From The Editor | March 22, 2018

What Did Rural America Do To Deserve This?

Pete Antoniewicz

By Pete Antoniewicz

What Did Rural America Do To Deserve This?

By now, just about everyone in the U.S. has heard about Flint, Michigan’s water woes. Despite the many issues raised by that incident, urban water systems are not the sole reason the 2017 Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the U.S. drinking water infrastructure an overall “D” grade. Hidden within that disheartening rating are the harsh realities faced by rural water systems.

The Scope Of The Problems

The bulk of the U.S. population is located in major metropolitan areas, with half the population packed into just 5 percent of the counties. That still leaves millions of Americans living in more remote areas served by small drinking water treatment plant (WTP) operators who are least financially prepared to take on major capital improvement projects to protect water quality.

There are more than 150,000 public water systems (PWSs) in the U.S. — systems serving water for human consumption to at least 25 people or 15 service connections. About one-third of those PWSs are community water systems, and 97 percent are considered small systems. Many of those small systems exist in rural areas that do not have the financial resources to accommodate all potential threats to water quality — natural or man-made.

Geography is not the only determinant in water quality trends, however. Regional economic conditions also correlate with drinking water system violations, according to findings in the “National Trends in Drinking Water Quality Violations” study published by Maura Allaire, Haowei Wu, and Upmanu Lall in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Those researchers found that between 1982 and 2015, 9 million to 45 million people annually were affected by water quality issues, and that low-income, rural regions were most vulnerable. Infractions were more numerous in “hot spots” in Texas, Oklahoma, and Idaho. Overall, the study showed that between 3 percent and 10 percent of U.S. water systems have violated federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) health standards each year over that timeframe. In 2015 alone, as many as 21 million Americans might have been exposed to unsafe drinking water.

In terms of violations of the Stage 2 Disinfectants And Disinfection Byproducts Rule instituted in 2012-2013, urban systems averaged fewer than one violation per 100 systems, suburban systems averaged around two violations per 100 systems, high-income rural systems averaged about three violations per 100 water systems, and low-income rural systems averaged around five violations per 100 systems.

The Sources Of The Problems

Whether community water systems depend on groundwater or surface water sources — rivers, streams, lakes, or reservoirs — a variety of external influences challenge WTP operators.

  • Natural Conditions.  Arsenic, radionuclides, and microbial contaminants such as coliform from wildlife all pose challenges to drinking water treatment. Where wells are used to collect drinking water from a groundwater source, aquifer conditions can have an important impact on water quality. Problematic conditions include fractured bedrock or gravel aquifers, alluvial or coastal sand aquifers, shallow unconfined aquifers, or aquifers with thin soil cover or virtually no soil cover. All of those aquifer conditions can present specific problems related to E. coli, Enterococci, or coliphages.
  • Agriculture. Excessive nitrate levels are often seen in rural areas dominated by agriculture. One example is based on analysis of state and federal water records for the City of Pretty Prairie, KS. In this rural town, where the tap water had exceeded the U.S. EPA’s legal limit for nitrates for more than 20 years, the water utility’s 681 users still experienced nitrate levels 21 times the national average, seven times the state average, and more than double the legal limits as of 2015.
  • Mine Drainage. In areas like Appalachia, acid mine drainage (AMD) can be a major issue. Affected waters often include the telltale orange plume of the iron-rich flow with pH levels as low as 3 pH to 4 pH. Both groundwater and surface water sources can be affected. Unfortunately, long-time abandoned mine sites can make it difficult to pinpoint, prosecute, and remediate problem areas.
  • Sanitary Sewer Overflows And Peak Flow Discharges. This problem can occur in older systems that combine stormwater and wastewater in the same system. Adverse conditions occur as a result of wet weather overloading the system, resulting in manhole overflow of untreated sewage before it reaches the wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) or intentional blended discharge of partially treated wastewater from an overwhelmed WWTP plant. These events tax the performance of WTPs located farther downstream.
  • Industrial Pollution. Industrial activities ranging from mining to manufacturing can introduce chemical and heavy metal pollutants into streams and aquifers. Even where outright dumping has been curtailed for years, watersheds can still bear the residue of long-discontinued practices.

Hope For The Future

In the face of such widespread water-quality issues, smaller community water systems have traditionally had a hard time funding large capital improvements. One source of financial assistance for plants of all sizes is the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) program, which cites a variety of options and provides funding to deal with such issues, including special opportunities for small and disadvantaged communities. The program is open to both publicly owned and privately owned community water systems, as well as nonprofit non-community water systems. Opportunities include:

  • Treatment. Upgrading WTPs to improve drinking water quality to comply with SDWA regulations.
  • Transmission And Distribution. Rehabilitating or replacing pipes to prevent contamination or improve water pressure.
  • Sourcing. Constructing or rehabilitating wells or developing eligible water supply sources to replace contaminated ones.
  • Storage. Replacing or constructing finished water storage tanks can help prevent microbiological contamination.
  • Creating New Water Systems. Creating new systems to serve homes with contaminated wells.
  • Consolidation. Interconnecting two or more water systems for backup capabilities, or consolidating several existing systems into one new regional water system for greater efficiencies.

Perhaps the best short-term opportunities for existing WTPs to operate at higher efficiency are training sessions. These include a wide range of small systems training opportunities — workshops, webinars, and e-learning programs — offered through the American Water Works Association (AWWA). The programs address a variety of issues ranging from “Achieving and Maintaining Compliance With SDWA” to “Pricing Water For Full-Cost Recovery.” Additional training opportunities are also available from the EPA , the National Rural Water Association (NRWA), and the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP).

Image credit: " water is unfit for human consumption," woodleywonderworks © 2009, used under an Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/