Guest Columnists

Water quality: Let's start with some basic facts

In UI Law Library  Feb. 2012  (photo by Andrea Chapman Day)
In UI Law Library Feb. 2012 (photo by Andrea Chapman Day)


First, some basic facts.

Life began in water; human life still does. Our bodies are a mix of star stuff and water — in the same proportions as Earth’s surface. We need replenishment of two to three quarts daily.

But 80 percent of our society’s consumption is used in agriculture (one gallon for each almond). More goes to industry, like fracking.

We each use about 100 gallons daily. For all Iowans that’s 110 billion gallons annually.

Residents of Flint are right to worry about lead. Thousands of other cities ought to — 40 percent of reporting states have more lead poisoning than Flint. And the 15 parts per billion standard’s not science based. It’s chosen as a standard 90 percent of cities can pass.

But wait; it’s worse. I used to hike where pure water came from springs and ran in streams. Those sources reach us today containing 100 potentially toxic substances that have not been researched, tested, or regulated. Even if they were, one-third of Americans’ water sources aren’t covered by clean water laws.

Rain brings air pollutants, runoff brings fertilizer, industrial waste may be dumped, and nitrate removal treatments can leave toxic nitrosamines. More dangerous elements (like Flint’s lead) can come from aging water mains, or pipes from the mains to, and inside, the home.

One of the greatest single “medical” advances for 2.5 billion of the world’s people? Not a new AIDS or malaria drug. It would be pure drinking water and sanitary facilities for the 2 million who die every year without them.

There are other ways water can sicken or kill you. Worldwide, an estimated 372,000 people annually die from drowning — the third leading cause of unintentional injury death.


Ocean levels are rising at increasing rates, as warmer water expands and glaciers melt. If all land ice melted, oceans would rise 197 feet. That’s not happening. But a possible 20-foot rise by 2100 would necessitate relocating a billion people.

And all that’s the good news. Most serious? The coming severe water shortages and inevitable water wars.

Kind of puts our Iowa legislative proposals into perspective, doesn’t it?

My proposals?

1. Prepare to spend $1 trillion on the infrastructure our grandparents built and we, preferring tax cuts, have allowed to rot.

2. Fund the scientific and medical research necessary to understand the human impact of all the substances in water, and then set standards.

3. Give Americans free access to test data about what comes out of their own faucets (not just what comes out of their cities’ treatment plants).

4. Finally, elect public officials who care more about our health than their donors’ wealth.

• Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC commissioner, writes about public policy in and maintains Comments:


Note: The Gazette has instituted a new procedure for op ed columns, requiring that submitted work be accompanied with sources. This not only provides yet another level of editorial scrutiny regarding the veracity of facts and assertions, but also makes it easier for the occasional reader engaged in topic research to follow up on portions of a column that may be of further interest.

To serve either purpose it’s necessary to provide not only citations leading to a source, but sufficient text to indicate what it was about that source that is thought to support the fact or assertion. Sometimes that can be a single phrase or sentence, such as, in the second one below, “About 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is water-covered . . ..” Other times, when a simplistic assertion in a 436 op ed column (as this one is) while reasonable, has not been explained in the text a lengthier excerpt is required. An example would be the third source listed below: the supporting source for the percentage of one’s weight represented by water.

The sources are listed in the same order as the text which they support.

– N.J.


“’The cosmos is also within us, we’re made of star stuff,’ was the famous knowledge bomb that Sagan dropped in his original award-winning TV series “Cosmos” . . ..”

Eric Mack, “’We Are Made of Star Stuff’: A Quick Lesson on How; Carl Sagan Famously Said That the Death of Ancient Stars Helped to Create Us. Huh? Here’s a Quick Primer on What he Meant,” CNET, November 3, 2014,

“About 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is water-covered . . ..”

U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior, The USGS Water Science School, “How Much Water is There On, In, and Above the Earth?”

“Water is of major importance to all living things; in some organisms, up to 90% of their body weight comes from water. Up to 60% of the human adult body is water. According to H.H. Mitchell, Journal of Biological Chemistry 158, the brain and heart are composed of 73% water, and the lungs are about 83% water. The skin contains 64% water, muscles and kidneys are 79%, and even the bones are watery: 31%. Each day humans must consume a certain amount of water to survive. Of course, this varies according to age and gender, and also by where someone lives.

Generally, an adult male needs about 3 liters per day while an adult female needs about 2.2 liters per day. Some of this water is gotten in food. . . .

According to Dr. Jeffrey Utz, Neuroscience, pediatrics, Allegheny University, different people have different percentages of their bodies made up of water. Babies have the most, being born at about 78%. By one year of age, that amount drops to about 65%. In adult men, about 60% of their bodies are water. However, fat tissue does not have as much water as lean tissue. In adult women, fat makes up more of the body than men, so they have about 55% of their bodies made of water.”

U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior, The USGS Water Science School,

The Water in You,”

“So how much fluid does the average, healthy adult living in a temperate climate need? The Institute of Medicine determined that an adequate intake (AI) for men is roughly about 13 cups (3 liters) of total beverages a day. The AI for women is about 9 cups (2.2 liters) of total beverages a day.”

Mayo Clinic Staff, “Healthy Lifestyle; Nutrition and Healthy Eating; Water: How Much Should You Drink Every Day?” Mayo Clinic,


“Agriculture is a major user of ground and surface water in the United States, accounting for approximately 80 percent of the Nation’s consumptive water use (see definitions) and over 90 percent in many Western States.”

United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, “Irrigation & Water Use; Overview; Background,”

“One almond 1.1 gallons of water. . . . Jay Lund, a water expert at the University of California-Davis, says that water problems mean that agriculture may soon play a less important role in California’s economy, as the business of growing food moves to the South and the Midwest, where water is less expensive.”

