Blue-Green Algae Threatens Lake Erie Drinking Water

After record outbreaks in 2011 and 2013, the presence of harmful blue-green algae in Lake Erie continues to lessen but still remains significant enough to be a possible threat to drinking water.  Lake Erie provides drinking water for more than 11 million people on both sides of the border between US and Canada. Filtration plants are forced to pay an additional cost of up to $3,000 a day, which adds up to over a million dollars annually, for extra chemical treatment when algae blooms are intense.

The algae blooms in Lake Erie tend to be a particular type of blue-green algae called microcystis, which is a thick greenish, grainy material that accumulates along the lake shore. Dried microcystis scum can contain high concentrations of bacteria for several months. Therefore, toxins dissolve in the water even when the cells are no longer alive and use up the oxygen in the cold bottom layer of water.

Experts use a combination of satellite imagery, computer modeling, and water samples gathered by multiple agencies to create forecasts for the year. This year’s forecast calls for 24,250 tons of blue-green algae to overtake Lake Erie. The accuracy of these forecasts can be affected by unexpected weather, as rains can wash in heavy loads of phosphorus fertilizer that foster the growth of the algae and winds can push blooms. Additionally, blue-green algae are exacerbated by phosphorus runoff from agriculture, lawn care, sewage, industrial wastewater, and other human activity.

High levels of algae toxins can potentially be deadly for people and can therefore cause filtration plants to close down and issue orders to residents not to drink the water. Although there are currently no United States public health standards in regard to algae toxins in drinking water, the toxin levels in 2013 were three times higher than the recommended safety level of the World Health Organization. As low levels of algae toxins can even kill farm animals and pets, both the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control hope to release the first national guidelines by the end of this year.

Lake Mead Falls to Record Low

Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United Sates, continues to dwindle during drought of the southwest and is expecting to fall to its lowest level since 1937 this week. The effects of the drought are combined with increasing population and rising temperatures in the region, which has resulted in historically low water levels. The previous record low occurred decades ago in 1937 when the Hoover Dam was completed and the reservoir on the Colorado River was filled. Although flash floods and rain have recently swept through the area, the runoff water is not nearly enough to replenish the lake, which has not been completely full since 1998, over sixteen years ago.

Experts with the Colorado Water Commission express great concern, as the present drought has been a serious issue for the last fourteen years. White mineral rings around Lake Mead are clearly visible on the hard rock surfaces surrounding the lake, acting as a reminder of where the water level was in the past. The lake is estimated to drop to 1,081 feet, which is 23.5 feet lower than last year.

If Lake Mead drops to below 1,075 feet, reductions on the amount of water pumped from the lake may be enforced. Although these reductions will decrease the water available for consumption, authorities from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation believe that the community has conserved enough water to ensure that water obligations will be met at least through next year without a key shortage declaration. As of now, there will continue to be full deliveries to 40 million people in various areas, including Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. The declining levels of Lake Mead will be closely monitored and storage and conservation efforts are in effect to keep as much water in Lake Mead as possible.


Recycling Wastewater As A Reusable Water Source

Recycling WastewaterDuring the recent spike of droughts across the United States, especially in southwest, many states and municipalities are turning to reusing wastewater as an alternative to groundwater aquifers. After recycling sewage water through a series of filtration and purification techniques, wastewater treatment plants often offer the recycled water for free to local farmers for non-food crops, to local schools and golf courses for watering their grass.

Many treatment plants are working to disinfect and treat the water at a higher level so the recycled wastewater could be used on food crops, allowing farmers to grow crops as they please, even during severe drought.

One treatment plant in Orange County, CA has taken it a step further. By adding several filtration and purification steps, including zapping the water with UV light, Orange County Water District is able to transform sewage water into drinking water for the over 2.4 million residents of Orange County.

Since 2008, Orange County Water District has been returning recycled used water or wastewater back into the massive groundwater aquifer.  Mixing the recycled wastewater with groundwater is largely unnecessary, but helps to allay any public fears about drinking recycled wastewater. As public acceptance grows and the cost of recycling wastewater falls, recycled wastewater can be a major defense to the increasing water scarcity in the United States as well as other parts of the world. The World Water Council estimates that recycled wastewater will be a normal source of drinking water around the world within the next 30 years.

