The Coming Water Crisis
Many billions of dollars will be needed to quench America's thirst, but is private business the answer?
New science has also undermined confidence in older methods of purifying water. Chlorination has been one of the 20th century's great public-health achievements, smiting the deadliest waterborne diseases, cholera and typhoid. But this sword has developed a double edge. Nearly 200 women in Chesapeake, Va., sued their water system, claiming that miscarriages they suffered in the 1980s and 1990s are traceable to trihalomethanes, chemicals produced when chlorine reacted with their region's murky river water. While pregnancy-risk research is hotly debated, the EPA decided that cancer risk from chlorine by-products is high enough that it ordered water system reductions earlier this year. Localities have already spent millions of dollars converting to another disinfectant, chloramine (a chlorine and ammonia mix), which curbs some byproducts.
Cities and towns are finding that they must deal with new science on contaminants at a much faster pace than the EPA can regulate them. This summer, Bourne, Mass., the southern gateway to Cape Cod, had to close three of its six drinking water wells, having discovered they were contaminated with perchlorate, a rocket fuel component that leaked from a nearby military reservation. Across the country, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, serving 17 million people, announced in April that its new treatment system "will remove a large portion of perchlorate" leaking into a major regional reservoir, Lake Mead. But U.S. News has obtained material distributed at a June 11 MWD board meeting showing the treatment was not working as hoped.
The EPA is still studying possible drinking water limits for perchlorate as well as for MTBE, a gasoline additive meant to reduce air pollution that proved to be a frighteningly efficient groundwater pollutant. (South Tahoe and Santa Monica, Calif., last month obtained big settlements from oil and chemical companies to help restore MTBE-poisoned water supplies.) And in April, a U.S. Geological Survey report revealed that streams nationwide are laced with prescription and over-the-counter drugs and even caffeine.
Pollution is shrinking water supplies for communities at the same time that burgeoning population and weather are causing severe shortages. Norman, Okla., with 95,700 people the largest system currently afoul of arsenic standards, very likely will shut down some wells even though it expects average daily water demand to more than double in the next 40 years. "We don't want to be a poster child" for arsenic contamination, says utilities director Brad Gambill. This summer, more than 40 percent of the nation--over twice the normal rate--has suffered drought conditions. "Normally, we get tons of flowers, but now we have nothing growing," says Donna Charpied, a farmer in Riverside County, Calif., pointing to withered plants on her small homestead. Some ecologists believe global warming will make drought the norm in much of the West. Drought breeds anger: The CIA predicts that by 2015, drinking-water access could be a major source of world conflict.
Some cities have already instituted drastic conservation programs. Santa Fe has restricted lawn watering, leading New Mexicans to decorate yards with spray-painted artificial flowers. In parched Denver, a conservation campaign encourages residents to shower in groups. Omaha has an odd-even residential address lawn-watering program.