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Protecting Our Drinking Water

Steven Cohen's picture
The Earth Institute, Columbia University
  • Member since 2018
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  • Mar 1, 2016 4:32 pm GMT

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As America’s population grows, people and businesses continue to settle in places that used to be left alone, damaging some of the natural systems that provide and clean our water. In addition, as our infrastructure corrodes, our water supply becomes more susceptible to leaks and contamination. Unlike the problem of renewable energy, we do not require transformative technology to address America’s water crisis. We have the technology and management capacity to protect our water. We know what contaminates water, we know how to test for poisons, and we know how to keep our water supply safe. We simply need to be willing to pay the capital and annual costs of keeping our water supply safe and we need the political will and vigilance to pay attention and stop taking our water for granted.

The contaminated water supply in Flint, Michigan, was a human-made disaster. We are learning that the problems with Flint’s water system were on the agenda of the governor’s top advisors and that the Flint City Council never approved of the switch from Detroit’s water system. According to a report by Chad Livingood of the Detroit News:

Valerie Brader, then [Michigan Governor] Snyder’s environmental policy adviser, requested that the governor’s office ask Flint’s emergency manager to return to Detroit’s system on Oct. 14, 2014, three weeks before Snyder’s re-election. Mike Gadola, then the governor’s chief legal counsel, agreed Flint should be switched back to Detroit water nearly a year before state officials relented to public pressure and independent research showing elevated levels of lead in the water and bloodstreams of Flint residents. “To anyone who grew up in Flint as I did, the notion that I would be getting my drinking water from the Flint River is downright scary,” Gadola wrote. “Too bad the (emergency manager) didn’t ask me what I thought, though I’m sure he heard it from plenty of others.”

Despite this concern and a clear awareness of the potential danger, Flint’s water was permitted to remain toxic. As I wrote in mid-January, there is plenty of blame to go around for allowing Flint’s water supply to be contaminated. Federal, state and local officials are at fault. The reason we have federal water quality standards is to ensure that local economic issues, politics, racism or other factors do not control decisions about water supply. But in Flint, decisions on water supply were not subject to effective federal review.

Most state and local officials understand the central importance of a safe, adequate water supply. In New York, we have the positive example of New York City’s multibillion dollar investment in a third water tunnel to supplement the century-old system currently in place, as well as the construction of a new water filtration plant in the Bronx. Recently, we saw Governor Andrew Cuomo move aggressively to protect the water supply of the upstate village of Hoosick Falls, as it has become clear that its municipal wells were threatened by the release of perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, a chemical used to make Teflon. A local plastics company may have released this chemical near the wells. While local folks are appropriately nervous about their water and believe that government response was slow, writing in the New York Times, Jesse McKinley reported that:

Faced with the worst environmental crisis of Mr. Cuomo’s five-year-old administration, the Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Conservation have been constant presences in Hoosick Falls in recent weeks, testing villagers’ blood and private wells for PFOA. The state has pledged $10 million to install new filtration systems for the village — using recently unlocked state Superfund money — and on Friday, officials announced that a temporary filtration system had been installed and that the village’s water mains were being flushed.

Once the issue was clearly understood, New York’s state government responded with action and resources. In California, Governor Jerry Brown has moved aggressively to ensure that his drought-afflicted state continues to have a steady supply of water. New York and California have effective water governance — Michigan does not.

It also appears that Florida is asleep at the switch, though a state that refuses to permit a discussion of climate change can hardly be expected to protect its water supply. The growing battle over fracking in Florida provides evidence that the state government does not understand the vulnerability of its drinking water. As Lizette Alvarez reported in the New York Times recently:

With geology akin to a wet sponge and fragile underground aquifers that supply almost all its drinking water, Florida has never been considered part of the agitated battle over fracking as a technology for extracting oil and gas. But that began to change two years ago when a Texas-based oil and gas company was found to have been using hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, and matrix acidizing, a fracking-like method that dissolves rocks with acid instead of fracturing them with pressurized liquid. Neither residents nor local governments knew about it because well stimulation, the catch-all term for both techniques, does not require a separate permit and is not regulated.

Alvarez reports that about 80 local governments in Florida have moved to ban or regulate fracking, while the state legislature is moving to preempt local control and enact a more permissive statewide rule.