Air Force base fuel leak threatens public drinking water

A large fuel leak at the Kirtland Air Base in New Mexico has been contaminating soil for decades and now threatening the nearby municipal drinking water supply. The leak began in the 1950s when the Air Force replaced leaking tanks and aging pipelines with a new fuels facility, but was undiscovered until 1992.

In 1992, Air Base workers observed a huge surface plume in the soil surrounding the fuel facility, but it wasn’t until 1999 when under pressure from the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) that the Air Force conducted pressure tests to determine the origin of the leak. Massive holes in the pipeline were both found and created. Original estimation of 100,000 gallons of missing fuel proved to be a low estimation when an Air Force contractor drilled an exploratory well outside the base’s northern boundary and found about four feet of jet fuel floating on top of the water aquifer. While the Air Force believes the leak to be 6 million gallons of jet fuel, about half of the Exxon Valdez spill, NMED estimates that the spill is actually 24 million gallons or twice the size of the Exxon Valdez spill.

No matter the size of the spill, public interest advocates are concerned because the leak which contains a variety highly dangerous chemicals, including benzene, toluene, and ethylene dibromide (EDB).

The EPA banned EDB from commercial and industrial use more than 40 years ago. When EDB is released into the soil, it usually makes its way into the groundwater. It is highly soluble and stable making it harder to find and remove from underground water. EDB has been found by multiple studies to be a carcinogen and can bind itself to DNA and rewrite genetic information causing mutations. A 1990 study from the California Department of Health Services found that those who worked with EDB “had essentially a 100 percent chance of contracting cancer.” The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 required the EPA to determine safe levels of various chemical compounds in drinking water. Based on various studies on EDB, the EPA determined that the maximum safe level of EDB in drinking water, or the level at which no adverse effects would likely occur, is zero. The most recent data shows EDB concentrations in shallow wells on the base at concentrations of 240,000 parts per trillion (ppt).

Current estimates suggest the spill, which is about 1,000 feet wide and more than a mile long, to be moving directly towards the Ridgecrest area at the rate of 385 feet per year. The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority operates a series of wells in the area that pump so much water for the city that they actually produce a cone of depression that acts like a straw, pulling the spill closer.

Chief operating office at the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority John Stomp has said “We want to prevent this from further contaminating the aquifer. For contamination for us is, it’s no EDB or EDB. It’s not EDB at drinking water standards. It’s no EDB, because that’s what our customers are accustomed to.” While officials at Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority are well aware of the potential issue and are preparing to prevent further contamination, the Air Force does not have a plan in place to remove EDB from the aquifer. Actually, in the 60 years since it first spilled jet fuel into Albuquerque’s aquifer, KAFB has yet to remove and treat a single gallon of contaminated groundwater.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2013 to Fund Water-Related Infrastructure

Bill from Schoolhouse RockThe Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2013, which will fund the development and improvement of water-related infrastructure, has passed Congress and President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law soon. The Act will authorize the United States Army Corps of Engineers to construct water projects for mitigating storm and hurricane damage, restoring ecosystems, and improving flood management as well as assisting states and local governments with levee safety programs and Native American tribes with planning and technical assistance for water resources projects. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that implementing the act would cost about $3.5 billion over 2014 – 2018 with adjustments for anticipated inflation.

The Act intends to speed up project delivery by eliminating duplicative studies and requiring concurrent reviews while deauthorizing $18 billion worth of projects that have not been active over the last 5 years. The Act also sets up a Congressional review process for approving projects and allows nonfederal organizations and groups to provide funding for the projects.

When introducing the Act in September 2013, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) said, “This legislation is about jobs and country’s economic prosperity. This measure will strengthen our nation’s transportation network, keep America competitive in the global marketplace, and reform and streamline the way we move forward with improvements to our ports, locks, dams, and other water resources infrastructure.”

