When Almost Perfect Isn't Good Enough
By Kevin Westerling,
Despite statistically astounding performance, water and wastewater utilities have almost no room for error due to the nature of public perception and the importance of their work.
Covering the water industry doesn’t typically lend itself to splashy news items (puns aside), but over the years I’ve been witness to a few doozies — water stories big enough to gain mainstream exposure. It isn’t what you hope for, but it does remind the public about the value of water. Unfortunately, those bad experiences can lead the same public to a negative perception of those who typically serve them the precious resource without issue (or credit).
From Toledo’s drinking water shutdown back in 2014 due to toxic algal blooms, through Flint’s years-long lead-contamination crisis, to Jackson, MS’s current struggles because of failed infrastructure, regular folks are getting familiarized with the inner workings of municipal water systems, for better or worse.
Just recently, in March, I was receiving calls from family members (I’m “the water guy” to them) for advice around the chemical spill in the Delaware River that prompted Philadelphia water officials to issue warnings about the drinking water — actively urging bottled water use — until it was tested and cleared. It turned out to be somewhat of a false alarm in that the contaminated water never reached the intakes in large enough quantities, but there was a mini panic in the interim, including scenes of unrest among the throngs of people converging on stores for bottled water. There was also some mixed messaging from officials, who initially said to use bottled water after 2 p.m. on Sunday before stating that tap water was safe until 11:59 p.m. on Monday.
Further, one of the chemicals in question was butyl acrylate, which was also among the chemicals spilled in East Palestine, OH, only the month before, so the anxiety among consumers was understandable. Still, it was distressing to hear a South Philly resident say (via CNN): “I don’t trust the city. They sound like they don’t really know what they’re talking about.”
Scanning Twitter around that time, there was a bevy of mocking memes, including one that incredulously asked, “Who still drinks tap water anyway?”
As an advocate for the water industry, particularly the people who work tirelessly to keep our drinking water safe and our waterways clean, this lack of public trust — despite a historically impeccable track record — is upsetting. One can only hope that the intermittent attention (whenever there’s a problem) helps fuel the necessary investments needed to update and improve our systems so that “upsets” are kept to a minimum.
To that end, the May edition of Water Innovations highlights some very high-profile problems and, of course, solutions.
The ever-growing PFAS problem, which will soon mandate mitigation due to pending regulations, is the focus of our cover story — with a pathway to financial compensation. Finding and replacing lead service lines may be an even bigger issue, made much more manageable with predictive models and the guidance you’ll find here.
The latest innovations are further explored with an article on enhancing digital twins with machine learning and a case study on the benefits of remote alarm notifications. And for the wastewater crowd, you’ll find a roundup of treatment solutions for difficult-to-treat streams and a report on the expanding treatment chemicals market.
Hopefully, the thought leadership herein will keep you ahead of challenges and out of the news. Nobody’s perfect — and your rare defeats may get more public attention than your overriding success — but we know your value is immeasurable, and we will continue to champion your efforts.