Win with Water: Good Water Policy Requires Sound Science
Water is the source of life as we know it. Three quarters of the Earth is covered with water, and our bodies are made of a similar percentage of this wondrous compound. For millennia, our ancestors drank from streams, pools, springs, and puddles, often falling sick or dying from unseen contaminants. Through trial and error, we learned which sources were safe and which were hazardous, but not until the mid-1800s, during yet another London cholera epidemic, did scientists clearly connect sanitation and waterborne disease.
New Hampshire’s public water systems began in the late 1800s in cities such as Manchester, Rochester, and Concord. Early water sources were ponds located in nearby hills that drained by gravity to distribution systems made with wood and clay pipes. While this was a monumental breakthrough for fire protection and public health, customers still fell sick from errant, natural contamination sources. In the early 1900s another scientific breakthrough introduced chlorination to public water treatment. Illness and death from waterborne diseases dropped a thousand-fold as communities added chlorination to their treatment processes.
Where water treatment and distribution systems improved and expanded, public and economic health benefits closely followed, making safe and affordable drinking water and fire-protection integral to national growth through the 1900s. Fast-forward to today, when safe and affordable public water has been a reality for a century. Thousands of professionals work to protect vulnerable sources, treat millions of gallons per day, and distribute water through miles of pipe to flow from countless taps, wash endless loads of laundry, clean a nation of cars, irrigate a Serengeti of lawns, and flush all our toilets – for less than the cost of a daily cup of coffee!
However, this epic level of service has created a problem. Because most customers (myself included until recently) don’t understand public water services, our expectations are often unrealistic. Health experts determine risks of consuming natural and man-made contaminants, wise policy makers analyze and balance risks and costs, and water professionals build and operate effective and affordable treatment systems. This extremely complicated process takes time and knowledge, and can be concerning to the lay person who thinks “why should I take ANY risk with the water I drink?”
The truth is, we all take risks, from dietary and lifestyle choices to driving cars. Multi-billion-dollar industries exist to reduce risks in all aspects of our lives – including public water – but decades of low costs, high quality, and exemplary service cause water to be taken for granted. Thus, when new water quality standards are proposed without sound science, the cost and technical ability to meet them can be grossly mis-stated.
A painful example of under-informed federal policy relates to “PFAS”, a pervasive, persistent, and toxic family of man-made chemicals used for decades in items such as Teflon, water repellants, stain protection, and fire-fighting foam. The US Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed allowable concentrations of 4 parts per trillion (ppt, or 0.000000000004; very small) for six PFAS compounds, misjudging critical decision points from estimated health risks and treatment benefits, to treatment cost and feasibility, to the amount of time required to implement such an unprecedented technical standard. The proposed 4 ppt standard is exceeding the bounds of science, possibly due to justified – yet unobjective and poorly informed – public concern about these chemicals. Such concerns are easily inflamed by incomplete information and emotions fueled by social media and the fraught social times we live in.
New Hampshire has been at the forefront of the PFAS issue since 2016, having experienced significant contamination from firefighting foam used at a former airbase on the Seacoast and a manufacturing facility in Merrimack. Effective October 1, 2019, we have had science- and health-based, enforceable standards for PFOA (12 ppt), PFOS (15 ppt), PFNA (11 ppt), and PFHxS (18 ppt). For a better sense of how such numbers are derived, see this summary technical report, which is an excellent example of the science-based approach required to make sound policy decisions.
You can learn more about where your water comes from by calling your local water department and talking to one of your Operators, perhaps even gathering some friends and local leaders for a facility tour. In New Hampshire, public water is mostly local, and understanding how water professionals provide you, your family, and local businesses with dependable, safe, and affordable drinking water will help guide your personal policy decisions, including requests to the elected officials that make rules effecting our most critical public resource.
New Hampshire Water Works Association is a non-profit organization whose mission is to improve public water supply service in the State of New Hampshire. We represent over 300 municipal and private organizations committed to providing clean, safe, and affordable drinking water to New Hampshire’s residents and businesses. Learn more about our Association at www.NHWWA.org or contact us at Info@NHWWA.org.
Boyd Smith is President and CEO of the NH Water Works Association, Inc. This article represents the opinion of the author, and not necessarily that of the Association or its Board of Directors.