When we turn on a faucet to get a drink of water, we rarely think about where the water came from or how it got there. Sadly, the same is often true when we flush toxic items down a toilet, pour dangerous substances down a sink or allow unsafe objects to break down in a yard.
August is National Water Quality Month. To celebrate, the City of Huntsville is asking residents to do their part to help keep our water supply safe and healthy.
“I’ve talked to 40-year-olds with engineering degrees who have no idea about how wastewater gets from their house and where it goes,” said Shane Cook, director of Water Pollution Control for the City of Huntsville. “It amazes me how oblivious the general public is to this.”
During National Water Quality Month, it’s important to take a moment to consider how important water sources are not just to humans, but also to the other inhabitants of lakes and rivers that provide clean drinking water. Understanding water quality also requires a deeper understanding of how poor decisions can jeopardize a clean water supply.
What we use and waste
It can be easy to overlook water quality when Americans use and waste so much of it. According to a 2015 report by the United States Geological Survey, Americans use 322 billion gallons of water per day. The top three uses were irrigation, thermoelectric power and public supply.
According to the U.S. States Environmental Protection Agency, the average American uses 82 gallons of water per day in their home. The average family spends about $1,000 per year in water costs.
How much water does a household waste? About 180 gallons per week, according to the EPA. Even more surprising, the agency estimates an average of 9,400 gallons are wasted annually from simple household leaks.
Public water systems must release safety and compliance information as required by the 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act. As of 2016, there were more than 150,000 public water systems operating in the U.S. Of those, nearly 12,000 had health-based standards violations in 2016. Globally, agriculture and livestock are to blame for most water degradation, with sewage and wastewater falling below that.
There are over 16,000 wastewater processing facilities in the U.S., which process about 34 billion gallons of wastewater each day. Once nitrogen and phosphorous are removed, water is disinfected and released back into a river or stream.
There are a number of ways in which people endanger wastewater processing and groundwater, both of which ultimately affect the drinking water supply. Here are the top concerns:
FOG (Fats, oils and grease)
Some homeowners readily pour fats, oils and grease down the sink, but Cook said that’s a major no-no. As it cools, those materials build up in pipes, just like plaque in an artery.
“It ends up being a huge problem in the sanitary sewer,” Cook said. “If the sewer overflows, it gets into the groundwater and stormwater. That leads to the river where we get our drinking water.”
When people discard old medication, they often either flush it down a toilet or throw it away. Cook said both methods are bad because they can contaminate water supplies. While wastewater processing removes phosphorous and nitrogen, there are properties found in prescription medication that treatment can’t remove. Huntsville Police accepts unused medications from the public for safe disposal.
Sanitary wipes are another concern because they can clog sewers and cause wastewater overflow. Some manufacturers produce “flushable” wipes, but some consumers erroneously believe all wipes can be flushed. In 2019, a combination of flushed wipes and grease created a 210-foot-long clog in England dubbed a “fatberg.” It took workers more than eight weeks to remove the clog from the sewer.
“You don’t need to flush wipes of any kind,” Cook said.
Finally, Cook warned against improper disposal of hazardous materials like household chemicals, electronics or car batteries, which can deteriorate over time. Batteries contain sulfuric acid and lead, which can leach into groundwater and cause contamination. Residents can take electronics and batteries to a recycling center for proper disposal.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand that if you dump something out in front of your house, it’s going to get to the river in the groundwater,” Cook said.
For more information on how to protect water quality, visit the National Water Quality Month website. Click here to learn more about the City of Huntsville’s wastewater collection and treatment systems.