How water utilities can respond to the Natural Resources Defense Council's "Threats on Tap" report

The Natural Resources Defense Council has issued a bombshell report on America's drinking water utilities, designed to gain, as evidenced by the New York Times' opening paragraph, maximum shock value.  "If you live in the United States,"  The Times wrote, "there is a nearly one-in-four chance your tap water is either unsafe or has not been properly monitored for contaminants in accordance with federal law."  


A reader is left with the impression they're pulling a slot machine handle every time they turn up the tap.  That is simply not the case.


The report, titled "Threats on Tap", does have heft to it because the respect held for the organization and the fact that it provides the information in a viewable form, drilled down county by county.  It also connects with us at WaterPIO because of the agreement it found from Marc Edwards, the renown Virginia Tech scientist, in the Times piece.  Edwards was instrumental in helping to being the tragedy in Flint, Michigan to light and, as an aside, WaterPIO staff had the pleasure of working with Mr. Edwards years ago on a water quality matter.  He have long held him in the highest regard.


However, before customers start feeling like they are playing a game of Russian Roulette at the faucet, there are flaws in the report that need to be pointed out.  Its total reliance on cold data means that the nature of the violations is not explained.  This is important to point out because the vast majority of the violation were so minor, regulators did not feel the need to full enforce the various rules.


How, you may ask, is any violation minor?  Isn't that looking the other way, as the NRDC points out?  While your gut says yes, your brain, when you consider what water testing involves, should lead you to a different conclusion.  


What you must take into account with this report is that the vast majority of the violations have nothing to do with direct impacts on public health.  They have to do with the fact that, every year, water systems must test your drinking quality hundreds, if not thousands, if not tens of thousands of times and that one or two findings, or one or two reporting errors can occur.  And regulators know this.


Because of the sheer number of tests, if one finding or reporting error is made, regulators evaluate the finding or error.  If an understandable reason for that finding or error is given, and additional testing takes place to confirm the water is safe, regulators take that full response into account before deciding to enforce the rules to the fullest extent.  


Accusing regulators of "looking the other way" (except in rare, unprofessional circumstances) doesn't hold water (sorry); they're actually just using a reasoned approach based on what is actually occurring with utilities every day.  Regulators know that instituting a no-tolerance policy on the vast majority of matters is counter-productive.  It's akin to swatting a fly with an anvil and would cause the public to unduly question the quality of its drinking water when it wasn't really at risk.


What regulators also know - that the public does not and needs to know - is that the rules they are enforcing are set at extremely low levels for detection for contaminants that do not pose an immediate risk to public health.  A "Maximum Contaminant Level" or an MCL is set based upon the notion that a person would have to drink the contaminant highly at elevated levels over a long period of time for there to be any chance of adverse health effects.  


We are talking about parts per billion.  WaterPIO explains it as dropping one aspirin-sized pill into a body of water the size of six Olympic-sized swimming pools.  You then drink two-liter bottles of that water every day for years upon years.  Only after those years upon years would you be at a slightly elevated risk of developing the health problem caused by the contaminant.     


So when the Times writes, "a lack of reporting means residents cannot be sure whether their drinking water is contaminated or not," that oversimplifies what a finding or reporting error means.  In actuality, the public - in the vast, vast majority of the cases counted in the report - could still be sure their drinking water was not contaminated and was not at risk of endangering their health.


When the NRDC talks about contaminants that pose an immediate health risk and go untested or unreported, we completely agree with their stance.  However, those cases are a small fraction of the number in the total picture they gave to create shock stories like the one that ran in the New York Times.


WaterPIO also agrees with the NRDC's general premise of the report, that America needs to focus on its water infrastructure.  We have said "out of sight, out of mind" for years now.  It is time to focus on strengthening the systems that our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents built.  Public water systems are the backbone for our quality of life.


We should be careful, however, about the efforts we undertake to gain attention for the task at hand.  When widespread charges are made that could incorrectly lead the public to believe their drinking water is unsafe, that they are at risk of illness every time they turn on the tap, it's not only counterproductive - they'll stop drinking the water, after all - it's also wrong.


Mike McGill is the president of WaterPIO, a consulting firm aimed at helping water utilities across North Carolina and the nation improve their relationships with their ratepayers through improved communications.


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