Water: Leak Detection, Safety, Problems and Conservation

7 Reasons We’re Facing a Global Water Crisis

What are they up against this year? Here’s a quick rundown on the growing global water crisis.

1) We’re Changing the Climate, Making Dry Areas Drier and Precipitation More Variable and Extreme.

Climate change is warming the planet, making the world’s hottest geographies even more scorching. At the same time, clouds are moving away from the equator toward the poles, due to a climate-change driven phenomenon called Hadley Cell expansion. This deprives equatorial regions like sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Central America of life-giving rainwater.

Paradoxically, climate change is also increasing precipitation in other areas, and people who live near rivers and streams have the most to lose. Currently, at least 21 million people worldwide are at risk of river flooding each year. That number could increase to 54 million by 2030. All countries with the greatest exposure to river floods are least developed or developing countries – which makes them even more vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters. This summer, extreme flooding submerged over a third of Bangladesh, claiming over 115 lives and affecting 5.7 million citizens.

2) More People + More Money = More Water Demand.

It’s a simple equation: As populations increase and incomes grow, so does water demand. The world’s population, now at 7.5 billion, is projected to add 2.3 billion more people by 2050. How can the planet satisfy their thirst? Growing incomes also exacerbate the water problem, because of the water-intensive products—like meatand energy from fossil fuels—that richer populations demand.

3) Groundwater Is Being Depleted.

About 30 percent of Earth’s fresh water lies deep underground in aquifers. And it’s extracted daily for farming, drinking and industrial processes – often at dangerously unsustainable rates. Nowhere is this more evident than India, which guzzles more groundwater than any other country. 54 percent of India’s groundwater wells are decreasing, meaning that water is used faster than it’s replenished. Unless patterns shift, in 20 years, 60 percent of India’s aquifers will be in critical condition.

Unlike an incoming hurricane or a drained lake, the naked eye cannot see when groundwater reserves in aquifers are declining. Global water supplies are susceptible to this hidden and growing threat.

4) Water Infrastructure Is in a Dismal State of Disrepair.

Having enough water to go around is only the beginning. That water also needs to be transported, treated, and discharged. Around the world, water infrastructure―treatment plants, pipes, and sewer systems―is in a state of disrepair. In the United States, 6 billion gallons of treated water are lost per dayfrom leaky pipes alone. Built infrastructure is notoriously expensive to install and repair, meaning that many localities ignore growing infrastructure issues until disaster strikes, as it did in California earlier this year.

5) And Natural Infrastructure Is Being Ignored.

<p>Heavy machinery removing trees in Ecuador. Flickr/CIFOR</p> Heavy machinery removing trees in Ecuador. Flickr/CIFOR

Healthy ecosystems are ” natural infrastructure” and vital to clean, plentiful water. They filter pollutants, buffer against floods and storms, and regulate water supply. Plants and trees are essential for replenishing groundwater; without them, rainfall will slide across dry land, instead of seeping into the soil. Loss of vegetation from deforestation, overgrazing and urbanization is limiting our natural infrastructure and the benefits that it provides. Forested watersheds around the world are under threat: watersheds have lost up to 22 percent of their forests in the past 14 years.

6) Water Is Wasted.

Although it’s true that water is a renewable resource, it’s often wasted. Inefficient practices like flood irrigation and water-intensive wet cooling at thermal power plants use more water than necessary. What’s more, as we pollute our available water at an alarming rate, we also fail to treat it. About 80 percent of the world’s wastewater is discharged back into nature without further treatment or reuse. In many countries, it’s cheaper to receive clean drinking water than to treat and dispose of wastewater, which encourages water waste. This brings us to the next issue:

7) The Price Is Wrong.

Globally, water is seriously undervalued. Its price does not reflect the true, total cost of service, from its transport via infrastructure to its treatment and disposal. This has led to misallocation of water, and a lack of investments in infrastructure and new water technologies that use water more efficiently. After all, why would a company or government invest in expensive water-saving technologies, when water is cheaper than the technology in question? When the price of receiving clean water is closer to its actual service cost, efficient water use will be incentivized. And on the flip side, the poor often end up paying disproportionately high prices for water, stunting development.

It’s Not Too Late

Amidst these seven deadly water sins, there is good news: governments, businesses, universities and citizens around the world are waking up to water challenges, and beginning to take action. Each year brings more solutions – like using wastewater for energy, using restoration to bring water back to dry topographies, and monitoring groundwater levels more closely. However, even the best solutions will not implement themselves. Along with fresh water, political will and public pressure are critical resources in ensuring a sustainable future for all.

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Research casts doubt on EPA drinking water standard

More than 5 million Americans get their drinking water from public water systems that could contain hazardous levels of a chemical called nitrate, which is linked to public health risks — including cancer and birth defects. And the concentrations found in the vast majority of that drinking water would be deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to a study published this month in the journal Environmental Health.

Nitrate occurs naturally in soil, water, and food. But when it is ingested, it can react with organic compounds in the body to form carcinogens.

A team of researchers at environmental health advocacy groups looked into nearly 40,000 public water systems that between 2010 and 2014 served 70 percent of Americans. They found that more than 1,600 of the systems they reviewed had average nitrate concentrations of at least 5 parts per million.

While that amount is just one-half of the level that the Environmental Protection Agency deems safe to drink, the lead study author told Grist that there is evidence that the federal standards may be outdated.

“The EPA is very slow in updating drinking water standards,” said lead author Laurel Schaider, a research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute, a non-profit research group in Massachusetts that studies the effects of chemicals on women’s health. In fact, just this week, Politico reported that the EPA won’t place federal limits on two chemicals associated with cancer and other health issues in drinking water — despite lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pressuring Andrew Wheeler, the agency’s acting administrator, to take action.

