Tapping Into Drinking Water: a Human Right and Precious Resource

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When Tap Water is Better

I’m generally a big advocate for drinking (filtered) tap water. The reasons are well summarized in “The Story of Bottled Water,” a 2010 video by the Story of Stuff Project. In short, 20-30% of bottled water comes straight from the tap, including big brands Dasani and Aquafina; it’s 5-10 times more expensive than pouring yourself a cup of water; and it may even contain additional contaminants introduced at the source — or even by the plastic itself. Finally, water bottles contribute to the world’s massive waste problem: in the U.S. alone, people use about 50 billion plastic bottles per year, and recycle barely more than 20% of them. With the recent national recycling crisis, we could see even lower recycling rates as many cities end or curtail their recycling programs.

Clearly, overconsumption of bottled water puts unnecessary stresses on people and the environment. Instead, we need to inform ourselves and educate others about tap water, focus efforts on maintaining and improving our public water systems, protect source waters from contamination and depletion, and address issues of access and affordability.

Challenges Facing Tap Water

The story of tap water is a complicated one. Millions of U.S. residents do not have access to municipal water systems, draw water from contaminated sources, lack adequate plumbing, or cannot afford to pay for water. In some cases–like Flint–whole communities must drink bottled water due to contamination of public water sources.

For those lucky enough to have access to clean water, their public water systems are facing problems like rapidly degrading water and sewer infrastructure, increases in droughts and flood events as a result of climate change, and lead contamination in residential service lines. For these reasons and more, it is important to understand where your water comes from, how it’s treated, stored and distributed, and what policies and practices need to be in place to ensure that people have access to clean drinking water now and in the future.

Advocating for Safe, Affordable Public Water Systems

To this end, River Network recently published the Drinking Water Guide: a Resource for Advocates. The Guide compiles a vast amount of relevant literature and case studies to describe:

  • Where drinking water comes from and how to protect it
  • What public drinking water systems do and how they work
  • Laws and frameworks affecting safety of drinking water
  • What your water bill pays for and affordability issues
  • The effects of climate change
  • Community action and advocacy — what can you do?

Helpfully, the community action and advocacy section–Section 6–is organized around frequently asked questions, so if you are asking “What can I do?” and need quick answers, this is the place to go.

If you’re a teacher or work with a youth group, the guide can easily be adapted to a curriculum on Drinking Water. See the “questions to ask” at the end of each section, which test reading comprehension. The Guide also has a visually appealing format, peppered with numerous interesting case studies and interactive resources students can use to study drinking water in their own communities.

Highlights and More Resources

While it’s impossible to do the Guide justice in a single blog post–it is well worth the read in all of its 80 pages—I’ve highlighted some striking content:

  • Although the United Nations recognizes access to water and sanitation as a basic human right, the United States still does not. According to the U.N., people should have access to “sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable” water sources. For more history, definition, and readings on this subject, visit the U.N. website.
  • Two-thirds of drinking water in the U.S. comes from surface water, not groundwater. Surface water includes rivers, lakes, and other above-ground sources. Since these are more likely to be contaminated by point and non-point source pollution, municipal water systems must put a great deal of resources into treatment, storage, and proper distribution of drinking water. This is where most of your utility bill goes.
  • In 2006, the Source Water Collaborative–comprising federal, state, and local partners–formed to coordinate resources and promote protection of water sources under the Safe Drinking Water Act. They’ve published a step-by-step guide which you, your organization, or your youth group can use to assess, protect, and restore your source water.
  • You can search by zip code on EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online to find out if your public water system has run afoul of EPA regulations.
  • The Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative can help you to learn about how to get lead service lines replaced in your community.
  • While the EPA oversees enforcement of the Safe Water Drinking Act at the federal level, additional regulations vary a great deal by state and tribal government. In many cases, local governments are on the front lines of enforcing drinking water quality standards.
  • Most public municipal water utilities are drastically underfunded, are facing rising costs due to old and crumbling infrastructure, and rely primarily on rates paid by customers. For this reason utilities frequently push for higher rates. Paradoxically, many customers find water too expensive already, and affordability is becoming a bigger problem for more people. Some communities are working to reduce the financial burden on families by introducing Customer Assistance Programs and varied rate structures.
  • The American Water Works Association has published a Policy Statement on Affordability which “recognizes that providing reliable and high-quality water, Wastewater, reclaimed water, and stormwater services at fair and reasonable rates and charges to all customers is fundamental to a utility’s mission.”
  • The U.S. Water Alliance has published numerous resources on the One Water movement in the U.S., which seeks to advance policies and practices toward more equitable water management policies in the U.S.

Contribute to the Conversation!

Where does your drinking water comes from? Have you faced a problem, or are you working to develop a solution, in your own community? How will you use the Drinking Water Guide? Feel free to comment below.

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