The crisis in Flint and last year’s water crisis in Charleston, West Virginia, are providing governors with a lesson they should have already absorbed. Clean and safe drinking water is not optional and its provision is a fundamental obligation of government. What many states have not figured out is that on a more crowded planet, the cost of protecting, treating and delivering water is going to continue to increase. With climate change influencing traditional patterns of rainfall and with more and more development occurring in places where aquifers are recharged, we should expect that water would need to be transported over longer distances, stored in more places, and filtered or treated more aggressively than ever before. This will require more regulation of land use and more control of effluent discharges into waterways.

In New York City, we continue to purchase land around our reservoirs and pay the people near our water supply to use best management practices to keep contaminants out of the water. As a result of increased capital and operation and maintenance costs, New York City’s water bills have increased dramatically over the past decade. While the rate of increase has slowed, no one likes paying more taxes–but no one wants to drink dirty water either. The moratorium on fracking in New York is largely based on the potential risk to the state’s water supply. This policy has prioritized safe drinking water over economic development. It is not an easy choice to make, but it is the right choice.

If we are to move to a sustainable and renewable resource-based economy, we must do a better job of understanding the effect of economic development on natural ecosystems. We need to steer development away from fragile and critical resources and toward places that are better able to absorb human impacts. We must then use technology to reduce our impacts and to ensure that resources can be recycled. Water is the ultimate recycled resource. We use it and it is returned to the planet in the form of precipitation. But unlike the good old days, most people can’t simply dig a well in their yard to tap into clean, plentiful and free water. We have to treat it, transport it and test it frequently to make sure it is clean. All of this costs money and requires planning, investment and hard work.

Before we had electricity, refrigeration, air conditioning, the Internet, motor vehicles, air travel, television and radio, water was free. Most people would not want to go back to preindustrial times in exchange for free water. Even if you wanted to turn back the clock, in most places clean, free water is no longer available. The technology of desalination, water filtration, sewage treatment and water transport continues to advance, and is more than adequate to ensure that the entire world has all the clean water it needs. All that’s needed to supply that water is money and responsible political leadership. The effort to cut corners and do this on the cheap will backfire.

It is time to face the facts. Clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment can be accomplished while growing our economy. America has already done this. Our air and water is cleaner today than it was when EPA was created in 1970. Our GDP has grown dramatically since 1970, but cleaning our environment required effective regulation and determined leadership at all levels of government. Florida and Michigan need to pay attention to the importance of clean drinking water. And the federal government must be ready to step in and act if these states do not meet their responsibilities.

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David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on Mar 1, 2016

The unfortunate truth is that political influence shapes the work of every public agency, and the Administration of George W. Bush was intent on reducing spending on clean-water programs and the replacement of aging pipes“.  – quoted from “Flint and the Long Struggle Against Lead Poisoning” by William Finnegan, in the New Yorker.

And budget cutters needing money to reduce taxes while fighting big new wars are just part of this problem. 

Most people thought, mistakenly, that civilization’s lead problem was under control.  One of the most well informed critics of current lead policy recently acknowledged that a lot has been achieved:  “The dramatic reduction over the past 40 years in blood lead levels in the U.S. population is rightly regarded as one of the cardinal public health success stories.”   Bellinger, New England Journal of Medicine “Lead Contamination in Flint — An Abject Failure to Protect Public Health

Anyone who was a child in 1980 would have had a blood lead level three times as high as the kids testing high in Flint today, and that level would have been sustained for their entire childhood, not, as in the Flint kid’s case, until parents told them to stop drinking the water.  18% of black children in 1980 had 5 times as much lead in their blood as Flint kids do today.  See:  “Blood Lead Levels for Persons 6 months – 74 years of age United States 1976 – 80“.   Baby boomers who were children in the 1950s would likely have had blood lead levels 5 times as high.  See this article

So ignorant blundering authorities “gamed” the EPA mandatory testing.  The Guardian:  “US authorities distorting tests to downplay lead content of water”  Tests are “gamed” in: “every major city east of the Mississippi”

“In 1969, environmentalist René Dubos warned that the problem of childhood lead poisoning is so well-defined, so neatly packaged, with both causes and cures known, that if we don’t eliminate this social crime, our society deserves all the disasters that have been forecast for it.  We have yet to fully respond to Dubos’s admonition.”  Bellinger, New England Journal of Medicine “Lead Contamination in Flint — An Abject Failure to Protect Public Health


Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Mar 2, 2016


50 gallon a day reverse osmosis filtration systems can now be had for around $200. Why drink what comes out of the tap? 


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