Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Sewage in Your Tap-water...Oh Joy!

This is America. And in America, you assume there are certain things you can count on. You expect that the electricity will work if you pay your bills, or that you're not going to fall into a giant, unfixed sinkhole while driving down the highway. And you assume that when you turn on your faucet, clean water, and not untreated sewage, will greet your efforts and fill the sink. Yet a new report suggests such simplistic assumptions may be naive. It turns out that your dog may have known something you didn't all those years: the water in the toilet might be just as clean as the water supplying the taps in some areas of the country.

A new report by the American Society of civil Engineers (ASCE) paints a dim picture about the state of America's water system. National drinking and wastewater systems scored a pitiful D-minus on the group's annual report card - the lowest grade in their analysis. Alongside the ever-growing list of crumbling infrastructure problems in the U.S., it seems that our water systems might be in the worst shape.

Most unsettling of all - and you can chalk this one up alongside that memory of the time you surprised grandma in the shower as things you'd rather forget - was the disclosure that as much as 10 billion gallons of sewage flow through America's taps annually. As a result of this and other problems, approximately 19 million people are sickened from degradation in our water delivery systems every year. On top of that, in some places more water leeches out of pipes than people actually drink. It's lost through thousands of miles of old water delivery systems, some of which are made of wood or Terracotta. With shrinking water tables across the continental U.S. and the dreaded "water wars' scientists have warned about for decades just starting to arrive, this water waste is concern enough of its own.

Sewage leeches into the pipes because in some places, both water and waste pipes run along the same routes. So if pipes in these areas are heavily corroded, then puddles of sewage from a leaking waste pipe can find their way into a corroded water pipe. There are also problems in some selective water treatment plants.

The situation in New Mexico is especially dire. More than $1 billion is needed to bring its water system up to snuff, and the ASCE says fixing the water system should take top priority, naming it a more pressing concern even than roads and schools. (Lest New Mexico become even more like the water supply in old Mexico, which isn't a good thing, as many unfortunate tourists can attest to.) The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nationwide, around $300 billion is needed to bring the nation's water systems up to date and up to code. Cost estimates from the ASCE are even higher. So far, the Obama administration has secured $6 billion, hardly a drop in the bucket. (A putrid, sewage filled bucket.)

On the bright side, the taps in most areas are perfectly safe, and often times less polluted than what you might find in bottled water (which often contains contaminants leeched from the plastic; see 'The SPA Debate: Are Plastics Poisoning Your Children?) but certain problem areas, especially in rural communities that are being supplied by pipes that are old, outdated, or rusted through, it's a much different story.

In the mean time, there is one other thing you can take comfort in: It hasn't killed your dog yet.

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