National Water Quality Month in August serves as an important reminder for local health departments to reflect on the safety of water in their communities. Although the United States has one of the most developed drinking water systems in the world, there are still many factors that threaten the quality and quantity of drinking water.
NACCHO recently released policy statements summarizing its positions on Water Quality and Sustainable Water Use. These documents are available for local health departments to learn about threats to water quality and actions to take to prevent the depletion of drinking water.
These policy statements indicate that one of the biggest threats to water quality and availability is the lack of funding and support for local health department water services. Water is arguably the most important resource to sustaining health and life, yet many health departments are reducing or eliminating water programs as a result of budget cuts. According to a survey NACCHO conducted in 2012, the percentage of public health directors who reported programmatic activity to protect the quality and quantity of fresh water decreased from 66.9% in 2008 to 46.4% in 2012.
Meanwhile, human activities are polluting water sources. An emerging threat is the improper disposal of pharmaceuticals and personal care products. Local health departments can protect their communities by educating residents, providing a means for the proper disposal of such products, and carefully monitoring drinking water to prevent the ingestion of contaminants.
Another source of water pollution is wastewater discharge from industrial practices, such as mining. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oversees this direct, point source pollution through the Clean Water Act. Other organizations play a role in regulation through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, which monitors industrial and commercial facilities at the state and local levels. Health departments can encourage industrial sites to reduce pollutant discharge by strengthening monitoring and offering incentives.
Lastly, the agricultural industry is one of the leading contributors to both nonpoint source pollution and groundwater depletion. Improper farming techniques such as overgrazing, plowing practices, and pesticide usage can indirectly pollute water sources. Irrigation can remove water from aquifers more quickly than it is replenished. Local health departments can endorse research on efficient irrigation practices and work with agricultural partners to encourage the use of sustainable agricultural techniques.
While it is clear that maintaining quality drinking water is already a challenge, climate change will potentially make it increasingly more difficult. Studies predict the loss of snowpack and groundwater which will result in the depletion of drinking water resources. Increased temperatures and severe precipitation events could elevate the risk of waterborne disease outbreaks. To prepare for the local effects of climate change, local health departments in regions with high concentrations of private wells, which are largely unregulated, can raise awareness about waterborne diseases and stress the importance of monitoring drinking water.
For additional information on water quality, see the following NACCHO policy statements:
- Boxall, A., Rudd, M. A., Brooks, B. W., Caldwell, D. J., Choi, K., Hickmann, S., et al. (2012). Pharmaceutical and personal care products in the environment: What are the big questions? Environmental Health Perspectives, 120(9), 1221–1229. Retrieved August 5, 2015, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3440110/
- Environmental Protection Agency. (2014). Industrial and Commercial Facilities webpage. Retrieved August 5, 2015, from http://water.epa.gov/polwaste/npdes/Industrial-and-Commercial-Facilities.cfm
- Environmental Protection Agency. (2015). Clean Water Act (CWA) Compliance Monitoring webpage. Retrieved August 5, 2015, from http://www2.epa.gov/compliance/clean-water-act-cwa-compliance-monitoring
- Environmental Protection Agency. (2005). Agricultural Nonpoint Source Fact Sheet. Retrieved from August 5, 2015, from http://water.epa.gov/polwaste/nps/agriculture_facts.cfm
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2009). Agricultural Water webpage. Retrieved August 5, 2015, from http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/other/agricultural/index.html
- Hall, N., Stuntz, B., & Abrams, R. (2008). Climate Change and Freshwater Resources. Natural Resources & Environment. Retrieved August 5, 2015, from http://ic.ucsc.edu/~mloik/envs80b/FreshwaterResources.pdf
- National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. (2013). Waterborne Diseases & Climate Change webpage. Retrieved August 5, 2015, from http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/programs/geh/climatechange/health_impacts/waterborne_diseases/