The EPA established 10 parts per million as its regulatory standard for nitrate in 1991 primarily to protect infants from “blue baby syndrome.” The syndrome, which can impact infants who are fed formula mixed with nitrate-contaminated water, causes a drop in in the amount of hemoglobin in the blood, which cuts the babies’ oxygen intake.

It’s unclear whether the EPA is considering revising its safety standard. In a December 2016 review of drinking water standards, it designated nitrate as “not appropriate for review at this time.” But in September 2017, the agency released a draft plan to reassess the health effects of nitrate, noting that health studies published since 1991 had called into question whether the EPA’s current maximum nitrate contaminant levels “provide adequate health protection for the general population.” The EPA declined to provide a comment to Grist.

Several studies have documented increased health risks — ranging from colorectal cancer, thyroid disease, and birth defects affecting the brain, spine, or spinal cord — stemming from elevated nitrate levels, even at concentrations below current federal regulatory limits. For example, a 2013 study of more than 4,000 mothers found that women who consumed water with levels well below the EPA limit were roughly twice as likely to deliver babies with birth defects. And a 2010 study of more than 21,000 women in Iowa documented an increased risk of thyroid cancer for people exposed to nitrate levels in public water supplies that were greater than 5 ppm for five or more years.

Although 99 percent of water systems surveyed in the Silent Spring Institute’s analysis showed nitrate levels below the EPA’s 10-ppm standard, 129 community water systems serving 144,000 Americans had an average nitrate concentration surpassing that upper limit. Private drinking wells weren’t included in this study, but are often located in rural and agricultural areas, where that study shows there tends to be more nitrates that can seep into the groundwater.

The biggest culprit for nitrate contamination is runoff from fertilizers or manure. That could point to why states in the West and Midwest, home to eight of the top 10 agriculture-producing states, had higher levels. The increased use of fertilizers, more prominent fossil-fuel combustion, and the growing popularity of nitrogen-fixing crops like soybeans have led to a doubling of the natural rate at which nitrogen is deposited into land since the 1920s.

Schaider’s team also found that water systems that served populations with a larger proportion of Hispanic people tended to have higher levels of nitrates. The researchers hypothesized that the correlation was due to the group’s association with agricultural work. But Hispanic residents didn’t appear to have high exposure to nitrates in the Midwest, suggesting a different explanation for the community’s outsized link to nitrates in their water.

Mary Ward, a senior investigator at the Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology Branch at the National Cancer Institute and a leading expert on nitrates, lauded the new research, which relied on publicly available data collected by EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act, as the first assessment of the U.S. population’s potential exposure to nitrates through their public tap water.

Since most health studies on nitrate to date have focused on populations using public water supplies, a majority of the findings are for exposures below the EPA’s maximum contaminant level, said Ward. After all, public water utilities are mandated to provide drinking water that meets EPA safe-drinking standards.

Ward adds a note of caution when it comes to raising the alarm on nitrate levels below that current standard: “We need additional studies,” she wrote to Grist in an email. “The number of well-designed studies of these health outcomes are still too few to draw firm conclusions about risk.”

The study authors write that the issue merits further study, since nitrate has also been found to occur alongside other pollutants present in drinking water, including arsenic, pesticides, and other chemicals used to filter water. Robust monitoring of nitrate, the say, could be one way to improve water quality overall.

by Justine Calma | Jan 29, 2019

This Simple Box Serves Up Running Water And Clean Electricity In Remote Locations

Off Grid Box, an Italian startup, was founded to bring clean water and renewable energy to the millions of the people in the world who still live without. The box itself is a simple container, measuring six by six by six feet. With solar panels on top and water treatment inside, it can help remote communities with both off-grid energy and easily accessible filtered water. Founder and CEO Emiliano Cecchini has sold a few of the units, but he worries he’s not yet found the formula to take his invention to scale.

After three years on the market, Off Grid Box is a trusted enough product that 28 individuals and organizations have bought the container at $15,000 and up. Half the units went to nonprofits in Madagascar, Nigeria, Rwanda, Colombia, and elsewhere; another half to “cool guys that had a camper in the middle of nowhere, who want to be green, cool, resilient,” says Cecchini. One washed away to the Pacific Ocean: a unit that sat on the shore of Bantayan Island, in the Philippines, until it was caught by a 2014 typhoon.

“It’s not easy to find the right financing strategy, mentors, and accelerator programs.” [Photo: Off Grid Box]

But Cecchini, who is Italian, doesn’t feel the startup is yet at a point where it can ramp up sales and production, and get itself on stable financial footing. Selling one unit at a time isn’t particularly profitable (including after-sales) and it doesn’t get enough Off Grid Boxes out there in the world. “We’re looking for the next system to scale,” he says. “The idea came three years ago and, yeah, we’re kind of struggling to make it bigger. Back in Italy, it’s not easy to find the right financing strategy, mentors, and accelerator programs.”

Off Grid Box was recently selected for the 2017 cohort of the Mass Challenge accelerator program, in Boston, where Cecchini will hone a new business model. Instead of selling units to cool guys and NGOs, it now plans to install them where they are needed and then charge end-customers for access. For a few cents a day, people will able access clean water and clean power at a station continually attended by local people. “The new model is pay-as-you-go micro-payments, local contractors, and local empowerment,” Cecchini says.

