Drinking Water Challenges: A Roundtable Discussion
Drinking water is the ultimate recycled resource. It is recycled over years, centuries and millenniums. The water we use today is the same supply with which civilization began. The water that once coursed down the Ganges River or splashed into Julius Caesar’s bathing pool may end up running from the tap in your home.
From the earliest days of U.S. history, finding and maintaining a clean water supply for drinking has been a high priority. Local, state and federal officials all play important roles in the effort to not only treat water to remove pollutants but to protect it from such pollution in the first place.
Significant technological advancements in monitoring, assessing and treating water ensures today what is generally a safe drinking water supply in California. Yet treatment challenges remain as scientists, regulators and policy-makers address concerns over both naturally occurring contaminants and those caused by human activities.
On Dec. 19, Foundation Executive Director Rita Schmidt Sudman and Chief Writer Sue McClurg met with state and federal regulators, a water district manager and an environmental advocate involved in drinking water for a roundtable discussion about such issues as chromium 6, watershed management, groundwater, water recycling and infrastructure needs. That 90-minute, tape-recorded discussion was edited for this issue of Western Water.
William R. Mills Jr. is general manager of the Orange County Water District (OCWD), a position he has held since 1987. OCWD manages a groundwater basin in the northern portion of Orange County, providing drinking water to some 2 million residents. The district is a world-renowned leader in the field of water recycling and desalination. He also serves as chair of the Association of California Water Agencies’ water quality committee. A registered engineer and geologist in California, Mills holds a master’s degree in civil/environmental engineering from Loyola University in Los Angeles.
David Spath has worked for the California Department of Health Services since 1972 and is currently chief of the department’s Division of Drinking Water & Environmental Management. In this role, he oversees the state’s public water system program, as well as several other health and safety programs. He is a member of the National Drinking Water Advisory Council. Dr. Spath holds an undergraduate degree in civil engineering from Tufts University and received a master’s degree and his Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Cincinnati.
Alexis Strauss is director of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Region IX Water Division, responsible for implementing the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and portions of the Marine Sanctuaries Act in California, Arizona, Hawaii and Nevada, and with over 140 tribes. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles, and has worked for EPA since 1979.
Marguerite Young is California director of Clean Water Action, a national environmental organization that advocates and organizes for clean and safe water from watershed to water tap. The 25-year-old organization has 700,000 members. A native of California, she holds an undergraduate degree in resource economics from the University of California, Berkeley, and serves on several drinking water quality and watershed protection public advisory boards.
SUDMAN: I thought we’d begin with an overall question about how you would rate California’s drinking water. How good or bad is our public drinking water in California and the West?
SPATH: I’ll start as a regulator. On average, the water quality in California is very high. If you look at the sources that are available just to begin with, many of them are pristine sources. The Bay Area is a good example, whether it be San Francisco or the East Bay. Most of our groundwater is high quality, too.
YOUNG: I agree, compared to certainly the rest of the world. Because of stronger standards in some cases and the backstop of science to the federal standards, California has actually been in front of the nation in terms of certain water quality problems. I think some of the recent contaminants that have come onto the radar screen are cause for not being complacent about our water quality and being more vigilant and proactive in the next 30 years or more.
STRAUSS: When we look around the world and elsewhere in the country, it’s not only that I think the quality of our source water is very good and by the time it’s delivered to consumers it’s very good, but I also have a high level of confidence on any given day that what we’re doing in treating and delivering water [are] very highly trained mangers and operators who know what they’re doing and have good backup plans.
So once in a while if someone does have a boiled water order, I am confident that those consumers will have been notified and that the drinking water supplier will be taking action. If we set aside the very small rural systems, the majority of Californians in metropolitan areas and in medium sized cities and towns are not only getting good water but they have confidence to believe that tomorrow they’ll get good water, too.
MILLS: It is the small systems who may not be delivering the best quality of water, but I think the major systems in the state have an excellent record and a reliable, high quality water supply. But there needs to be some work in the future improving the water quality that’s delivered by the small systems.
STRAUSS: Small systems serve less than 100 persons and large systems serve more than 10,000. We have about 407 large systems. But we’re overwhelmed by the small systems.
MILLS: It’s very expensive for small systems to comply with new regulations because they have very few resources. And those systems are not operated on a continuous basis. They have operators that are part time, that come in on the weekends or check the systems from time to time. A challenge for the future is how to get our small systems up to the same level of quality we have from our large systems.
STRAUSS: There are about 26 million people who get their water from large systems and about 10 million people who are served by smaller systems.
SUDMAN: Most of the problems that we hear, the fear that people have about drinking water comes from problems with small systems?
SPATH: From a state regulator’s perspective, that’s where the problem is. However, most of the focus is associated with the larger systems because we’re focusing on individual constituents like chromium, like trihalomethanes, and the large systems are the ones that are dealing with those. The small system [operators], by in large, don’t even know how to pronounce these at times. And so most of the information that comes out focuses on large systems. That’s where the major media are, too.
