Take Back the Tap and Keep Supporting Municipal Water Systems

The recent NY Times article about unsafe drinking water in West Virginia shouldn't be a call to rush out and fill your pantry with bottled water.

Noting the problems associated with large scale consumption of bottled water, the Take Back the Tap campaign asks people to choose tap water over bottled water, but a recent New York Times article by Charles Duhigg,  Toxic Waters: Clean Water Laws Are Neglected, at a Cost in Suffering, might give some people the impression that tap water is not always safe. Before consumers rush to fill their pantries with bottle water, however, there are a few important points to consider.

Does it make sense to drink tap water over bottled water? Absolutely. The Times article primarily focuses on problems arising from Clean Water Act (CWA) violations that contaminate groundwater, and communities that rely on contaminated wells but, according to Food & Water Watch, 86 percent of Americans get their household water from a public utility.

Municipal water treatment systems, when properly built and maintained, provide safe, clean tap water to their communities. In fact, if you read far enough into Duhigg's piece you learn that between 2006 and 2008 "92 percent of the population served by community water systems received water that had no reported health-based violations." Our municipal water and wastewater treatment systems aren't without problems, though. That's why Food and Water Watch is working to build support for a Clean Water Trust Fund, which would provide a sustained stream of federal revenue to protect this vital resource. Nevertheless, if you receive your water from a municipal system and you have concerns, the EPA recommends getting a copy of your annual water quality report before you have your water tested.

People who rely on well water don't have that safety net provided by municipal systems. They have no choice but to rely on government agencies to protect their water. As illustrated by Duhigg's article, this protection doesn't always happen, and that's really scary, especially given the sometimes obscure effects of corporate polluters on our water.

Duhigg writes, "Some say changes will not occur without public outrage." That's right. Interestingly, this article comes at a time when national outrage over food-borne illness has led the Obama Administration towards more transparency about food safety. There is growing interest from the USDA and the public in ensuring that our food is both safe and nutritious. Public demand for increased corporate accountability from food manufacturers has been heard very clearly and, in some instances, is shaping where consumers spend their food dollars. Where is that same demand for water safety? We need loud, public, national outrage about water quality. 

Newly appointed EPA Director Lisa Jackson says that the EPA has fallen short on both compliance with and enforcement of CWA regulations. In a memo to her staff in July, Jackson wrote, "Clean and safe water is a priority for this Administration."  Of course, stating a priority is one thing; how they use the regulatory structure provided by the CWA to protect water resources, clean up contaminated streams, rivers, lakes and wells, and hold polluters accountable is what matters.  

As climate change causes new precipitation patterns, activities that degrade water quality will only serve to exacerbate shortages of fresh, clean, drinkable water. Articles like Duhigg's should serve as a wake up call to the nation. Ultimately the responsibility will fall to the public to expect and demand clean water, because unlike just about everything else we consume in this world, we absolutely can't live without it.

Robin Madel is a research associate at GRACE.
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