25 December 2016

Part 4 – Upstream: Tracing the Flow Our Tap Water

Most Americans are lucky enough to have access to some of the safest potable water in the world – just by turning on the tap. Tap water is an essential part of our daily lives. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American uses just over 100 gallons of water per day. Freshwater is consumed with every shower taken, every time someone brushes their teeth, each load of laundry and every cup of coffee. Yet, for something we use so automatically, most of us know very little about how water is handled on its way into our living, working and recreational spaces.

In our Tap Water & Infrastructure episode, Upstream, we seek out critical information about the water we drink and the many stakeholders involved in its care, transportation and consumption.


Surrounded by some of the largest sources of fresh water in the country, it’s ironic that the city of Flint Michigan has become synonymous with water contamination.

The government of Flint embarked on a cost-cutting measure, which ultimately led to the tragic pollution of its residents’ water. Flint officials planned to switch water sourcing from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) to Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA). The switch was projected to save the city $200 million dollars over 25 years. As the city worked on constructing a pipeline to KWA they used the Flint River as a temporary water source and failed to properly treat the water before pumping it through their infrastructure. This untreated water flowed to the residents of Flint Michigan who immediately complained about its smell and color. In the months to come, E. coli and coliform bacteria was detected. The city dumped more chlorine in the water to kill the bacteria, which resulted in high levels of TTHM, a byproduct that occurs when chlorine interacts with the organic matter in the water.

But perhaps the most dangerous and notorious problem the residents of Flint would deal with would be the corrosive properties of the hard water of the Flint River. In fact, the water was so corrosive General Motors stopped using it because it was destroying their machines. Imagine what it was doing to the older water pipes underground. Three months later, in January 2016, President Obama declared a state of emergency due to lead-laced tap water. The hard water was corroding the aging infrastructure of residential pipelines which exposed thousands of homes to the dangers of lead poisoning. An estimated 8000 children were exposed.

While researching the Flint Michigan Water Crisis, I came across an article written by Sara Ganim from CNN. In the article Sara states that, “More than 5,300 water systems in America are in violation of the EPA’s lead and copper rule, a federal regulation created to protect America’s drinking water from its aging infrastructure.” Their report reveals that the EPA is aware that many water utility companies cheat the system to avoid detecting high levels of lead, but still the EPA fails to act due to inadequate resources and cozy political relationships with local governments. Those figures were shocking, but what disturbed me the most about the article was that the city of Philadelphia was used as their “perfect example” of the EPA not stepping in.

Philadelphia is only about thirty five miles away from my house, so naturally this article sounded some alarms for me. I realized that I knew nothing about the history of the water that I am consuming. Where does it come from? Who am I trusting to keep me and the rest of my town safe? What can I do to improve the quality of the water that I use everyday?

As we fix our lenses on tap water and its infrastructure, we hope to unearth some answers to these critical questions.