The new business model is getting a thorough test in Rwanda, where the startup plans to install units in 18 villages. The government has commissioned 14 contractors to work on rural electrification, and Off Grid Box is partnered with three of them so far, Cecchini says. By 2020, it hopes to be serving 420,000 end-customers.
“The new model is pay-as-you-go micro-payments, local contractors, and local empowerment.” [Image: Off Grid Box]

Inside the container is a five-stage micro-filtration tank that takes in dirty water and produces an odorless, transparent, bacteria-free drinkable water, Cecchini says. A family of four pays 12 U.S. cents (100 Rwandan Francs) to fill up with enough water for the day. At the same time, each unit has solar panels sufficient to allow 300 families battery packs subsidized by the startup. These hold enough power to run three LED lights for four hours and to charge two mobile phones.While in the U.S., Cecchini is signing up impact investors and donors, who can monitor their projects remotely and online. Each installation costs about $15,000–which comes out of a joint financing pool. He thinks the units can generate 10% profitability and that there will be further revenue opportunities to grow the business in the future. Ideally, the boxes will become community hubs, with Wi-Fi and associated commercial activity. “Once we add connectivity and we have people attending all day, we have a strong financial business model. The Wi-Fi opens up services that could be backed by venture capital.”

As West Grows, Water Use Declines Thanks To Better Toilets

by Luke Runyon

Throughout the western U.S., water conservation is in the toilet.

And that’s a good thing.

Since the 1990s, a strange phenomenon has played out in arid western urban areas. Populations are booming while overall water use is staying the same or going down.The trend is clear in Denver, Albuquerque, N.M., Las Vegas, San Diego and Phoenix: Cities are growing and using less water in the process.

It’s impossible to give credit to one single solution, but one could make a strong case that the MVP award for water conservation efforts should go to the modern toilet.

The toilet is the single largest user of water in the home. It uses more than the washing machine, the dishwasher, the shower or the kitchen faucet. About a quarter of all water that enters a home will flow through the toilet according to a 2016 study. Each day the average toilet will use about 33 gallons of water.

That might sound like a lot, but it’s a big improvement. In 1999 the average toilet guzzled more than 45 gallons of water daily.

The story of how the toilet became the unsung hero of water conservation includes an act of Congress, some elbow grease and logs of miso paste.

Out with the old

Theresa MacFarland lives in a historic two-story house in Longmont, Colo., with her husband and two kids. Built in 1928, their home has all the vintage touches: hardwood floors, big windows, wood detailing and one really old toilet.

A little stamp on the bowl says it was built in the 1950s. MacFarland points it out to her 4-year-old daughter Althea.

“That toilet has been there longer than daddy and I have been alive,” she says. “Probably longer than grandma and grandpa have been alive.”

Resource Central employees Max Hartmann (left) and Neka Sunlin haul the MacFarland family’s vintage toilet out of their Longmont, Colorado home.
Luke Runyon/Freelance

As aging toilets are wont to do, it started acting up. So MacFarland contacted Resource Central, a Boulder-based conservation group and asked for help installing a new, more water-friendly model. Neka Sunlin showed up with the latest in toilet technology. Sunlin oversees the group’s toilet replacement program, Flush for the Future.

“We guesstimate this one is using about five gallons a flush,” she says about the old toilet. “The new one uses less than one.”

In Sunlin’s years with Resource Central, this is the oldest toilet she’s condemned to the local recycling center. By swapping it out, the McFarland family could see a dip in their water bill, she says.

A fast-growing alternative to high-priced Boulder, the city of Longmont has an interest in what happens in the MacFarland family bathroom. Water saved from their home is water that can be put to use somewhere else.

That’s why the city, along with a handful of other water providers on Colorado’s Front Range, subsidizes the cost of high-efficiency toilets. MacFarland is paying $175 for the new toilet, the cost of installation and removal of the old one. Her new model retails for $160.

Sunlin says it’s an easy switch with a big pay off. With other conservation programs you first have to convince people to use less water.

“But a toilet is a toilet,” she says, “and it’s no behavior change whatsoever. You literally just save water with every flush.”

In the last three years Resource Central has upgraded 2,000 toilets, which calculates out to 500 million gallons of water saved when looking at the average lifespan of the toilet of 30 years.

“Most people don’t realize that if their toilet is more than 10 or 15 years old, replacing their toilet or upgrading their toilet is one of the most impactful ways they can save water,” says Neal Lurie, president of Resource Central.

The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides support for public radio member station KUNC’s water reporting.

“It can save between 200 and 300,000 gallons of water over the life of that toilet,” he says.

In with the new

The road to high-efficiency toilets began back in 1992. The concern was less about water scarcity in the West and more about overwhelmed sewage systems on the East Coast.

Congress was feeling pressure to pass national standards for water use and came up with the Energy Policy Act, a law that spawned a generation of low-flow fixtures.

For the plumbing industry, it was a huge deal.

“Absolutely, it was an extremely watershed moment, no pun intended,” says Pete DeMarco with the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials.

The law mandated that toilets flush using 1.6 gallons of water or less. Throughout the 1990s, low-flush toilets flooded the market. But the results were not always satisfactory.

DeMarco says users hated the new models. They complained that their “new and improved” toilets performed worse than the old ones, unable to finish the job in a single flush.

“There were some poor-performing products back in the mid-90s. I think the regulation caught some manufacturers off guard,” he says.

In many cases, DeMarco says, manufacturers had simply reduced the amount of water a toilet used without making significant changes to the inner workings. A lower flow just couldn’t cut it.

Frustrated customers sent toilet-makers back to the drawing board and manufacturers came up with a test to demonstrate flushing effectiveness for new toilets. The test came from a company called Maximum Performance. Using logs of miso paste in the toilets, the test allowed manufacturers to demonstrate that their new low-flow toilets could actually evacuate the bowl with one flush.

Indoor water use drops

DeMarco says toilets can’t take all the credit, but this one innovation is a big reason why cities have been able to grow and still keep their water use in check. Indoor use dropped 22 percent nationwide between 1999 and 2016, much of that due to swapping out old fixtures.

In recent years some states with water scarcity problems — like Colorado and California — have passed even tighter regulations on how much water toilets can use.

“So you basically have these high-efficiency toilets now as a matter of course. You cannot go out in a store in Colorado, in California, and buy an old toilet,” says Drew Beckwith, a water policy expert who works in suburban Denver.

Beckwith says conservationists have been a victim of their own success. With national standards in place and active replacement programs throughout the country, there’s not much more they can do to limit water use inside homes. All new residential developments are putting in high-efficiency toilets because there’s no other option on the market. And when old models need replacing in existing homes, the only available option is a high-efficiency toilet.

“We’ve sort of done our business with respect to toilets,” Beckwith says. “And it’s time to, you know, maybe get off the pot and move on to outdoor water use which is more the focus of urban water efficiency today.”

Fixing the flush

Back at the MacFarland home, the toilet transition is complete. The nearly 70-year-old toilet is loaded on a van bound for the recycling plant. The brand new high-efficiency toilet is hooked up and the water is flowing.

“This is going to be a huge improvement,” Theresa MacFarland says. “And it feels like with very little effort, which I’m very excited about.”

Even though some conservationists say much of the indoor water use fruit has been plucked, a 2017 Alliance for Water Efficiency study found that more than 13 million non-efficient toilets — those that flush more than 1.6 gallons — remain in five states, including those with the toughest restrictions: California and Colorado.

A nationwide push to rid the country of old toilets could have a significant effect.

If all toilets were high-efficiency, indoor water use could drop an additional 35 percent to below 40 gallons per person per day, the study projected.

MacFarland says she loves the character and charm of her historic home, and she’s focused on making it environmentally-friendly. But it takes time, energy and money to make it happen.

“We’ve been slowly trying to figure out ways to have just less water usage in this home,” she says. “Knowing in Colorado it’s such a precious resource, and we want our kids to grow up here and also recognize what comes with living in Colorado and trying to do our part.”

The Resource Central technicians ask for a practice flush to make sure it’s working right before they depart. The honor of the first flush goes to McFarland’s daughter Althea.

“Check it out. There’s this new button,” MacFarland says as she motions to her daughter. “Kind of the same as the other one, except inside the tank this is so different than the other one. This one just uses a little bit of water.”

“And it’s cleaner,” Althea says.

“And it’s cleaner, way cleaner,” MacFarland says.

This story is part of a collaborative series from the Colorado River Reporting Projectat KUNC and Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between public radio and TV stations in the west.

How to test your tap water for lead

Nearly half of Americans suspect that their water might be unsafe. 

This article helps you understand the cause of lead in water and shares some lead test kits to identify the presence of lead.

By Kendra Pierre-Louis

People don’t trust the water that comes out of their tap, and not just in places without adequate sanitation. A 2016 survey by The Meyocks Group, an Iowa-based marketing firm, found that 43 percent of Americans either believe their tap water is unsafe to drink or are unsure of its safety.

In the wake of the Flint water crisis, that fear isn’t wholly unexpected. The city’s troubles began when the state switched the water supply from Lake Huron to the notoriously polluted Flint River, failing to properly treat it to kill pathogens and prevent lead pipe erosion. But the mistrust came when—as residents complained of foul water, disease, and even death—the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality continued to claim that the water was safe.

Luckily, homeowners who suspect that their drinking water might be contaminated have more options than ever before. In New York, for instance, folks can order a free at-home testing kit. And most hardware stores offer a similar system for purchase. We pitted those up against a new product called Tap Score to see just how accurate—and easy to understand—the results are.

How good is New York City tap water?

Most NYC locals claim to guzzle some of the best water in the country. To hear them talk, you would think the city’s soft water begins in a mythical land known as “upstate,” where it’s filtered through pristine forests and a unicorn’s mane before it descends onto the city, via a canal of pure angelic light, to create the best bagels, pizza, and drinking water known to human kind.

An Environmental Working Group (EWG) analysis of 100 municipal tap water systems found that New York City had six contaminants at levels above the health guidelines established by either a federal or state authority (though lead wasn’t among them). EWG, it should be noted, has been criticized in the past for overstating chemical risks, especially those related to food and drink. That said, EGW’s overall assessment of New York City’s tap water as compared to the rest of the country is… well, it falls short of the fantasy set by locals, but the tap is just fine.

How good is our water, really?

Popular Science’s commerce editor Billy Cadden lives in an older part of the city than I do, where buildings are more likely to use lead somewhere in their plumbing system—it’s been phased out ever since scientists confirmed how dangerous the metal can be.

“Even though the town might say, look, there’s no in the water, they then put it into a distribution system,” says Mark Burns, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan. “That distribution system goes through many different pipes, across many different joints—that are connected by many different materials—and then it gets to your glass.”

So Billy opened his home (and his taps) to three tests.

two bottles on a table

These are the collection bottles that New York City sends out. We’ve blurred out the potentially identifying information.

Kendra Pierre-Louis

Our results

Testing for lead in New York City

Using the free service from New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection proved pretty straightforward. First, you abstain from water use in your home for 12 hours—there’s generally more lead in the liquid if your pipes have settled a bit. You then fill collection bottle one (the yellow bottle) and let the pipes flush for one to two minutes before filling bottle two (the red one). You bundle the whole thing up in a package and mail it back. We got the results about three weeks later.

The city found that the first draw had 1 microgram of lead per liter, well below the federal action level of 15 micrograms per liter. The second draw, after Billy had let the water flow for a bit, had no detectable lead at all. The test was reassuring, though the results were in a form letter that wasn’t exactly user-friendly.

