Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Annual water system reports make it a good time for a primer on covering drinking-water issues

Many rural households depend on private
wells. (Photo:
Many drinking-water systems are publishing their required annual reports this month, so Joseph Davis of the Society of Environmental Journalists provides a primer with general information on the topic, including the names of major players and links to good sources.

"Telling the story requires understanding of a complicated partnership involving federal, state and local governments, as well as water utilities and private citizens," writes Davis. "It also requires understanding of where water comes from and what treatment can and can't do."

Almost everyone in the U.S. drinks water from a public water system or a well. The Safe Drinking Water Act requires testing of public water systems and their water sources by state or local agencies, and you can find the data in annually published Consumer Confidence Reports. You can find nationwide data in The National Public Water Systems Compliance Report.

Water systems can issue their annual reports to the public by mail,
as Frankfort, Ky., does, or with public-notice newspaper ads.
Understanding where public water systems get their water—and the laws governing those sources—is also essential. About 66 percent of public systems are supplied by lakes, streams, or aquifers, Davis notes. Surface water, whether ultimately drinkable or not, is protected by the Clean Water Act. which is enforced by the federal government and the states.

Around 15 million American households get their water from private wells, but these are not regulated on the national level and may not be regulated much at the state level, Davis reports. This can cause problems since wells can be contaminated from "failed septic tanks, poorly managed landfills, underground fuel storage tanks, fertilizers and pesticides, and urban runoff."

"When thinking about source-water protection, it is important to understand what treatment of drinking water in public systems can and cannot do," writes Davis. Polluted water can be treated, but methods vary according to the pollutant, and the cost for more advanced treatments may be prohibitive for small public systems. Also, the chemicals used in treatment, such as chlorine, can react with organic chemicals in the water to form cancer-causing substances such as trihalomethanes. That is an example of the sort of chemical levels that systems must report to the public.

Davis lists specific issues of interest to journalists covering drinking water, along with background information and informative links for each. Topics include sewage-treatment plants, industrial discharges, septic systems, agricultural runoff, feedlots and manure, watersheds and reservoirs, and horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

No comments: