When you open your faucet to pour yourself a glass of water, you expect that the water is going to be clean. This is something that Americans expect — and rightfully so. Clean drinking water and the infrastructure necessary to deliver it are hallmarks of the developed world. This norm is at risk, however.
Along with colleagues at the Northeast-Midwest Institute, I recently released a study that highlights the growing levels of nitrate pollution in water sources. This problem is particularly intense in agriculture-heavy regions such as the Upper Mississippi River Basin, the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and Central California.
Nitrogen (or its various forms, including nitrate) is an essential nutrient for plant growth, but excess application of nitrogen fertilizers can result in it leaching into surface and ground water. These nitrates have to be removed by water utilities to keep drinking water safe for human consumption. That removal can be expensive, and the cost is passed on to you, in your utility bill.
The study, funded by the Walton Family Foundation, evaluated water quality and the cost of nitrate treatment at three water utilities in the Mississippi River Basin, including Des Moines. Operation and maintenance costs for treating the water can make up close to 10 percent of a water utility’s expenses and building the necessary treatment unit can cost $10 to $15 million. These expenses are paid for by either higher taxes or utility bills.
This financial burden may be manageable for larger cities as the costs would be spread out through a large populace. In small communities, however, the expenses can be crippling.
This growing problem has a number of implications.
For one, the U.S. should work to bolster conservation programs that mitigate the runoff causing nitrate pollution. Ideally, this can stop the problem before it begins.
It is simply too late, however, to solely rely on a mitigation strategy — we have to look at methods of adaptation, as well. One key way to help smaller communities adapt to the problem is by easing the capital costs they face in building the necessary treatment units.
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Existing state revolving fund (SRF) loans are often inadequate for the needs. Federal and state governments should consider various methods of capital support — grants, zero-interest loans, or debt forgiveness — to smaller communities struggling with nitrate pollution. Water rates are rising at a fast pace, outgrowing inflation and other utilities such as electric and phone. Further increases due to new treatment facilities would simply render a basic necessity unaffordable to our community’s poor and vulnerable members.
Every American deserves clean water. We owe it to each other and our future generations to ensure that drinking water remains safe and affordable for all.
• Sridhar Vedachalam is director of the safe drinking water program at the Northeast-Midwest Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research, education, and policy organization based in Washington, D.C. and focused on issues affecting 18 states in the Northeast and the Midwest.