But in the wake of Flint, many people are understandably distrusting of reassurances from government agencies. How could we know the test was accurate? Then there’s the fact that the test only looks for lead; it may be a hot-button contaminant right now, but there are certainly other things that could make your tap water unsafe.

Home Testing

Our second round used a “First Alert” home test (sold online and in many hardware stores) that promised to detect not only lead, but also bacteria, pesticides, nitrates, chlorine, hardness, and pH. If you have lead pipes, acidic water can cause the lead to leach out. That’s essentially what happened in Flint. Because water managers failed to add an anti-corrosive agent (as a cost-cutting measure), water from the Flint River ate away at the pipes and pulled lead into the drinking supply.

Contaminants are broken down into individual tests, each requiring a separate vial of water or testing strip. Like the test done by the city, we were in the clear for lead. We also came up either negative or within normal range for everything else, which certainly suggests that Billy can continue to happily drink his tap water.

This test certainly gets points for immediate gratification. With the exception of the bacterial test, which took 48 hours, we didn’t have to wait more than 10 minutes for any result. For less than $15 on Amazon, it’s a good option for someone looking for quick reassurance.

Tap Score

Of the three tests that we took, Tap Score was the easiest. It also had the most comprehensive results, including measurements for things like copper (which only makes you sick at very high levels, but can kill your goldfish at a much lower threshold), hexachlorobutadiene (which can affect the kidneys), and isopropylbenzene (which may increase risk of cancer). But Billy did not dig the delayed gratification.

With Tap Score, you have to fill two vials—much smaller than the ones the city had sent—mail them off, and wait for them to get back to you. Still, it was fun getting a cheerful email telling us that our water ranked in the 99th percentile for tap water quality.

“You’re living in the best possible scenario,” says John Pujol, who created Tap Score with his company Simplewater. “You have this fantastic water system in New York City, a big, rich, dense population where people are actively on top of problems. That’s a luxury. But for 20 to 30 percent of Americans that live in communities that are much smaller, either these issues never emerge—so the water system doesn’t feel the heat to solve problems—or it does emerge, and you have a water system that knows it has a problem but doesn’t have the funding to fix it.”

The goal of Tap Score isn’t really to test water like New York’s, but for small municipal systems and the 40 to 50 million people who are on wells, and maybe wouldn’t ordinarily get their water tested—or know what to do with the results.

“It’s really the interpretation of the water that other tests lack that sets Tap Score apart,” says Pujol. “If it’s a municipality, they’re only going to test your water for certain controlled substances that are managed by the EPA, but those are by no means the full set of parameters anymore. It’s been around 10 years since the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has introduced any new standards.”

In the interim, companies have introduced thousands of new potential contaminants.

“So, what we seek to do is not just test for those regulated contaminants, but go a little bit further and test for pharmaceutical compounds,” says Pujol. “We test for unregulated but potentially dangerous compounds that are on the contaminate candidate list. These are contaminants which the EPA is looking at, but it’s going to take them 10 years to come to any decision.” 

If your test turns up positive, Tap Score offers you potential solutions. But it also costs at least a hundred bucks, and prices are higher for the most comprehensive tests.

Should I test my water for lead?

If you’re at all uncertain of your water’s safety—and you live in New York State—nabbing a free testing kit is a no-brainer. If your state doesn’t offer testing for free, consider investing in a $15 kit to ease your mind. The redundancies between our three results certainly suggest that all of the options we tried are fairly accurate, so if spending 100-200 dollars on a testing kit sounds like overkill, it probably is. But if you live in a town where municipal testing is infrequent—or if you get your water from a well you’ve never tested—it might be worth upgrading to a test that’s as comprehensive and user-friendly as Tap Score.

Can the private sector save America’s aging water systems?

Increasingly, it is a private company, a shift from the mostly public ownership of the systems used to provide drinking water and remove waste that has prevailed in the U.S. since the early 1900s.

In the first half of 2017, companies spent, or planned to spend, about $2 billion in a total of 53 deals involving water and wastewater utilities. The biggest, energy giant Eversource’s recent $1.7 billion acquisition of water company Aquarion in New England, is still pending, according to Bluefield Research. And the Boston-based consulting and research firm expects that trend only to accelerate in the years ahead. 

The reason: Many cash-strapped towns, cities and counties around the country can no longer afford to provide water to residents, overwhelmed by the challenge of repairing aging infrastructure and a decades-long decline in federal funding.

water-ownership-qgwu5.png
 

While the money spent to privatize water facilities may seem relatively modest, given the US has roughly 78,000 community water and wastewater systems, it’s noticeable, according to Bluefield president Reese Tisdale. In part, that’s because of the enormous opportunity for private investment in water, which Bluefield pegs at $728 billion. 

“There seems to be no shortage of interest, and capital for that matter,” he said. “Rather, the challenge for new market entrants, particularly for those looking to secure a platform from which to grow, is scale. Big deals are difficult to find.”

Most Americans today are served by publicly owned water and wastewater systems, with small percentages direct wells or cooperatives. Bluefield estimates about 15 percent are owned by private players. An estimated 268 million people relied on public-supply water for their household use in 2010, or about 86 percent of the total population, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. 

That wasn’t always the case. As cities were growing in the 1800s, many relied on nearby rivers, surface water and local wells, often on private property and sometimes contaminated. Then, led by New York in 1842, major cities began to fund water sources from outside their own limits and began running their own systems. 

Still, until it was discovered that untreated water carried disease in the 1850s, most water went untreated. By the turn of the century, demand for safe water was increasing. Cities like Los Angeles began building large pipelines to supply otherwise arid areas. The federal government didn’t get involved in funding infrastructure until the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. Later, when President Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, water quality standards began to be enforced at the federal level. 

