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Are we doing enough to safeguard drinking water?

August 13, 2014 at 6:47 PM EST
Recent cases of water contamination, including an algae bloom in Lake Erie and a chemical leak in West Virginia, has stirred new worries about the state of our drinking water. Hari Sreenivasan talks to David Beckman of the Pisces Foundation, who recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times about drinking water threats.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, the state of our drinking water and how two major problems in American cities these past few months are calling new attention to concerns over supply and protection.

Hari Sreenivasan in our New York studios has our conversation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The most recent case, Toledo, Ohio, where contamination from an algae bloom in Lake Erie temporarily made the water supply unsafe for 400,000 people and stirred new worries throughout the Great Lakes region.

That followed a major disruption earlier this year in West Virginia, after chemicals leaked into the Elk River around Charleston.

David Beckman wrote about these matters in an op-ed for The New York Times.  He’s with the Pisces Foundation, an environmental philanthropy based in San Francisco, and joins me now.

So, Mr. Beckman, I know that we’re better off than 800 million people or so on the planet who don’t have access to clean drinking water on a daily basis, but what do these two events start to make you think about?

DAVID BECKMAN, Pisces Foundation: Well, Hari, they make me think about the fact that, while we have come a great distance in terms of water in the United States since the early 1970s, when we had rivers catching on fire, that water pollution is not a set-it-and-forget-it situation.

And we have to be cognizant all the time and vigilant to address new threats that come on the horizon, so that we can continue to enjoy safe and reliable drinking water and clean lakes and rivers.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, where are the largest sources of concern?  We don’t have rivers catching on fire. And there were two different causes to these two incidents in Ohio and West Virginia. But is it about industry?  Is it about runoff from cities?

DAVID BECKMAN: Right.

Well, you’re right. The two situations, one in West Virginia and one in Toledo, are different in many respects, but one of the common threads between them is that source waters for drinking water upstream of cities need better protection, whether that’s runoff, which is increasingly a problem in the U.S., both from cities and from agriculture, or it’s just better enforcement and better upgrading of the existing system, say, that protects storage tanks, like the one that leaked in West Virginia.

We need to continue to invest in better approaches, and a more integrated view of water, I think, is really necessary.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, let’s talk a little bit about that integration. What about the regulatory — regulatory structure? How much of this is a federal responsibility and how much for the states?

DAVID BECKMAN: Well, both surface water protection, like rivers, and lakes and drinking water, are a combination of federal rules, state rules and in some cases with drinking water local agencies, city agencies typically that actually provide drinking water in many parts of the country.

So it’s an integrated system, with state, federal, local efforts. And all of that has to fit well together. And the situations that we have seen recently, I think we’re reminded of the fact that runoff particularly is something that needs greater attention. That’s not a part of the regulatory system to the same degree as factories and sewage treatment plants have been.

We have dealt with those industrial sources much better than some of the runoff sources that are now causing trouble. And that’s really where I think attention needs to be focused in the years to come.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And how do we pay for it? Some of the numbers that you had in your op-ed piece were very sizable.

DAVID BECKMAN: Yes. Those are EPA numbers.

And they may be a little lower, they may be a bit higher, but we’re talking hundreds of billions of dollars over a 20-year period. And so we definitely need new financing mechanisms.

And I think, more than anything, we need to make investments that have multiple benefits. Traditionally, with water in the U.S., we have made water quality investments to protect the river. And we didn’t think about and the rules and the laws didn’t often to require us to think about, but what about the drinking water source, or what about source water protection, or how about green cities that might need improvement at the same time?

And there are new approaches, like, for example, green infrastructure that I mentioned in the piece, which have the effect of making urban landscapes function from a water perspective more like natural landscapes. They green cities while they protect our drinking water and our surface waters. And it’s smart investments like that, that I think will make it easier to accomplish the goals that we all have for safe water.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But it’s often very difficult to get those ideas through a Congress who have to make some very tough choices about where to spend our funds.

DAVID BECKMAN: Well, that’s true.

And the fact of the matter is that, increasingly, the federal picture is only part of it. There is a real movement at the local level, in cities, to address these issues, in part by making investments that protect our drinking water sources and our surface water sources, but also constitute economic revitalization of the city, these green approaches that add green space, and parks, and rain gardens, and pervious pavement.

Places like Philadelphia are doing huge efforts over multiple years, investing often less than they would to build a new sewage treatment plant or a new traditional water treatment plant, and yielding even more benefit than they might have with that old approach.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There also seems to be almost a philosophical shift here.

This is a resource that people have taken for granted as something that was a natural right, something that was valued as free. But now we’re talking about serious costs associated with maintaining something that most of us have just said comes out of the tap and I can drink it.

DAVID BECKMAN: Well, that’s right. We’re spoiled in the United States.

The vast majority of our public drinking water systems deliver water that meets the national drinking water standards. But that’s cold comfort if you’re in a city or it’s your tap that doesn’t meet the standards, if you were in Charleston or you were in Toledo.

And the fact is, we have actually made huge investments in water as a country. We did a lot of it in the ’70s and ’80s, less in the ’90s and more recently. But we are going to have to stay at it if we want to maintain, not just environmental quality, but, remember, water is insinuated in every part of the economy.

Every product that we have requires water in some way or another. And so it’s not just an environmental issue, although it is fundamentally one. It’s also a question of water security and economic security for the country to make sure that we’re dealing with supply and quality and doing it in a way that will continue the success that we have had overall, as opposed to, you know, falling backward.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, David Beckman of the Pisces Foundation joining us from San Francisco, thanks so much.

DAVID BECKMAN: Thank you very much.