If President Obama signs the Act into law, it will be the first water-related funding package with provisions aimed at bridging the multi-billion dollar funding gap for drinking water and wastewater systems across the country to become law since 2007. Last year, the EPA found that many of the country’s 73,400 water systems are between 50 to 100 years old and estimates that about $384 billion worth of improvements would be needed in the U.S. drinking water infrastructure over the next 20 years.

Contaminated Shallow Groundwater May Migrate to Deeper Aquifers Used for Drinking Water

Cover of USGS Contaminated Groundwater ReportIn a new study, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Water Replenishment District of Southern California have found that contaminated groundwater found at shallow depths has the potential to migrate to deeper aquifers. This study confirmed previous studies conducted by the Water Replenishment District and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The study, which focused on aquifers in the 280-square mile Central Groundwater Basin, one of the most heavily used groundwater basins in southern California, used new and existing data including simulation models to understand the interconnections and water flow between different aquifer layers.

“Our investigation concluded that contaminated groundwater found at shallow depths in the northeastern portion of the Central Groundwater Basin could migrate to greater depths where many drinking water supply wells are located,” said Eric Reichard, Director of the USGS California Water Science Center. “Now that we’ve established that the potential for migration is there, the next step is to assess the specific risk this may post to the main drinking water aquifers.”

The study did not analyze treated tap water delivered to consumers, as groundwater is typically treated by water distributors prior to delivering it to costumers to ensure compliance with water quality standards for human health. The results of this study will allow the Water Replenishment District to anticipate future contaminant migration and to create proper plans for protecting uncontaminated areas. The results will also inform future monitoring and cleanup actions for contaminated sites in the Central Groundwater Basin.  For more information about the study or to ready the results in full, please visit the U.S. Geological Survey website.

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New Report Shows Thousands of High Priority Wells Were Not Inspected

Government Accountability Office SealAccording to a new report from the Government Accountability Office, the government has failed to inspect thousands of oil and gas wells considered “high risk” for water contamination and other environmental damage. The report highlights substantial gaps in oversight by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, which manages oil and gas development on federal and Native American reservations. The report said the agency “cannot accurately and efficiently identify whether federal and Indian resources are properly protected or that federal and Indian resources are at risk of being extracted without agency approval.”

Investigators reviewed 14 states, including Arkansas, California, Colorado, Louisiana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming. The report found that the Bureau of Land Management has failed to conduct inspections on more than 2,100 of the 3,702 wells that is had specified as “high priority” based on a greater need to protect against possible water contamination and other environmental safety issues. Further the agency has yet to indicate whether an additional 1,784 wells were high priority or not.

In addition to failing to inspect high priority wells, the Bureau of Land Management, according to the report, does not monitor inspection activities at its state and field offices and thus cannot provide “reasonable assurance’ that those offices were completing the required inspections. For example, the investigation found that in Pennsylvania, the state received 398 complaints in 2013, alone, alleging that oil or natural gas drilling polluted or otherwise affected private water wells, but only 100 cases of pollution were confirmed in the past 5 years!

Amy Mall of the Natural Resources Defense Council said of the report, “this report reaffirms our concern that the government needs to pay attention to the environment and protect public health and drinking sources from the risks of oil and gas development.”

If the Bureau of Land Management is not accurately inspecting high priority wells, if they are inspecting them at all, your drinking water may be contaminated with oil, natural gas, or other chemicals found at fracking sites.

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White House releases National Climate Assessment with dire Climate Change Warning

Graphic Evidence of Water Stress in the U.S.

Figure Courtesy of the National Climate Assessment

The Obama administration recently released an updated report, known as the National Climate Assessment, to show how the changing climate has touched every corner of the United States. The report, which is over 800 pages long, outlines in detail the effects of climate change have on the different geographic regions and segments of the economy.

“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” the scientists declared in the assessment. “Summers are longer and hotter, and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer.”