Beyond repairing old pipes and other infrastructure, a number of factors have municipalities looking for ways to fund, or even replace, their systems. 

Perhaps most important, millions of consumers face sharply higher water rates, putting pressure on public officials to respond. The combined water and wastewater bill for a typical U.S. household is up 18.5 percent since 2012, or 4.4 percent per year on average, according to Bluefield. And a recent Michigan State University study found the percentage of U.S. households who will find water bills unaffordable could triple, from 11.9 percent to 35.6 percent, in the next five years.

Another factor: Many systems are falling apart. If water main breaks now seem commonplace, that’s because they are. An estimated 240,000 occur every year in the US, according to the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released earlier this year.

In recent months, breaks in BrooklynDetroit, Chicago, BostonSan Diego and Lincoln, Nebraska, have all made headlines. That’s because many of the country’s nearly 1 million miles of pipes were laid in the early to mid-20th century, with such infrastructure having a typical lifespan of 75 to 100 years. The ASCE gives the drinking water infrastructure a D grade.

Despite the urgency of making these fixes, the federal government is now less likely to help with the cost. U.S. funding for water utilities peaked in 1976 at $16.9 billion and has since dropped to $4.3 billion in 2014, according to Bluefield. Meanwhile, public water systems also are facing more environmental pressures, with 5,300 in the U.S. listed with serious system violations. 

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For revenue-starved local governments, then, selling a water system to a private company, either to own or operate, can present a way to solve a debt problem and pay for repairs. It can also eliminate a cost that competes with fire, police and schools.

Since 2013, Missouri, Illinois, New Jersey, Indiana, Pennsylvania have joined California to make it easier for private companies to consider investing in water facilities with legislation that puts a “fair market value” on systems.

“There are more dollars going into the utility network than there used to be,” Tisdale said.

States in the mid-Atlantic region have the greatest rate of private water system ownership. Texas and Pennsylvania are also hot spots for acquisitions, with 90 pending and completed deals in 2017, according to the Bluefield report.

Yet buying a system often isn’t easy, even for a large, established company. Another obstacle often comes in the form of community opposition, with residents bristling at the idea of a private company owning what’s largely seen as public service. That can make purchases long and contentious.

Just this month, New Jersey towns Long Hill and High Bridge rejected a plan to turn their water system over to New Jersey American Water, the state’s largest utility, according to Food and Water Watch, a public advocacy group that opposes private ownership.

Privatizing a system can result in higher rates and loss of public control, Food and Water Watch argued.

“Instead of rubber stamping a buyout, town leaders should now begin a thorough and transparent process to explore all the available options for properly investing in the system while maintaining public ownership and control,” the group said on its website.

But others strike a deal its residents see as palatable. In West Milford, New Jersey, voters earlier this month approved a sale of the township’s Municipal Utilities Authority to Suez Water New Jersey for $12.5 million, according to the Milford Messenger. Funds will go to pay off the township’s debt.

America has a water crisis no one is talking about

Outdated infrastructure is making water too expensive for millions of families.

Updated by

Access to clean water is a basic human right. Yet for 14 million US households, or 12 percent of homes, water bills are too expensive. And as the cost of water rises, even more Americans are at risk of not being able to pay their monthly water bill.

According to a paper from researchers at Michigan State University, water prices will have to increase by 41 percent in the next five years to cover the costs of replacing aging water infrastructure and adapting to climate change. That will mean that nearly 41 million households — or a staggering third of all US households — may not be able to afford water for drinking, bathing, and cooking by 2020.

There is no law that guarantees water access for poor Americans. And most financial assistance is left to the discretion of individual water utilities. So customers who have fallen behind in payments can have their water services abruptly shut off.

More than 50,000 households in Detroit have lost water services since 2014 because they couldn’t pay their bills. Flint, Michigan, which is still in the throes of a lead poisoning crisis, is now threatening to terminate water services for more than 8,000 people who haven’t paid their bill.

 

But it’s not just the Michigan urban poor who are at risk.

Map of census tracts where water bills eat up a large portion of people’s income

The researchers found thousands of other census tracts around the US where the median income was low enough to put people at risk of not be able to afford their water bills as water prices continue to rise.

The Environmental Protection Agency has recommended that water and wastewater services should not make up more than 4.5 percent of a household’s income. So the researchers considered places where the median income was less than $32,000 in 2014 to be high risk (in dark blue), while places where the median incomes range from $32,000 to $45,120 (in light blue) were at risk. In all, we’re looking at a huge number of areas across the US where millions of households are struggling to pay their water bill.

 

A third of American households might be unable to pay their water bill by 2020

According to the American Water Works Association, on average we pay less than half a penny for a gallon of water. But “it doesn’t mean there aren’t families that struggle to pay,” said Greg Kail, the communications director at AWWA.

And people in poorer states like Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Kentucky, and Arkansas are especially at risk of not being able to pay their water bills, according to Elizabeth Mack, a researcher at Michigan State and the co-author of the paper, which appeared online in the journal PLOS One. In Mississippi, nearly 75 percent of the state was either at high risk or at risk. But the problem wasn’t concentrated in just rural areas either. Mack also found 81 percent of high-risk census tracts were located in metropolitan areas.

And if water rates increase by 41 percent in the next five years (as Mack thinks they will), the number of households unable to pay their water bill will nearly triple, from 14 million to 41 million.

The 6 percent increase reflects the actual change in water costs between 2014 and 2015, and the 41 percent increase is how much water prices rose from 2010 to 2015. (Mack is assuming water rates will increase at the same clip as they did from 2010 to 2015 and that median household income will remain flat — reasonable considering household income has seen no real growth in the past 20 years.)

