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How Can Municipal Water Systems Respond To Climate Change?

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Climate Change Demands Sustainable Water System Solutions

Across the United States, municipal water systems are a lifeline, providing safe drinking water to millions of people – or at least they’re supposed to. Unfortunately, we’ve seen that places like Flint, Michigan, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Newark, New Jersey, are just a few of the US cities with badly contaminated water. With climate change, the situation is only getting worse.

Faced with uncertain conditions and new environmental strains, municipal water systems must adapt, and they need to do so quickly. That includes identifying unique regional water issues, repairing structural issues, and ensuring access to this critical resource.

No Individual Solutions

As cities seek solutions to municipal water system issues, one of the first concerns they need to address is the matter of individual solutions, mainly, that they do more harm than good. That means that individual households shouldn’t have to rely on bottled water or in-home filters. Those are band-aids on a more serious problem and an undue burden on the most vulnerable. The WATER Act represents the first steps toward such a systemic solution.

With proposals in both the House and Senate, the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity, and Reliability (WATER) Act of 2019 would commit $35 billion to national water infrastructure improvements. It would allow cities to address their broken water systems, whether they experience infrastructural issues like old pipes that leach chemicals and can’t support current population levels, or environmental issues, like the impact of fire and higher temperatures on water systems. The WATER Act recognizes that safe drinking water solutions are an issue of equality.

Focusing On Innovation

Cities are going to need innovators on their side to address previously unseen water system issues. Unfortunately, cities – and government more generally – aren’t good at this creative problem-solving. Instead, they tend to replicate solutions across differing circumstances, leading to subpar results. Independent companies like Evoqua, however, are incentivized to think outside the box. That’s why they’re well-positioned to develop sustainable drinking water treatment systems, even under emergent conditions.

An Array Of Emergencies

What types of crises will municipal water treatment programs need to address to secure safe drinking water for populations across the country? The problems cover a shockingly extreme set of situations, including:

Toxic Algae Blooms: Lake Erie provides drinking water for 400,000 people, specifically those in the Toledo, Ohio municipal system, so when the lake was overtaken by toxic algae blooms in 2014, all of those individuals were without drinking water for three days. That may not seem like very long, particularly as a one-time occurrence. Still, the unseen problem is that these blooms are getting bigger and more dangerous each year due to soil erosion, sewage dumping, and rising temperatures. Protecting Lake Erie as a water source, then, requires not just addressing the lake’s conditions, but also farming practices, land integrity, and other concerns.

Insufficient Sewage Capacity: Major cities have seen substantial growth since their sewer systems were constructed, and many, including Bayonne in New Jersey, have outgrown their sewage capacity. It means that, during heavy rains, the city expels both human and industrial waste into local estuaries. Compared to other cities, this represents a largely straight-forward infrastructure issue. Still, looking ahead, designers hope to develop a sewage system that not only has greater capacity but also includes green elements like rain gardens that provide an ecological benefit.

  • Wildfire Contamination: While wildfires may not seem like the most immediate threat to our water systems, what California’s recent infernos have revealed is that wildfires can damage drinking water years after the initial event. Burned infrastructure releases chemicals into the groundwater, lack of soil cover leads to erosion, and poor shade causes waterway temperatures to increase. It’s a complex threat that not only pollutes water but suffocates fish and increases bacterial growth in the water. As is so often the case with environmental issues, we need to address the interlocking problems to protect our water system.

Faced with such enormously different problems, municipal water systems will need private partners willing to rethink the norms of waste treatment, infrastructure design, and more. Moreover, it’s going to require funding – fast. Drinking water is a critical resource, and failure to address these systems could place millions in jeopardy.

Like everyone else, I am a child of the earth. I love my animals, and I love the environment. As modernization pushes us forward and introduces us to an exciting new world filled with advanced technology, it is easy to forget about.

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