Charting a Course for the Future*
The workshop provided an opportunity for the Roundtable to hear presentations on the totality of water issues. Many participants agreed that we have made progress since the passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act because they were instrumental in providing the first steps to ensure the availability of water for current and future populations. Henry Falk, assistant administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and director of the National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), observed that these regulations served as a means to enact some of the most beneficial and readily available measures. However, he noted that the remaining issues are complex, often have societal and personal implications, and are not fixed by quick regulatory decision. Panelists and participants discussed many of these issues including a paradigm shift, research needs, educational needs, and other challenges ahead.
DO WE NEED A NEW PARADIGM?
In the mid-1800s, the United States and other countries adopted the use of water as a means of disposal of agricultural, industrial, and human waste. It was necessary to address the public health burden of the time. To avoid leaving waste in the street, the rivers provided a mechanism for the removal of waste from our cities. This worked well for the time,
noted Lynn Goldman, professor, Bloomberg School of Public Health, but we have reached the point where it is no longer feasible; yet we have built a large infrastructure to support this method of water usage. The question remains whether the approaches we are using (multiple uses of water, including waste disposal) are feasible as we face a growth in population and increased consumption per capita.
One of the workshop participants, noted that part of the paradigm shift would be the integration of individuals across disciplines and agencies and suggested that taking an issue such as pathogens or drinking water source protection as a focal point and bringing together the agencies, disciplines, and regulations to address the issue as a whole instead of piecemeal, would be a starting point. Kenneth Reckhow further suggested that two strategies for providing safe drinking water involve treatment and watershed protection. He noted that it is conceivable that we will not have to identify all of the chemicals and pathogens in waters, as membrane or activated carbon might effectively remove them. One problem is that drinking water comes from various sources, including individual household wells. He noted that appropriate treatment at a household level may be problematic.
Susan Seacrest agreed that any paradigm will not be a product of “one-stop shopping.” It isn’t realistic to wait for any one agency to address all aspects of water safety. Cynthia Dougherty, Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), noted that some of the work will have to be undertaken at the national level—for example, the establishment of national criteria for pathogens—while other approaches will occur at the state and local levels such as land-use policies and identifying which surface waters also are drinking water sources. Seacreast agreed and noted there is a role for everyone, with important roles for everyone to play. She reiterated that it is important to identify various roles, and various tools, and to reinforce a sense of responsibility about our drinking water. Public health officials from the local to the national level have to be continually engaged, noted many panelists, and we need to find ways of including them.
WATER AS A COMMODITY
As a starting point, some panelists reinforced the idea that the monetary value of water is a very important issue that is often underestimated. Wastewater treatment is costly, especially with regard to reclaiming wa-
ter for beneficial purposes. Nevertheless, water is greatly undervalued and subsequently underpriced. Until the economic value of water is taken seriously into account and appropriately adjusted, decision makers—national, regional, and local—will not have a strong incentive to treat this resource with greater respect, noted many panelists.
Christine L.Moe of Emory University suggested that we in the United States really need to change our attitude toward conservation; we should follow our colleagues overseas, especially in Europe, who are very aware of their resource limitations. In our country, by contrast, we have had an abundance of natural resources and we keep living as if they will never end. The level of water consumption per capita, for example, is far greater in the United States than in European countries, even though the corresponding standards of living are more or less the same, noted Moe. This high level of consumption simply is not sustainable.
YOUR WASTEWATER IS SOMEONE ELSE’S DRINKING WATER
Another critical issue is that for decades, most states have put the burden on the drinking water system and its customers to pay for what took place upstream, said Cynthia Dougherty. The next use of the water is often considered unplanned potable reuse, which is not subject to stringent regulation at the point of discharge, noted James Crook, an environmnetal engineering consultant. An exception is California, where planned potable reuse projects are regulated both downstream and upstream with a variety of treatment, disposal, and monitoring requirements. Ironically, planned potable reuse is under severe restrictions, whereas unplanned potable reuse is often overlooked.
Another underregulated phenomenon is private wells. More than 40 million people in the United States get their drinking water from private wells, which tend to be threatened by the septic tanks that are usually present on the same rural property. This is a growing problem in light of demographic shifts to cities’ outlying areas, because approximately 25 percent of new housing development depends on onsite treatment, said Susan Seacrest. This is probably one of the greatest public health threats facing the United States, but people do not want to think about it. Seacrest noted that a small but malfunctioning septic tank system can have significant microbiological loading in these locations.
