Press Releases

2002 Releases

State of US Public Health Drinking Water Reliable but Billions in Repairs Needed to Maintain System Through This Century

BOSTON, MA- In a “state of the state” review of the nation’s public drinking water systems, researchers from the Water and Health Program at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) describe how reliable and safe water is available to nearly all 270 million U.S. residents. But, they also find that maintenance and repair of the public water infrastructure has been severely neglected and that at least $151 billion must be spent over the next two decades to guarantee the continued high quality of U.S. water. Additionally, the researchers predict that global warming could significantly harm water availability and quality.

The article “U.S. Drinking Water Challenges in the Twenty-First Century,” was written by Ronnie B. Levin, a research scientist in the Environmental Epidemiology Program at HSPH, and colleagues. It appears in the February 2002 supplement issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, Reviews in Environmental Health.

Among the researchers’ observations:

Water rates have been insufficient to cover long-run costs. Water pricing should adequately finance the maintenance of the public infrastructure and should also include the costs of watershed or aquifer management. Current annual spending for capital investments and operations by water suppliers is about $36 billion and needs to increase by $15 billion.

Finding ways to coordinate water supply decisions and operations among decentralized water suppliers will be essential given continuing scientific and health research that has driven increasingly strict drinking water regulations stemming from the Safe Drinking Water Act. In 1997, there were about 54,000 permanent community water supplies in the U.S.—by comparison in the United Kingdom there are fewer than 30 water systems.

Global warming may have adverse effects on water distribution, availability and quality in the U.S. in these ways:

  • A warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor, so evaporation rates will be higher, leading to droughts followed by severe weather events. This can result in more polluted runoff to surface waters and less infiltration to replenish aquifers.
  • A rise in ocean levels may result in increased salt water infiltration of coastal aquifers.
  • Warmer temperatures of surface water sources may contribute to increased harmful algal blooms.
  • Warmer temperatures may result in higher microbial and nutrient content of drinking water supplies, promoting biofilm growth within the distribution system.
  • Hotter weather will also mean increased water use by consumers for drinking water, bathing, watering lawns and irrigating crops, for example.
  • Less snowpack in mountains and earlier snowmelt will provide less water during the drier growing season and strain other freshwater supplies.
  • The extremes of drought punctuated by heavy rains could destabilize natural biological controls over pests and pathogens, associated with waterborne disease outbreaks

"Over the last century, the US has set the world standard for ensuring a reliable, relatively safe drinking water supply to the general public,” said Levin. “But population demands, continuing scientific research and past public policy have created serious challenges for our public water supplies in the next century. The longer we delay, the higher the price tag will be. There are no surprises here."

According to Tim Ford, a co-author of this report and director of HSPH's Program in Water and Health, "We have dramatically underestimated the value of our drinking water supplies, both in the price we pay for potable water and our attitudes toward conserving this valuable resource. Unless significant changes are made in the near future - to our pricing strategies, maintenance and conservation programs - we will inevitably see a decline in the quality of our drinking water.”

“The consequences to human health from poor water quality,” said Ford, “range from increased incidence of gastrointestinal illness to suspected cancers from long term exposures to the by-products of water treatment. Much of our research has focused on Eastern Russia and India, where the health risks from failing infrastructure are all too obvious. A ‘boil water advisory’ is always in place - it is hard to imagine the US population accepting similar strictures. Without serious re-prioritization of political values and environmental resources, this could well be where we are headed.”

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Robin Herman
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