News Feature | January 29, 2014

Water Quality Under Threat Due To Climate Change

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


Climate change will require utilities to stock up on new technology. 

That's according to a recent study by the Water Research Foundation (WEF), which found that technological progress is necessary for utilities to ward off quality problems due to new climate patterns.

"If present treatment technologies cannot be adapted to source quality changes, alternate sources or new treatment technologies may be needed," the study said. 

The study checked in with 41 utilities in the U.S. and Australia, according to a write-up by the Sydney Morning Herald. It found that “climate change may affect the quality of drinking water as much as its availability," according to the Herald

The biggest threat for utilities is when unusual weather events occur one after the other, such as a bushfire followed by a flood, the Herald said. Such coincidences have become more frequent as climate patterns alter.

''You have more droughts, more rainfall, more heat waves, more bushfires - the more of them together actually makes the intensity of the impact on water quality greater,'' said Stuart Khan, the lead author of the report, in the Herald

Bushfires alone are threatening to the water supply. They "can cause ash and phosphorus to enter waterways which feed drinking water catchments," the Guardian pointed out. Meanwhile, "extreme hot weather accelerates the growth of bacteria that can prove harmful to people."

Bushfires and cyclones "can also introduce turbidity to the water that can be difficult to treat and lead to the growth of algae and bacteria, which can cause the taste and odor of water to change," the article said.

An uptick in extreme weather means utilities have less time to find their footing in the aftermath.

"If we're expecting an increased frequency of events then of course they must come, by definition, closer together,'' Khan said. ''You lose that recovery time in the catchment.''

The next step? Researchers are looking at how the public will react, and how tolerant ratepayers will be when water quality is threatened, the Herald said. 

Already, it is clear that customer reactions vary from instance to instance, the Herald said. 

"Consumer responses to water quality changes vary depending on the circumstance, and will need to be understood if they are to be effectively addressed. If quality changes are aesthetically discernible (taste, odor, color, turbidity) but present no safety hazard, customer education will be needed to prevent unwarranted alarm, and targeted flushing may be needed," the study said. 

It is clear that extreme weather events may make it necessary for utilities to communicate more with ratepayers. 

"During some events, utilities may not be able to maintain the same level of quality that regulations require or consumers expect. This could result in severe consequences, such as having to announce boil notices for tap water, or other concerns such as aesthetic impacts (e.g., taste and odor)," the study said. 

Find more about drinking water monitoring at Water Online's Clean Water Analysis Solution Center.

Image credit: "bushfire," © 2007 bertknot, used under a Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license:

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