Protection Division on sustainability programs. She spent her first 7 years at EPA working in the Region’s drinking water program.

 

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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FracFocus Report: Helping us Paint a Fuller Picture

By Tom Burke

Only a few years ago, very little was known about the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources. Congress asked us to embark on a major effort to advance the state-of-the-science to accurately assess and identify those risks. Today, we are releasing a new report to provide a fuller picture of the information available for states, industry, and communities working to safeguard drinking water resources and protect public health.

The Analysis of Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Data from the FracFocus Chemical Registry 1.0. is a peer-reviewed analysis built on more than two years of data provided by organizations that manage FracFocus, the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. Operators disclosed information on individual oil and gas production wells hydraulically fractured between January 2011 and February 2013 and agency researchers then compiled a database from more than 39,000 disclosures.

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Protecting our Drinking Water for Everyone

By Dr. Peter Grevatt

Like families in almost every city and town across the U.S., everyone in my house counts on the idea that we can just reach for the tap any time we’re thirsty or need some water to cook dinner. And, there hasn’t been a single day when safe drinking water wasn’t readily available to me or my family at a remarkably low cost.

While most Americans enjoy this same luxury every day, this past year two major drinking water systems were shut down when harmful toxins contaminated their drinking water systems. These incidents in Toledo, OH, and Charleston, WV, resulted in over 800,000 residents having to find an alternative supply of safe drinking water for as long as five days. And, in both cases, this led to National Guard deployment to provide emergency drinking water to long lines of residents.

Unfortunately, Charleston and Toledo are not the only places in the United States where this occurred in the last year, reminding us of the critical importance of protecting the sources of our drinking water.

While today’s drinking water treatment systems can remove most contaminants, in some cases, they’ve been overwhelmed by contaminants introduced upstream from the customers they serve. In these instances, many lower income residents bear the greatest burden of losing access to safe drinking water. Without effective source water protection programs, the cost of providing safe drinking water is placed solely on the downstream drinking water plants and their customers, many of whom can’t afford to shoulder this extra treatment cost, let alone the economic losses of closing businesses and schools during a drinking water emergency.

All Americans should have access to safe drinking water. We can all help to make sure this is the case by helping to protect our source waters where we live and for our downstream neighbors.

About the author: Peter Grevatt is the Director of the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water. The Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water in collaboration with states, tribes and its many stakeholders, is responsible for safeguarding America’s drinking water.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Celebrating National Groundwater Awareness Week

By Dr. Peter Grevatt

One of my favorite ways to travel is by bicycle. So, when I visited southern California last month, I jumped at the chance to ride along the San Gabriel River to see how Los Angeles County sustainably manages their drinking water supplies to support their growing population.

A recent defining experience for communities in California, and many other regions of the county, has been drought of an intensity that hasn’t been seen in generations. The severity of this drought has forced communities to address questions about their ability to meet their basic water needs. A common theme for many has been the critical role of a reliable supply of ground water in their ability to survive and thrive into the future.

I followed my ride along the San Gabriel with a visit to the extraordinary treatment facility operated by the Orange County Water District. Through a partnership with the Orange County Sanitation District, this facility takes highly treated wastewater and purifies it with a three-step advanced treatment process. This water is used to replenish their groundwater basin, preventing seawater intrusion and helping to supply drinking water to over 600,000 people.

I also visited the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel in San Diego County, a small tribal community that is facing a diminished ground water supply. Chairman Perez and members of the Tribal leadership described their efforts toward water conservation, leak detection and repair, and identifying new drinking water supplies to support the needs of their Tribal members.

Communities large and small are taking on the challenge of ensuring a reliable water supply. Clean ground water will play a vital role in their long term solution, as it currently does every day for over 100 million Americans.

These communities make clear that effective groundwater management will play a central role in keeping our communities healthy. During National Groundwater Awareness Week (March 8-14, 2015) let’s take time to celebrate all the great work across the country that is being done to protect our nation’s groundwater, so that communities can rely on this precious, limited resource now and in the future.

About the author: Peter Grevatt, Ph.D. is the director of EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Got an Environmental Science Question? Ask an EPA Scientist!

By Kacey Fitzpatrick

 

Front loader loads road salt into a large dump truck.

What happens to all that salt? Image courtesy of Maryland State Highway Administration

Have you ever had a question about something you saw and wished you had an expert you could ask? This happens to me all the time, so I decided to take advantage of working at EPA and start a new blog series called ‘Ask an EPA Scientist.’

I’m kicking off the series with a question that’s been on my mind recently.

Walking in a winter wonderland can be magical – but what about driving in one? Not so great. As I was driving (very slowly) through a snowstorm last week, I started wondering: What happens to all that road salt after the snow melts? Is it bad for the environment?

To find out, I asked EPA ecologist Paul Mayer, Ph.D. who conducts research on riparian zones and stream restoration. He and two Agency colleagues recently published a paper (Cooper et al. 2014) looking at the effects of road salt on a local stream.