 

“I don’t know why people haven’t paid more attention to this,” she said.

The huge costs of repairing water infrastructure is forcing water rates up

After World War II, America went on something of an infrastructure kick, building an expansive network of water pipes in cities across the country. But now these pipes are more than 60 years old and in many instances are in desperate need of repair.

Federal funding for water infrastructure has fallen from more than 60 percent in the late 1970s to just 9 percent now. And civil engineers estimate the price tag for overhauling America’s drinking water system and bringing it up to code will be at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years. Add to that the estimated $14 billion to $26 billion needed to adapt water systems to climate change by 2050.

Tracy Mehan, executive director of government affairs at AWWA, has pushed for an increase in federal funding but says we can’t avoid higher water rates. “We’ve coasted for decades in most places around the country. Our rates are half that of northern European cities,” he said. “Rates are going up and need to go up.”

Just how far up? Mack thinks annual water bills will increase by nearly $600 over the next five years to around $2,000, or $169 per month. (The average annual bill is currently $1,440, or $120 a month.)

 

What’s more, Mack says her estimates are conservative compared with those of Circle of Blue, a nonprofit focused on issues of water affordability. Circle of Blue found cities like Austin; Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago; San Francisco; and Tucson, Arizona, all experienced water rate hikes greater than 50 percent within the past five years.

Here’s Circle of Blue’s map of water prices in 30 major US cities as of 2015. Atlanta leads the nation with the most expensive monthly water bill — $326 on average. (Circle of Blue calculated monthly water bills for a family of four using roughly 12,000 gallons of water a month, which the EPA has estimated is average household use).

Map showing the average water prices in 30 major US cities as of 2015

This means for a family of four making $32,000 in Atlanta, an annual water bill of $3,912 eats up more than 12 percent of their income — and again, that’s three times what the EPA recommends a family should be paying for water.

Some cities are restructuring water rates based on income, which could help struggling families

One possible solution that Mack said is gaining traction to help low-income Americans address affordability issues is restructuring water rates based on income.

Restructuring water rates involves determining the number of gallons a customer can use each month for a prenegotiated fee. If a customer uses more than the set amount, they pay a penalty or overage fee. Recent research shows that when utilities restructure rates, it can help offset the rising costs of water service.

But as cities move to restructure rates and redistribute costs, it’s important they implement lower cost rate structures for low-income households. Otherwise, restructuring rates can backfire and poorer households can end up with an even higher bill than what they were paying before. Mack says a food stamp equivalent program for water services or some kind of low income subsidy could help.

 

“People could think about setting up lower fees for different income brackets,” she said. “Set a minimal level of necessary water use [for lower-income households] and if you use more than that, from that point you pay more.”

And some cities like Philadelphia are already moving to implement a rate structure that offers low-income families reduced water rates. In July, the city is rolling out a tiered rate structure for customers whose incomes fall at or below 150 percent of the poverty line.

With a third of Americans at risk of not being able to pay their water bill by 2020, we need to move quickly to invest in infrastructure and restructure water rates in a way that doesn’t negatively impact low-income customers. Otherwise we could be looking at a national crisis similar to what’s playing out in Detroit and Flint — thousands of families losing their water because they can’t afford their bill.

Phoenix neighbors worried about water waste and rising bills

by Monique Griego, KPNX

PHOENIX – When Jim Prindle notified the City of Phoenix about a water main leak on his street, he knew it might take some time, possibly a few days, to get it fixed.

“It began as a slow leak and progressively over time became a more severe leak,” Prindle said.

That was more than three months ago.

“I’d seen city crews out looking at it, but nothing was done,” Prindle told 12 News.

Prindle went on to show us two other water main leaks within a few blocks of his home near 16th Street AND Hatcher road.

“Twenty-four hours and it doesn’t stop,” said Josie Munguia as she pointed a crack in the asphalt with water running out of it and down the street.

Neighbors on East Mountain View Road say a leak there leak has also been open for a couple months.

Munguia, however, is concerned about much more than wasted water. She believes the leak could also be draining people’s bank accounts.

“I get so stressed about my bill when I see the water. I just hope I don’t get a big bill,” she said.

According to neighbors, this same water main line has cracked open in the past.

When it happened back in 2015, Munguia says she noticed her water bills started rising.

She says at first she explained things away, but then in August of that year, her usage suddenly jumped from around 10,000 gallons to more than 50,000.

She showed us the paper bill she received for over $300, more than triple what she usually pays.

“It was like 52,000 gallons or something,” she said, “which was impossible, but they said no, that my bill was my bill and it (the leak) had nothing to do with it.”

With this latest leak, Munguia says her bills have spiked, but she wanted to alert neighbors to check for any discrepancies on their bills.

12 News contacted the City of Phoenix regarding the water issues.

In a statement, a city spokesperson acknowledged there are five active leaks in the area but said due to the large number of residential water service lines in the city — around 430,000 — they have to prioritize repairs.

As for any bill issues, the city says a leak on city property has no effect on customer bills.

 

Can Big Data save our water infrastructure?

by Barbara Grady, Senior Writer at GreenBiz Group

Children getting lead poisoning from the water supply in Flint, Michigan, this winter served as a wake-up call to a problem that has been lurking yet well-known for years: The nation’s water infrastructure is seriously aged and in need of replacement.

That’s evident, too, from the water leakage and pipe bursting that happens regularly in cities all over the country. About one-sixth of the nation’s clean water supply, or some 2 trillion gallons a year of treated and delivered water, leaks out of the vast underground water infrastructure before it reaches end users, according to the American Water Works Association.

