The Coming Water Crisis
Many billions of dollars will be needed to quench America's thirst, but is private business the answer?
The tap water was so dark in Atlanta some days this summer that Meg Evans couldn't see the bottom of the tub when she filled the bath. Elsewhere in her neighborhood, Gregg Goldenberg puts his infant daughter, Kasey, to bed unbathed rather than lower her into a brew "the color of iced tea." Tom Crowley is gratified that the Publix supermarket seems to be keeping extra bottled water on hand; his housekeeper frequently leaves notes saying, "Don't drink from the faucet today." All try to keep tuned to local radio, TV, or the neighborhood Web site to catch "boil water" advisories, four of which have been issued in the city since May to protect against pathogens. "We've gotten to the point where I'm thinking this is just normal," Evans says. "It's normal to wake up and take a bath in dirty water."
In a nation where abundant, clear, and cheap drinking water has been taken for granted for generations, it is hard to imagine residents of a major city adjusting to life without it. But Atlanta's water woes won't seem so unusual in the years ahead. Across the country, long-neglected mains and pipes, many more than a century old, are reaching the end of their life span. When pipes fail, pressure drops and sucks dirt, debris, and often bacteria and other pathogens into the huge underground arteries that deliver water. Officials handle each isolated incident by flushing out contaminants and upping the chlorine dose (Atlanta says its water meets health standards despite its sometimes unappetizing appearance), but no one sees this as a long-term solution. America's aging water infrastructure needs huge new investment, and soon.
Decayed pipes alone would be a serious challenge. Now, add these: Providing water free of disease and toxins is ever more difficult, as old methods prove inadequate and new hazards emerge. Shortages have become endemic to many regions, as record drought and population sprawl sap rivers and aquifers. Then there's the threat, unthinkable a year ago, that now seems to trump all others: terrorism. Put it all together, and it's easy to see why concern over clean drinking water might someday make the energy crisis look like small potatoes.
"The idea of water as an economic and social good, and who controls this water, and whether it is clean enough to drink, are going to be major issues in the country," says economist Gary Wolff, at Oakland's Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security. In March, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman called water quantity and quality "the biggest environmental issue that we face in the 21st century."
Water providers say that Americans can still trust the product on tap. "People should feel good about their water. Water is safe and we're working hard to keep it that way," says Thomas Curtis, deputy executive director of the American Water Works Association. But the Natural Resources Defense Council's Erik Olson detects a "schizophrenic" element in industry assurances. "They say we need hundreds of billions of dollars to fix the system, but when people ask, `Is there a public-health issue?' they say, `No, no.' But clearly, there's a public-health problem."