Below is what he told me.

EPA Ecologist Paul Mayer, Ph.D. at a stream restoration research site.

EPA Ecologist Paul Mayer, Ph.D. at a stream restoration research site.

Paul Mayer: Road salts are an important tool for making roads safer during ice and snowstorms. Every winter about 22 million tons of road salt and other de-icers are used nationwide. Some washes from roadways into nearby bodies of water. This is a growing concern for the health of our urban watersheds because it can affect water quality and aquatic organisms.

I’ve been part of a study collecting surface and ground water data in Minebank Run, an urban stream in Maryland, since November 2001. We found that salt levels (chloride and sodium) there are chronically elevated throughout the year.

Road salts can accumulate and persist in our waterways, often even into the summer months. We found that the levels are significantly higher downstream of a major nearby road (I-695 beltway), suggesting that this roadway is a significant source of salts in the watershed.

This is a concern for Minebank Run because such salinization may reduce the benefits of restoration work that has been done, limiting the benefits the stream provides the local community and across the watershed. Increased salinity in freshwater systems can also damage or kill vegetation. Other research has indicated that road salts represent a risk to the safety of drinking water sources in the Baltimore area and elsewhere (Kaushal et al. 2005).

The implication of our research and others’ is that stream ecosystems in areas where road salts are routinely applied are at risk of environmental damage and that human health may also be at risk if water supplies are affected.

Kacey: I’m glad I asked! I also found some additional information that includes what we can do to reduce the impact of road salt:

 

Ask an EPA Scientist!
Do you have your own environmental science questions you’d like to see featured on our blog? Please email them to Fitzpatrick.kacey@epa.gov, post them in the comments section below, or tweet them to @EPAresearch using #EnvSciQ. We’ll pick as many as we can to pass along to our scientists, get them answered, and share the Q&A here on this blog. Stay tuned!
About the Author: Curious science writer Kacey Fitzpatrick is a student contractor working with EPA’s Science Communication team, and a frequent contributor to It All Starts with Science.

References Cited

Cooper, CA, PM Mayer, BR Faulkner. 2014. Effects of road salts on groundwater and surface water dynamics of sodium and chloride in an urban restored stream. Biogeochemistry 121:149-166. DOI: 10.1007/s10533-014-9968-z (Accessed at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10533-014-9968-z)

Kaushal, et al. 2005. Increased salinization of fresh water in the northeastern United States. PNAS 102:13517-13520. (Accessed at http://www.pnas.org/content/102/38/13517.abstract.)

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Advancing Sustainable Development in the United States

By Apple Loveless and Leslie Corcelli

A United Nations summit to adopt sustainable development goals will take place this September. Among these is a proposed goal to “ ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,” which expresses global intent to provide adequate water and sanitation to everyone.

When we think about inadequate drinking water and wastewater treatment, it usually brings to mind developing countries. But in our work in the Office of Wastewater Management, we see examples in rural Alaska, Appalachia, the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as smaller communities like Willisville and Lowndes County.

Willisville is a small minority community in southwestern Loudoun County, Virginia. In the late 1990s, the Loudoun County Health Department surveyed Willisville to determine its water and wastewater needs. It found that the majority of residences had inadequate drinking water supplies and failing or non-existent sewage systems. Most residents used privies and outhouses.

Simply providing indoor plumbing to existing homes would have driven up property values so much that the average resident wouldn’t have been able to afford the taxes. However, Willisville was able to work with the county and nonprofit organizations to increase taxes incrementally, enabling owners to afford the payments.

In the end, the residences and an area church got indoor plumbing, a cluster system was installed to treat wastewater, and private land was purchased to build a drainfield.

In Lowndes County, Alabama, inadequate wastewater management had become a public health hazard and environmental issue that could no longer be ignored. Mostly rural and primarily African-American, Lowndes County did not have a centralized wastewater management system, and is built on impermeable clay soils that made septic systems cost prohibitive. The county also has a 27 percent poverty rate. Many of the county’s residents disposed of raw sewage in fields, yards and ditches. It was estimated that 40 to 90 percent of households had either no septic system or an inadequate one.

Beginning in 2010, we entered into a four-year financial assistance agreement with the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise to develop a decentralized wastewater management approach for rural Lowndes County. This grant is an important first step towards improving basic sanitation services in Lowndes County.

There are many communities like Willisville and Lowndes County in the United States. Funding and technical assistance can help them improve inadequate water and wastewater services. It takes collaboration by local, state and federal government to achieve environmental justice for those in underserved communities.

About the authors: Apple Loveless has a graduate degree in environmental management with a focus on water resource planning and management, and is adapting to life in the Mid-Atlantic region. Leslie Corcelli has a graduate degree in environmental science and policy, and lives in northern Virginia with her partner and a menagerie of rescue animals. Apple and Leslie are Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education research participants in the Sustainable Communities Branch of EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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