Water Quality Map Highlights ‘Hot Spots’ of Violations

A survey of environmental violations shows US drinking water is among the best in the world, although poor, rural communities continue to face problems.

Placards posted above water fountains warn against drinking the water at Flint Northwestern High School in Flint, Michigan, May 4, 2016. | Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Placards posted above water fountains warn against drinking the water at Flint Northwestern High School in Flint, Michigan, May 4, 2016. | Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The good news: American drinking water is mostly fine.

But there are some pockets where water systems are racking up repeated violations of health standards and lack the money or support to fix them, according to a new survey of US Environmental Protection Agency data.

The study was spurred by the crisis that unfolded in Flint, Michigan, in 2015, lead author Maura Allaire told Seeker. Tainted water led to a spike in cases of lead poisoning and dozens of cases of Legionnaire’s disease, forcing residents to rely on bottled water and leading to criminal charges against several officials involved.

“I think like many folks, I was absolutely shocked that that could have happened in the US,“ said Allaire, a water economist at the University of California, Irvine. While situations like Flint are “relatively rare,” the data the study collected can help governments figure out where the problems are and how they might be addressed.

“Right now, there isn’t sort of a good way to prioritize additional regulatory action or prioritize who gets assistance,” she said.

Allaire and her colleagues combed through the list of health violations racked up by more than 17,000 community water systems for 34 years, from 1982 through 2014. On average, around 8 percent of water systems a year were cited for at least one violation. The number of people served by those systems ranged from 4 to 28 percent of Americans.

The systems most in need of that help are rural, poorer communities that lack the resources to properly treat their water, the study found. High levels of bacteria were the most common violations, followed closely by byproducts from the chlorine used to disinfect water — some of which are suspected carcinogens.

“It’s sort of a tricky balance for water utilities to strike,” she said. “We want to control the microbes that make us sick immediately, but we don’t want to put so much disinfect product in our systems that it leads to all these cancer-causing contaminants.”

Maura Allaire, University of California, Irvine assistant professor of urban planning & public policy | Steve Zylius/UCI

A much smaller number of systems were cited for high levels of arsenic, lead or copper, or nitrates. And patterns have shifted over the years as regulations have changed. In the early years of the study, California’s Central Valley farm belt used to post high numbers, particularly for nitrogen compounds, but that changed after tighter regulations took effect.

Today, the “hot spots” tend to be in the Midwest and southern Plains states. Currently, systems in Texas, Oklahoma, and Idaho are racking up the most violations.

“Another trend I found was that these places that are hot spots of violations and have increased time trends also have repeat violations,” Allaire said. “In a given utility, year after year, there are some utilities that continue to not meet national level standards, and that’s kind of concerning.”

While the study doesn’t delve deeply into the causes, Allaire said the source water in those areas, particularly in Oklahoma, is rich in organic material — including livestock manure. The states have high summertime temperatures. Those can combine to produce more disinfection byproducts, and the systems may not be treating their lines to counter that process.

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Smaller systems may need to consolidate with their neighbors or combine resources in other ways to improve their processes and reduce their violations, she said. And privately run systems had a narrow advantage over publicly operated ones.

“These larger private firms have a lot at stake if they’re serving their customers with poor quality of water,” she said. “They face this risk they could be taken over by the local municipality or they could be slapped with lawsuits.”

Contaminated water has been blamed for up to 16 million yearly cases of gastroenteritis, an intestinal inflammation that causes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Pollution or improper treatment can lead to crises like what happened in Flint. And other pollutants can cause long-term, chronic ailments like cancer or neurological diseases.

Allaire found the number of violations doubled over the course of the study period, mostly as regulations have grown to cover more pollutants — currently 91, up from 22 when Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974.

The findings were published February 12 in the research journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. If you’re curious about your own town, Allaire said, the EPA allows you to look up your local water service in its Safe Drinking Water Information System.But don’t be surprised if nothing turns up, she added.

“In general, the US has some of the best water quality in the world,” she said.