So if you look at the chromium 6 example, where have the majority of articles been but in the L.A. Times? Where’s the interest been? In Los Angeles, including the surrounding suburban areas. So you get this focus and it doesn’t really look at where the real problem is. Actually, the question, I think, for the future is, how do you deal with the small systems? How do you make them viable? And do you do it on an individual basis or do you try to step out of the box and think differently? That goes to regionalization, combining a lot of small systems and essentially shrinking the universe of small systems.
YOUNG: I do agree with you that the highlight has been on the large systems and large problems though we know that arsenic is a big problem for small systems. I understand that chromium 6 is turning up at levels in the Central Valley that are comparable to the L.A. levels. MTBE clearly is a problem in small towns as well as big towns. The media spotlight turns to the large cities but small systems may have the same problems and be less well equipped to deal with them.
SUDMAN: I think there might be a fear because some of these chemicals we never even heard of a few years ago. People didn’t hear of chromium 6 and they didn’t really associate MTBE with water contamination.
STRAUSS: Chromium has been with us since the beginning of time because of the nature of the material in which we withdraw this from the groundwater. I think it’s very difficult for the average person to differentiate between what is naturally occurring and what may be an industrial contribution. And so in southern California, or in Davis, it doesn’t matter, how does a person react if they’re looking at their water bill and information about what’s in their drinking water supply? Can they feel differently about whether it’s naturally occurring chromium or arsenic versus something that came from a plating shop or some other industrial source?
I don’t know how people react but there does seem to be, unfortunately, a lot of chemical-by-chemical kind of concerns that then lead people, as in southern California, to go to bottled water, which is not regulated by EPA and not necessarily superior. You have a disconnect between people like Dave and I who think the controversy over chromium is misplaced and people who are afraid, people who don’t want to use drinking water fountains and the like because they think they’re being poisoned. Our ability to change that perception is very limited. Once people have seized on a chemical name, whether it’s perchlorate or MTBE or chromium, it’s very hard for us to effectively convey through elected officials and other folks out there as well, including the news media, what we think are truly the most important risks that we should be managing in drinking water.
McCLURG: But aren’t you as a regulator coming out with new standards on a chemical-by-chemical basis?
SPATH: That’s the nature of the business. I guess you could say you’re sort of forced in that direction. There is some argument that you should try to transcend that and look at it from a more holistic standpoint where water systems provide some level of treatment that takes out everything, or they go to a dual system approach, provide individual homes with treatment systems, or go into the bottled water business and supply it that way. I mean there are all sorts of options that are being discussed that are trying to avoid, I suppose, the constituent-by-constituent approach, but we’re not there at the present time.
MILLS: On the issue of the chemical-by-chemical basis, the problem that I see here is that there is often an agenda behind the announcement of a chemical, it becomes a public issue and gets all kinds of press play. Unfortunately, the public doesn’t have the ability to understand the background or the science and all those things that they should know about in terms of a chemical. People hear the bad side of it and they react in such a way because they’re quite concerned about their water supplies. That gets to the basic issue that there needs to be a fair presentation of information to the public.
SUDMAN: Do you agree with that, Marguerite?
YOUNG: I think that with the requirement to do annual water quality reports and a baseline of education for their consumers, [water suppliers] have learned in California that the straighter you are with your customers about the quality of your water – what’s needed to provide high quality water at the tap – the more confidence, support, agreement that you have for people to pay more, if that’s necessary. I do think that in terms of the headline contaminants we need to do more study and research.
Chromium, while it may not be a drinking water problem at the levels it’s being found, we don’t know about the inhalation and dermal (skin) exposures associated with water. There are experts who disagree and we at the California and federal level have had some disagreement about that. But what chromium is, at least in the L.A. example, is the leading edge of the legacy of post-war industrialization in California, along with the increasing volume of pharmaceuticals, antibiotics and other chemicals that we and animals are taking in and excreting out.
That gets to those questions about how do we want to deal with the overall issue of providing a level of public health protection to people at the tap, understanding that water conservation and using water wisely is as much a water quality issue as it is a water supply issue. And then, how do we deal with the fragmentation between the State Water Quality Resources Control Board and the drinking water agencies that have different parts of the same pie? How do we support small systems, especially, installing the kind of the treatment that’s necessary to deliver that health protection at the tap? And how do we pay for it?
NOTE: This represents only a portion of the question and answer period. Other topics addressed during the conversation included risk management, bottled water, chlorine treatment, arsenic, CALFED, and finding political leadership on drinking water issues. This issue of Western Water was expanded by four pages to allow for a fuller discussion of these issues and sidebar articles that address the nuts and bolts of chromium 6, arsenic and consumer confidence reports. A complete copy of this 20-page magazine is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our on-line store and the Western Water category, and add the March/April 2001 issue to your shopping cart.
