How to Protect Source Water

Source water is the water that the public uses for drinking; it can come from rivers, streams, lakes, or groundwater. RAIN’s purpose revolves around protecting this source water to ensure clean drinking water and preserved public health. The Pittsburgh region has had a history of industrial activity that has taken its toll on our area’s air, water, and quality of life.

Recently Pittsburgh has been cleaning up its natural resources, but there is still room for improvement. RAIN works to connect drinking water suppliers and citizens in western Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia to become more aware of the quality of their source water, because clean water benefits the facilities that treat it as well as those who drink it.

To protect source water, it’s important to safely dispose of chemicals and medications properly. Chemicals such as pesticides, fertilizers, pharmaceutical drugs, and cleaning products can harm aquatic life and the quality of the water bodies they discharge to says Penn State. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reported that over 100 pharmaceutical and personal care products have been detected in drinking water samples. Poison Control reports that these concentrations have been proven to disrupt the endocrine balance in certain aquatic species and affect the natural reproductive, developmental, and behavioral hormones of these animals. As well, some male fish have been observed to develop feminine traits due to high estrogen concentrations in the water. It isn’t entirely known what the effect of these compounds can do to human health once the concentration rises enough.

Photo from National Geographic Magazine, April 2010.

Photo from National Geographic Magazine, April 2010.

According to Penn State, in the United States 35% of unused medicines are flushed down the toilet and 54% are discarded in the trash. Only 2% of pharmaceuticals are returned in a drug take-back program at the pharmacy where they were obtained and over 7% of the population leaves unwanted medicines in a cabinet to be dealt with later.

Nearly 99.9% of these chemicals are removed by wastewater treatment facilities but the constant accumulation of the .1% has added up to create a problem. The chemicals discarded to landfills decomposes over time and can eventually produce leachate. It’s impossible to detect concentrations of these harmful chemicals until they accumulate in billions of water molecules, meaning we must take action to reduce the contamination before it becomes worrisome.

Another way to protect our drinking water is to avoid flushing sanitary products and wet wipes. Wet wipes are not biodegradable like toilet paper is, and despite being labeled “flushable”, they collect in sewer systems and can harm marine life. The wipes form blockages called “fatbergs” in the underground pipe network and have been a problem in cities around the world reports National Geographic. These fatbergs can grow to be as big as cars and cause backups into oceans, rivers, and homes. Additionally, the products are often made up of micro-plastics which then get ingested by organisms and eventually make their way up the food chain to be ingested by humans.

Protecting source water can be as simple as cleaning storm drains on the side of the street. During heavy rainfall, Pittsburgh’s combined sewer system can only handle 1/10th of an inch of rainfall before the pressure in the treatment system mounts and raw effluent is released into our area’s river (link to previous article). By clearing a storm drain, you can eliminate excess debris from clogging the system and ultimately get released directly into the water we draw for drinking.

Additionally, implementing green infrastructure can reduce contamination and naturally filter water before it reaches waterways. Conserving water can reduce the demand for water treatment facilities and keep water in its natural ecosystem.

We are all responsible for protecting our source water as we all benefit from clean drinking water. By incorporating this advice into our lives, we can assist with the whole source water cycle, from the treatment process to the consumers.

Marissa Rollman