Alex Park and Julia Lurie, “It Takes How Much Water to Grow an Almond?! Why California’s Drought is a Disaster for Your Favorite Fruits, Vegetables, and Nuts,” Mother Jones, February 24, 2014,

“Oil and natural gas fracking, on average, uses more than 28 times the water it did 15 years ago, gulping up to 9.6 million gallons of water per well and putting farming and drinking sources at risk in arid states, especially during drought. . . . The amount of water used for fracking in each well varies widely by region. In southern Illinois, an operation can use as little as 2,600 gallons of water each time fracking triggers the flow of oil or gas into a well. In West Texas’ Permian Basin surrounding Midland and Odessa, fracking uses between 264,000 and 2.6 million gallons of water each time. In Pennsylvania, Ohio, south and eastern Texas, Arkansas, northern Colorado and Montana, fracking can use more than 9 million gallons of water.”

Bobby Magill, “Water Use Rises as Fracking Expands; And Certain Wells Use Far More Water Than Others, a Possible Threat in Dry Regions,” Scientific American, July 1, 2015,

“The average American family of four uses 400 gallons of water per day. On average, approximately 70 percent of that water is used indoors, with the bathroom being the largest consumer (a toilet alone can use 27 percent!).”

United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Water Sense; Indoor Water Use in the United States,” http://


“Data collected by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows that over 40 percent of the states that reported lead test results in 2014 have higher rates of lead poisoning among children than Flint.”

Yanan Wang, “Untold Cities Across America Have Higher Rates of Lead Poisoning Than Flint,” The Washington Post, February 4, 2016

“The E.P.A.’s trigger level for addressing lead in drinking water -- 15 parts per billion -- is not based on any health threat; rather, it reflects a calculation that water in at least nine in 10 homes susceptible to lead contamination will fall below that standard.”

“The biggest hole in the drinking-water safety net may be the least visible: the potential for water to be tainted by substances that scientists and officials have not even studied, much less regulated. The EP.A. has compiled a list of 100 potentially risky chemicals and 12 microbes that are known or expected to be found in public water systems, but are not yet regulated. . . . There are thousands of other chemicals, viruses and microbes that scientists like Dr. Griffiths say the agency has not begun to assess.”

“The Environmental Protection Agency says streams tapped by water utilities serving a third of the population are not yet covered by clean water laws that limit levels of toxic pollutants.”

“[R]esearchers were long unaware that removing nitrates from finished water can leave behind a toxic byproduct, nitrosamines, the canceri-causing chemical found in cooked bacon.”

Michael Wines and John Schwartz, “Unsafe Lead Levels in Tap Water Not Limited to Flint,” The New York Times, February 9, 2016, p. A1,

“An estimated 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation (more than 35% of the world’s population)”


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Global Water, Sanitation, & Hygiene (WASH); Global WASH Fast Facts,”

“Diarrhoea [sic] occurs world-wide and causes 4% of all deaths and 5% of health loss to disability. It is most commonly caused by gastrointestinal infections which kill around 2.2 million people globally each year, mostly children in developing countries. The use of water in hygiene is an important preventive measure but contaminated water is also an important cause of diarrhoea.”

World Health Organization, “Water Sanitation Health; Water-Related Diseases; Diarrhoea,” http://

“Inadequate drinking-water, sanitation and hygiene are estimated to cause 842,000 diarrhoeal disease deaths per year WHO 2014, and contribute substantially to the other diseases listed above.”

World Health Organization, “Water Sanitation Health; Water-Related Diseases,” http://

“Drowning is the 3rd leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide, accounting for 7% of all injury-related deaths. There are an estimated 372,000 annual drowning deaths worldwide.”

World Health Organization, Media Centre, “Drowning,” Fact Sheet No. 347, November 2014, Key Facts,

“If all the land ice on the planet were to melt, it would raise sea levels about 197 feet . . ..”


Tia Ghose, “NASA: Rising Sea Levels More Dangerous Than Thought,” Live Science, August 26, 2015,

“[H]undreds of millions of people live in areas that will become increasingly vulnerable to flooding. Higher sea levels would force them to abandon their homes and relocate. Low-lying islands could be submerged completely. Most predictions say the warming of the planet will continue and likely will accelerate. Oceans will likely continue to rise as well, but predicting the amount is an inexact science. . . .

[D]ire estimates, including a complete meltdown of the Greenland ice sheet, push sea level rise to 23 feet (7 meters), enough to submerge London.”

“Sea Level Rise; Ocean Levels Are Getting Higher -- Can We Do Anything About It?” National Geographic,

“According to the United Nations, water use has grown at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century. By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions as a result of use, growth, and climate change.”

“Fresh Water Crisis,” National Geographic,

“Off and on for two decades, my colleagues and I have worked on issues involving water, including some discussed here. This experience has led me to conclude that statesmanship must go beyond diplomacy, in particular to championing new agricultural technologies. Without growing more food with less water (land, too) the water-war surprises will come, perhaps not in one year, perhaps not in four, but soon, and long into the future.”

Clark S. Judge, “The Coming Water Wars; The Next Big Wars Will be Fought Over Water,” U.S.Newsw, February 19, 2013,


“The American Water Works Association . . . puts the tab [to provide clean drinking water to all Americans] at $1 trillion in new spending in the next 25 years.”

Editorial, “Fixing Our Broken Water Systems,” The New York Times, February 14, 2016, p. SR8,

Erik D. Olson, head of the health and environment program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said: “. . . We’re mostly living off the investment of our parents and grandparents for our drinking water supply.”

Michael Wines and John Schwartz, “Unsafe Lead Levels in Tap Water Not Limited to Flint,” The New York Times, February 9, 2016, p. A1,

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