“All substances are poisons: there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison and a remedy.” Paracelsus (1493-1541)
As scientists discover contaminants at minute levels in drinking water, this saying by the Swiss physician and chemist is worth considering. Poll after poll shows that Americans want access to high quality drinking water. To serve the highest quality drinking water at an affordable cost to all citizens is the challenge for the drinking water industry in the U.S. today. That’s why we decided to devote this issue of Western Water magazine to drinking water standards.
The media bring us stories of water contamination constantly. Note the hit movie Erin Brockovich. In the meantime, unheralded research to improve drinking water is being done at all levels. Recently attention focused on an American high school student, Ashley Mulroy, who won the 2000 Stockholm Junior Water Prize and $5,000 for her cutting-edge research into the subject of residual antibiotics being found in public water supplies.
Ashley’s study was conducted from samples taken with her own collection device on the Ohio River near her home in West Virginia. Ashley found the presence of three common antibiotics in trace levels on the river site and in drinking water in three adjacent city water systems. She determined that filtration of the drug-contaminated water through activated charcoal removed most of the antibiotics. Filtering the water through sand, however, a common wastewater filtration method, did not remove any of the three antibiotics. European research raises the question of whether this antibiotic contamination contributes to the development of drug-resistant pathogens.
The international Stockholm Junior Water Prize is given annually to an outstanding water science research project conducted by a young person or a group of young people. Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden is the patron of the prize and the Water Education Foundation is a Friend of the prize. ITT Industries is the major American Sponsor of the prize. I was in Sweden last summer and was excited to see Ashley become the second American student to win the prize in its five-year existence. To learn how students up to age 20 can compete for the 2001 prize, contact the Foundation. The next generation will have even a bigger job in striving to keep our water clean.
You may notice a new name in this Western Water. The Foundation has added another writer, Gary Pitzer, who comes to us from Inside Cal/EPA, a weekly newsletter devoted to covering the California Environmental Water Protection Agency. He wrote about water policy, water quality, law and science. We’re happy to have Gary on board.
In the News
Water Supply Worries
Already beset by monumental energy woes, California officials are beginning to prepare for the possibility of a drought this summer based on less than promising rain and snow through the end of January. A harbinger of the situation became evident Jan. 31 when Department of Water Resources (DWR) officials announced a reduced estimate of projected deliveries from the State Water Project (SWP) for 2001, based on a “moderate” amount of rain and Sierra snowpack.
Snow levels at the beginning of the year were 35 percent of average statewide; storms in the latter part of the month pushed that figure to about 50 percent. Rainfall stands at 55 percent of average. While the months of February and March hold the promise of strong precipitation, experts say the chances are only one in 10 that enough rain and snow will fall to push the yearly amount into the average range. As it stands, California has an even chance of achieving a snowpack runoff that’s 60 percent of an average year.
The federal Central Valley Project expects to cut back the amount of water it supplies to farmers, municipalities and wildlife refuges based on low flows into Lake Shasta, said U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Jeff McCracken. While users will likely receive less water this year, the situation becomes ominous if conditions persist. “If it stays dry next year, we’re in trouble,” he said.
Dry conditions are being experienced beyond California. According to reports, Washington’s snowpack is 45 percent of normal, causing flows into the hydroelectric-generating dams on the Colombia River to be at 80-year lows. The reservoir behind the Grand Coulee Dam, the largest in the Pacific Northwest, is at its lowest level in 25 years, partly because of the increased demand caused by California’s energy shortage. The reduced snowpack could result in 30 percent less hydroelectric generation capacity in the spring and summer, a troubling prospect given the predicted hotter-than-normal temperatures. California typically receives 20 percent of its total power supply from hydroelectric sources, according to the California Energy Commission.
According to DWR, the allocation of 824,000 acre-feet of water to 29 public agencies equates to 20 percent of the amount requested by SWP contractors. The water is used by about 20 million Californians and helps irrigate about 600,000 acres of farmland. Wet winters the past six years resulted in as much 3 million acre-feet of water delivery through the SWP, according to DWR. (An acre-foot of water is about 326,600 gallons – enough to cover an acre of land, about the size of a football field, 1 foot deep and meet the average needs of between one and two residential households.) Earlier this winter, DWR offered an initial delivery projection of 40 percent.
State officials are preparing for the possibility of drought this year. In late January, DWR Director Tom Hannigan appointed a “drought preparedness manager” while announcing the reactivation of the drought water bank. The bank was used in the early 1990s to coordinate water transfers. Water users also are bracing for a reduced supply, including farmers, who are already grappling with increasing production costs and a depressed market.
Low surface water supplies could force farmers to rely more on groundwater pumping, an unattractive alternative because of increased energy costs. Cotton growers could be especially affected because of their reliance on “pre-irrigation” during February and March. “Last year, they didn’t have to pre-irrigate because Mother Nature did it for them,” said California Farm Bureau spokesman Bob Krauter. “If the current weather persists, then growers may need to turn on pumps for groundwater.”