Water Woes: A Toxic (and Dwindling) Water Supply

by Emily Holbrook on March 18, 2010 · 1 comment

The nation’s vast network of underground water pipes is hitting its retirement, and in some areas sooner than others.

In Washington, D.C., alone, there is a water pipe break every day on average, according to a recent article in the New York Times. But it’s not just the nation’s capital that struggles with the infrastructure of a aging sewer system that was built around the time of the Civil War — cities such as Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Sacramento and many others are also facing an uphill sewer system battle.

This weekend’s heavy rains in Washington “overwhelmed the city’s system, causing untreated sewage to flow into the Potomac and Rivers.” Unfortunately, it’s not only untreated sewage that sometimes pollutes the nation’s drinking water — there’s also pharmaceuticals, lead, nickel, arsenic and a slew of other dangerous heavy metals.

In fact, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found 315 pollutants in the tap water American’s drink.

More than half of the chemicals detected are not subject to health or safety regulations and can legally be present in any amount. The federal government does have health guidelines for others, but 49 of these contaminants have been found in one place or another at levels above those guidelines, polluting the tap water for 53.6 million Americans. The government has not set a single new drinking water standard since 2001.

In response to the government’s failure to set new safety standards and priorities for pollution prevention, the EWG launched a three-year project “to create the largest drinking water quality database in existence.” They rated water from big cities (those with a population more than 250,000) based on three factors:

(1) total number of chemicals detected since 2004
(2) percentage of chemicals found of those tested
(3) highest average level for an individual pollutant

And the group’s research found the following results, broken down here in an infographic from Good magazine (via I Love Charts):

dirtiest-municipal-water-systems

And in looking at the number of people served by this polluted water, we see that the clean water in the Boston area is enjoyed by millions while any negative health effects of the dirty water in Las Vegas could be widespread:

dirtiest_water_systems_2

But it is not only the issue of water quality that has been making headlines in recent years. Communities and corporations are using (and also wasting) massive amounts of water every year.

I tackled the topic of water scarcity for Risk Management last June:

In the United States, several of the fastest-growing cities are already struggling to manage water use. Years of drought in the Southeast have severely drained Lake Lanier, one of the largest lakes in the region and the major freshwater source for the majority of those living in the urban sprawl surrounding Atlanta. Las Vegas has long faced water shortage problems due to the fact that it is a city within a desert and years of astounding urbanization and population growth have placed unprecedented strain on the already-low water availability in the region. In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in March and threatened, not for the first time, to implement statewide water rationing.
Globally, the problem is even more dire. The world population has already surpassed 6.6 billion and is expected to reach nearly 9 billion by 2050. With this unbridled growth, demand for freshwater is increasing by 64 billion cubic meters per year, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Looking back, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that global freshwater consumption rose six-fold-more than twice the rate of population growth-between 1900 and 1995. A similar rate of increased water consumption over the next half century would be unsustainable, meaning that the current path of overuse and mismanagement cannot continue.

In the United States, several of the fastest-growing cities are already struggling to manage water use. Years of drought in the Southeast have severely drained Lake Lanier, one of the largest lakes in the region and the major freshwater source for the majority of those living in the urban sprawl surrounding Atlanta. Las Vegas has long faced water shortage problems due to the fact that it is a city within a desert and years of astounding urbanization and population growth have placed unprecedented strain on the already-low water availability in the region. In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in March and threatened, not for the first time, to implement statewide water rationing.

Globally, the problem is even more dire. The world population has already surpassed 6.6 billion and is expected to reach nearly 9 billion by 2050. With this unbridled growth, demand for freshwater is increasing by 64 billion cubic meters per year, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Looking back, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that global freshwater consumption rose six-fold-more than twice the rate of population growth-between 1900 and 1995. A similar rate of increased water consumption over the next half century would be unsustainable, meaning that the current path of overuse and mismanagement cannot continue.

Not helping the water scarcity issue are water-intensive industries such as agriculture, energy/oil, mining, food and beverage manufacturing, semiconductors and apparel. Agricultural processes alone account for a whopping 70% of all fresh water used.

This water usage has not gone unnoticed. Recent criticisms of such industries has prompted some corporations to initiate new, less water-intensive processes.

One such company is Anheuser-Busch InBev.

By the end of 2012, the company plans to whittle down its worldwide water use by 30% to 3.5 hectoliters for each hectoliter of production compared with 5.03 hectoliters in 2007. Each hectoliter is about 26.4 gallons. Water use last year was roughly 113.6 gallons, or 4.3 hectoliters, for each hectoliter of beer produced. The company’s brewery in Cartersville, Ga., has already reached the 3.1-hectoliter mark.

Reaching the goal would be the equivalent of saving enough water to fill 25,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, Anheuser-Busch InBev said. Since 2000, the brewer has already decreased water use by nearly 37%, it said.

The LA Times coverage naturally focuses on the “green” aspect, lauding the bottling company for its efforts to help Mother Nature and also discussing its plans to cut carbon dioxide emissions. But you have to think that pure altruism isn’t the sole motivation here. The company is certainly aware that, in the future, water will be a scarcer — and more expensive — commodity and is starting to adjust now by increasing its efficiency.

And Anheuser-Busch isn’t the only company working to waste less water. Texas Instruments, who, along with Intel, used more than 11 billion gallons of ultra-pure water for silicon chip production in 2007, has taken steps to reuse and recycle the vast amount of water it uses on a daily basis. But industries are still a far cry away from realizing in full the impact their water usage has on the earth.

And even if for those that do realize it, many times, revenue means more than waste.

Do you think there should be a cap on the maximum amount of water a company can use per year?

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Emily Holbrook is the executive managing editor for National Underwriter Life & Health and the former editor of the Risk Management Monitor and Risk Management magazine. You can read more of her writings at EmilyHolbrook.com.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jill Wade, CEO Axiom Business Advisors LLC March 24, 2010 at 10:43 am

As risk managers and others contemplate future risks facing their organizations, water availability is certainly one of them, particularly clean usable water. In the process of conducting some research for a client around this issue for their ERM issues, I found and read the followining book, which I recommend to risk managers who are now looking at this issue:
“The Great Lakes Water Wars”. Annin, Peter. 2006. Island Press. ISBN#1-55963-087-6.

If water availability and usage is not on your company’s list of ERM issues, perhaps it belongs there.
Respectfully yours,
Jill Wade

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