Oct 16, 2019

The water crisis cities don't see coming

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Aging water treatment systems, failing pipes and a slew of unregulated contaminants threaten to undermine water quality in U.S. cities of all sizes.

Why it matters: There's arguably nothing more important to human survival than access to clean drinking water.

  • Still, with only a handful of exceptions, "water systems aren't designed to focus on health, they're focused on cost-containment," says Seth Siegel, whose book "Troubled Water," released this month, examines the precarious state of water infrastructure in the U.S.

The big picture: Whatever goes down the sink, shower, washing machine and toilet is transferred to one of about 14,000 U.S. wastewater treatment plants. While those plants are good at neutralizing sewage microorganisms that can make people sick or pollute waterways, they can miss chemicals that are linked with our changing lifestyles.

  • The biggest change since most treatment plants were designed? The explosion of pharmaceutical use by Americans, Siegel told me during an interview in Axios' office.
  • About 60% of American adults take at least one prescription pill every day, per the National Center for Health Statistics. Residue from those pills travels to treatment plants and waterways.
  • Water testing often doesn't accurately reflect the risks of tap water, and testing processes can be manipulated to show passing results.
"There is evidence that we are being exposed to lots of pharmaceutical products at low levels — sub-therapeutic levels. ... We don't know who is drinking it or in what combinations or amounts."
— Luke Iwanowicz, U.S. Geological Survey research biologist, in "Troubled Water"

Meanwhile: City leaders are typically reluctant to raise water rates to pay for plant and pipe upgrades out of fear that residents will see it as an increased tax.

  • At the same time, though, bottled water sales are at record highs, and 90% of bottled-water consumers cite safety or quality for the reason. That suggests people are willing to pay more for clean water, Siegel writes.

What's next: Siegel argues for consolidation of the number of water utilities — there are currently 51,535 drinking water utilities in the U.S., translating to 16 for every county. Los Angeles County alone has 200.

  • Such a large number of utilities impedes the adoption of new technologies, the replacement of failing pipes and the retention of trained engineers, he says.
  • Utility management should be decoupled from municipal politics, he argues. With mayors valuing cost control over water quality control, they will continue to defer maintenance and needed infrastructure upgrades.
  • Those upgrades will soon be unavoidable. There are 1.1 million miles of old water mains carry drinking water across the country, and at least 240,000 of them break every year.

The bottom line: The high levels of public trust local leaders enjoy will likely evaporate when residents become more aware of the health risks in their tap water, Siegel says.

Go deeper: The lead pipe danger lurking underground

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Catching up with Michael Phelps 3 years after his last Olympic race

Photo: Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

It's been a busy three years since Michael Phelps swam his last race at the Rio Olympics. He and his wife, Nicole, have welcomed three baby boys and he has his own swim brand, all while dedicating time to important issues like mental health and water conservation.

What he's saying: I caught up with Michael, the most decorated Olympian ever, over the phone. We talked about a range of topics like mental health and saving water.

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NASA mission aims to map water ice on moon's south pole for the first time

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine on Oct. 15. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

NASA announced Friday plans to send the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) to the Moon in Dec. 2022 to study the concentration of water ice.

Why it matters: VIPER will gather data to inform NASA's first global water resource maps of the Moon. The mission's project manager, Daniel Andrews, said VIPER will help answer the question of "if the Moon could really contain the amount of resources we need to live off-world."

Go deeperArrowOct 26, 2019

Highest tide in 50 years floods Venice

People walk on a footbridge across a flooded street in Venice. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP via Getty Images

Venice's mayor declared a state of emergency and closed all schools after the highest high tide in more than 50 years hit the city on Tuesday night, according to the New York Times.

What's happening: Sea water rose to around six feet before 11 p.m. on Tuesday, and at least one person has died as a result. Famous tourist locations, like St. Mark’s Square and the crypt of St. Mark’s Basilica, were flooded by more than three feet on Wednesday.

Go deeperArrowNov 13, 2019