In some cities, 30 to 40 percent of water sent through their systems ends up as non-revenue water that leaks somewhere along the way or that a busted meter fails to pick up.

“Most of our buried drinking water infrastructure was built 50 or more years ago, in the post-World War II era of rapid demographic change and economic growth. In some older urban areas, many water mains have been in the ground for a century or longer,” the association stated in its report, Buried No Longer: Confronting America’s Water Infrastructure Challenge (PDF).

And more than a million miles of pipes beneath our streets are “nearing the end of its useful life and approaching the age at which it needs to be replaced.” Additionally, meters are malfunctioning, so water utilities are not getting revenue for a lot of the water they clean and distribute.

Regional water utilities and municipalities have been slowly replacing pipes and meters, typically when they break.

But it’s a massive undertaking that the AWWA estimated costs upwards of $1 million a mile, and that one Bay Area water utility said averages $2.4 million per mile in replacement costs. Nationwide, it will cost a trillion dollars over the next two decades, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Yet because water utilities are missing out on revenue from lost water, they are often strapped to make the infrastructure investments.

Government and think tanks are scrambling to come up with an answer. “A large consistent capital flow is needed,” says Ernst & Young  Global Limited in a recent white paper (PDF).  Yet many water utilities are burdened by bond debt, and water rates revenues are structured to cover treatment and distribution with little left over to consider capital projects.

Big data and IoT to the rescue?

Just as data and Internet of Things (IoT) companies have swooped into the energy management marketplace with tools to help building managers, homeowners, hospitals and campuses with detailed and location-based views of their electricity use and potential for energy efficiencies, we’re beginning to see IoT strategies for analyzing water infrastructure.

Jesse Berst, chairman of the Smart Cities Council, advocated IoT as a way to inventory a water utility’s thousands of miles of pipes for potential leaks and malfunctioning. Writing in WaterWorld, he said, some new “sensor technologies have arrived on the market to help water utilities survey their underground pipes and detect real and potential leaks.”

Using smart readers, or in the least automated meter reading, lets utilities detect leaks based on discrepancies in billing statements. Comparing the water going into the water network or into a neighborhood, home or office, and comparing it with what the meter picks up can help to pinpoint a leak or broken meter. Then advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) that uses data management software of the IoT type along with deployed sensors is a step up in detection — for well off cities or larger utilities that can afford these systems.

But therein lies the rub.

Most water utilities are very small. The EPA counts 52,000 water utilities across the U.S.  A small fraction— some 8 percent — serve 82 percent of the population.

“The water utility sector is massively fragmented,” said Trevor Hill, the CEO of Fathom, a startup in the water utility data management system. He estimates that only 300 utilities have more than 30,000 meter customers.

But a veteran of the water utility industry from years as the CEO of Global Water Resources in Arizona, he said he has come up with an answer for the myriad small water utilities across the U.S. and has begun to deploy it.

He developed a cloud-based software platform for water utilities and founded Fathom Global Water Management to provide it as a software-as-a-service to water utilities. After 25 years in the water industry, he said he had some “epiphanies” on how the fragmented industry could scale its use of technology, Hill said in an interview, shortly after his company announced a new round of financing and its selection into the CleanTech 100 of promising startups.

Most water companies are too small to invest in sophisticated data systems that would allow them to better track the condition of their pipes and perform smart metering. But Fathom puts meter-reading systems on the cloud and offers smart meter services of water management, automated billing, customer service — and leak and meter failure detection — to small utilities.

Data analytics from meters, Hill said, can allow water utilities to detect troubled pipes and meters without having to dig underground or physically inspect them. That’s because “we can correlate what goes into the distribution system and where it being used (or use measured by metering).” If the mathematics don’t add up, that can indicate the presence of a leak or broken metering.

The revenue opportunity for Fathom is in the billing operation.  At the moment, a majority of small utilities still rely on payments by paper, by phone or even in-person.

“The billing operations (in the average water utility) is 10 times more expensive than in the power industry or telcos because the infrastructure affordable to the average small water utility is not nearly as good,” in meter-to-customer and meter-to-billing, Hill said.

He said his platform “enables a smart grid for water utilitie…We can go into cities and give them smart grid services of meter-to-customer.” Several California cities, including Torrance and South Pasadena, are customers. Typically, customers have uncovered 5 to 15 percent of water revenues they had not been realizing.

But having a workable product is not enough to answer the problem in the current water market, analysts say.

Various water meter data reading products have been put forth, both for utilities and for companies aiming to manage their water conservation.

Some companies are offering water management data services as an adjunct to energy management — using the same or similar software. Aquicore is primarily an energy management data analytics company but it has a water-management product as well. Both Aquicore’s IoT-based energy and water data tools are offered to building owners and campuses.

Microsoft’s CityNext division which has developed solutions to help make cities more resilient, and IBM’s Smarter Cities have application services to help water utilities to adopt smart metering and IoT services.

But building the wherewithal and incentive for water utilities to invest in any of these IoT water management technologies is a challenge because water is priced so cheaply.

“Right now there is a lot of talk (about water management technologies) particularly with droughts going on,” Navigant Research analyst Benjamin Freas. “One of the challenges is water prices.

‘Water is too cheap. The price of water is prohibiting a lot of investment in the area,” he said.

Berst of the Smart Cities Council nonetheless encouraged utilities to consider such solutions to the giant water leakage problem lurking under our nation’s city streets and byways. He mentioned both Microsoft’s CityNext services and  IBM’s Smarter Cities.

Indeed, preventing water leaks and water waste anywhere will gain more traction if the price of water were higher.

As weather patterns fluctuate in the Western U.S. and elsewhere, the jury is still out on whether water will gain appreciation — in price and conservation.