The Coming Water Crisis
Many billions of dollars will be needed to quench America's thirst, but is private business the answer?
Des Moines has learned from experience that its citizens will pay for such improvements: In 1992, the city raised water rates 25 percent to build the world's largest removal plant for nitrate, an agricultural runoff that can reduce infants' oxygen uptake (blue-baby syndrome) and cause other ills in adults. But whether public water systems tackle their challenges on their own or turn the job over to private enterprise, or some combination, the changes ahead will require a revolution in how Americans think about drinking water. "People's knowledge of water comes from beer commercials, focused on the land of sky-blue waters, or mountain springs and aquifers underlying some Wisconsin hillside," says Censky of the Water Quality Association. "The public thinks water in these sources is pure, but it's not. Really, pure water is a man-made product."
Source: sewage discharges and farm runoff can introduce E. coli bacteria, cryptosporidium, and other harmful microorganisms.
Problems: gastrointestinal illness, severe in people with weak immune systems.
Hot spots: New Haven, Mich., San Antonio; any place with treatment or pipe system breakdowns
Source: occurs naturally in groundwater, and sometimes as a residue of mining and other industrial operations
Problems: a strong poison at high doses; at low doses linked to cancer, diabetes, and other diseases
Hot spots: Albuquerque, N.M., Norman, Okla., towns throughout the Southwest
Source: a fuel additive designed to reduce air pollution that has turned into a swift, efficient groundwater polluter through spills and storage tank leaks
Problems: stomach, liver, and nervous system effects, possible cancer risk
Hot spots: Pascoag, R.I., Santa Monica, Calif., New Hampshire.
Source: a component of solid rocket fuel, munitions, and fireworks; has leaked from at least 58 U.S. military bases and manufacturing plants
Problems: interferes with functioning of the thyroid gland
Hot spots: Riverside, Calif., Bourne, Mass.; contamination confirmed in 20 states.
Source: trihalomethanes form when chlorine reacts with organic material, from decayed leaves to feces, in water; extremely common contaminant.
Problems: linked to bladder cancer, with some evidence of miscarriage risk.
Hot spots: Waco, Texas, and the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
What do Peoria and Paris have in common?
In the United States, consumers pay above-average rates in many water systems run by private companies, a sampling of quarterly bills shows.
PRIVATE U.S. SYSTEMS QUARTERLY BILL
Peoria, Ill. $100.17
Bloomsburg, Pa. $94.69
Hoboken, N.J. $88.50
Camden, N.J. $74.42
Jersey City, N.J. $49.80
(public and private) $47.50
Leominster, Mass. $44.70
Corvina, Calif. $35.80
Sources: Raftelis Financial Consulting, 2002 Water and Wastewater Rate Survey, U.S. News research
U.S. water rates are low compared with those of other countries, but that could change if localities begin to address water system problems.
CITY QUARTERLY BILL
Osaka, Japan $115.39
Hong Kong $88.73
United States $47.50
Riga, Latvia $27.05
Sofia, Bulgaria $16.49
Buenos Aires $10.72
New Zealand $5.48
Source: Raftelis Financial Consulting, 2002 Water and Wastewater Rate Survey. Rates are for 22,450 gallons, typical quarterly U.S. household water use.
With David D'Addio