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.
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:
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).