MONITORING AS A RESEARCH NEED
Although research investigating linkages with health and research on technology were discussed, monitoring as a research need was noted by some panelists as a top priority. A number of agencies and research groups have been working in this area, but some panelists cautioned that it is unrealistic to assume that biosensors and biomonitoring would identify all potential contaminants and that source water protection and water conservation also would be necessary. Although research is going on in this area, noted Crook, it will be many years before meaningful results emerge. The research in this area has garnered more attention recently due to threats of bioterrorism and the desire to have rapid measures to address water contamination, noted Dougherty.
LAND-USE POLICY AND SOURCE WATER PROTECTION
During the course of the workshop, panelists characterized the identification of contaminants and the treatment of water as a cornerstone of ensuring safe drinking water. However, watershed protection and land-use policies also are important. For community systems a combination of land-use policies and treatment will probably be effective. Reckhow further noted that one technical difficulty is the reliable assessment of land-use controls, land-use restrictions, and activities in the watershed affecting the concentration of contaminants that are regulated in the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The leading research need for watershed protection, according to Reckhow, is the development of better predictive models. Streamflow models are considered reliable, and models of conservative contaminants (i.e., those that do not decay) such as salinity, chloride, and sediments also are very good. However, models of nonconservative contaminants (contaminants that transform) or biological organisms are far less reliable. Therefore, at present, we often cannot determine with a reasonable level of reliability how land-use controls and other activities in the watershed will affect drinking water quality. For this reason, better predictive mechanisms or models that link watershed actions to their drinking water effects should have high priority. The amount of money available for research in this area is limited and could become even more limited; therefore, we must try to look at this relationship in a more holistic way:
what might we do regarding source water that is going to have the maximum effect on protecting drinking water?
However, the research agenda that aims to produce models also must look at how to help local citizens understand and use them. It should look not only at what works and what the models are but at how they can be shared and what the best way is to implement them technologically and cost-efficiently. Science has to be understood and put into action by average people. We have to see the public as a real resource for this and we must respect and value its ability to be educated and be a force for positive change, especially on the local level, said Seacrest. Local people know their community better, care more about their community’s future, and do more for their community. Groundwater, for example, must be protected at the local level because it is often a land-use issue—a local jurisdictional issue of what you can or cannot do on the land’s surface.
KEEPING WATER IN THE LOCAL WATERSHED
Methods to achieve water capture at the community and watershed levels for purposes such as recharging groundwater are highly desirable. By contrast, the current way is to take a lot of raindrops and snowflakes—which should be going back into the hydrologic system where they fall and melt—shunt them miles away, and dump them in places where they shouldn’t be dumped, at rates and temperatures and with all sorts of contaminants that are harmful.
It is still very difficult, Seacrest observed, to get our research institutes and others to help validate the claims that are made by advocates of this softer path—more natural system-based types of solutions. Funders are likewise reluctant, as evidenced by the relatively low priority given to such approaches by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, as Peter Gleick noted earlier. Yet Gleick also suggested a way around this resistance: establishment of the principle that a soft-path ethic will not imply sacrifice. Water conservation, for example, should not necessarily be associated with a needed change in life-style. Keeping water in the watershed as locally as we can and letting it recharge or provide base flow to the local streams is something to strive for. There are many small-scale treatment processes that can treat wastewater successfully and put it back in the ground.
EDUCATION AND PUBLIC TRUST
Education is necessary if we are going to ensure public trust in the drinking water system. Education will be needed at all levels, including members of the public, local governments, and health care providers. Risk assessment has to be understood when individuals are concerned about contaminants in their drinking water, noted some panelists. It is difficult to predict which contaminants people will be concerned about and which they will ignore, noted Barker Hamill of the EPA Bureau of Safe Drinking Water. Other participants agreed and suggested that we should engage in regular discussions about the real issues that face our water supply and water quality and this discussion must include the public. Seacrest followed with the suggestion that resources have to be released for education. This is especially important for people who have a community-based system for water delivery or an individual system.