By documenting the changes in region-by-region, the assessment shows that few places will be unscathed and some are already feeling the effects of climate change earlier than expected. The assessment found that the Northeast will see an increase in torrential rains and risks from rising sea levels that could repeat the kind of flooding seen during Hurricane Sandy. The Southwest will see more severe water shortages than what they are currently experiencing. While the Midwest will see short term benefits like a longer growing season for crops, but these short term benefits will ultimately lead to escalating damages, particularly to agriculture, in the long run. The assessment stressed that people should not expect climate change to happen at a steady pace or at the same rate throughout the country.

No matter the region, climate change will affect the region’s drinking water supplies. In the Northeast, torrential rains and severe flooding may damage the already aging water infrastructure, leading to contaminated water supplies. While the Northeast may have the issue of an abundance of undrinkable water, the Southwest may have the opposite problem and run out of water.  The Midwest may also run into water shortages as agriculture uses a lot of water. With climate change, we may see a shortage of clean, potable drinking water everywhere in the United States.

The report was supervised and approved by a large committee representing a cross section of American society, including 2 oil companies and 13 government departments and agencies including the Agriculture Department and NASA. This is the 3 assessment in 14 years and many consider it the most urgent in tone, leaving no doubt that scientists consider climate change to be an emerging crisis.

To read the National Climate Assessment in its entirety, please visit:

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PA DEP Issues Recall for Thousands of Plastic Water Bottles

PA DEP LogoThe Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has issued a recall for thousands of large jugs of water, specifically 3-, 4-, and 5-gallon jugs, from Tyler Mountain Water. The bottles were bottled and delivery by Aqua Filter Fresh on April 17 and 18 while the company’s UV disinfecting system was malfunctioning resulting in positive tests for coliform and E. coli. It was determined that the water bottled had been delivered to commercial customers, but Aqua Filter Fresh and Tyler Mountain Water do not know the location of these customers.

While Aqua Filter Fresh has said that randomly selected bottles from April 17 and 18 were free of contamination, it urges customers to not use their water coolers until the water jugs have been replaced. Neither Aqua Filter Fresh nor the Department of Environmental Protection know how the water contaminated by total coliform and E. coli. The presence of total coliforms indicate that the filtered water had interaction with soil or surface water, however the presence of E. coli indicates the filtered water was contaminated by human or animal waste. E. coli can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches, or other symptoms and can be a higher health risk for infants, young children, and those with compromised immune systems.

What if you didn’t have to worry about not being able to use your office’s water cooler because of water recalls? Bottleless water coolers filter your building’s water supply ensuring you and your coworkers are always drinking the cleanest, best-tasting water delivered to your glass. And you don’t have to worry about changing the heavy plastic bottles!

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California Sets Enforceable Standard for Chromium-6

Map of Waterways in California with Chromium-6Several months ago, California health officials submitted a drinking water standard, the first in the United States, for the chemical hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium-6. Chromium-6, made famous by the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich, is an industrial pollution and is used in the production of stainless steel, leather tanning, and as an anti-corrosive and is considered a carcinogenic when ingested.

This past Tuesday, California’s Department of Public Health submitted its final regulation setting for chromium-6,  limiting the chemical to 10 parts per billion (ppb) in public drinking water supplies, or the equivalent of 10 drops of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. If approved, as expected, the standard would take effect on July 1 of this year and will require more than 100 water systems to treat for the contaminant. Public Health Director Ron Chapman said the limit “will protect public health while taking into consideration economic and technical feasibility as required by law.”

California’s standard of 10 ppb is about 500 times greater than the non-enforceable public health goal set earlier this year by California’s EPA. Many environmentalists contend the new limit is not stringent enough.  Avinash Kar, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which sued the CA Department of Public Health to issue a standard, said of the new regulation “the long-delayed action today simply does not provide enough protection for people’s health. The department both inflated water treatment costs and underestimated the benefits of a stronger standard.”

This legally enforceable standard will replace the current California standard of 50 parts per billion for total chromium. Total chromium includes trivalent chromium, or chromium-3, which is not a carcinogen and is actually necessary in small amounts for human life. The federal standard, set by the EPA, is 100 parts per billion for total chromium.

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