How does your region affect your water quality?
When we consider the water that enters our homes, it is important to remember that not all water is “created” equal, or that is, delivered equal. The water quality in Southern California is very different from that found in Northern Michigan, and different still in Jakarta, Indonesia for example. So how does this affect you?
In short, you drink your environment.
The Hydrologic Cycle
This all begins with the hydrologic cycle. The hydrologic cycle, as defined by the national weather service, is the continuous circulation of water in the Earth-Atmosphere system. At its core, the water cycle is the motion of the water from the ground to the atmosphere and back again. Of the many complex processes involved in the hydrologic cycle, the major stages are:
These stages involve the exchange of energy, which in turn induce temperature changes. When water evaporates, it purifies water which then replenishes the land with freshwater, and provides a flow of liquid water and ice that transports minerals across the globe. During evaporation and transpiration, energy is moved from out of the surroundings, and cools the environment. In the condensation and precipitation stages, energy is released and warms the environment. These cooling and heating exchanges in turn influence the climate.
Now couple this complex biogeochemical cycle with the vast array of different types of environmental terrains throughout the globe: wetlands, deserts, mountains, cities, farmlands, grasslands, tundra’s, valleys, marshes, even wastelands – all of the water (or little water) moving through these terrains: it goes in, it comes out, goes up, and comes back down.
The Hydrological Cycle + Environmental Degradation
As the climate changes, as the human population grows, depletion of Earth’s natural resources becomes almost inevitable, and consequently, our impact on the same remaining resources becomes greater.
In large cities for example, urban sprawl is responsible for completely reshaping landscapes and removing arable land, paving the way for population density and heavy industrial manufacturing to be in extreme proximity to one another. When rainfall occurs, and water washes throughout the city, through its streets, rooftops, trainyards, landfills, it picks up sediment, debris, heavy metals, toxic chemicals, and other types of hazardous waste. All of this water collects, and eventually becomes runoff.
This runoff, in a “planned” city, is collected primarily by either one of two sewer systems types: A “combined sewer system”, or a “separated sewer system.” In a “combined sewer system”, the toxic runoff combines with sanitary waste lines from buildings and households in a singular pipe on its way to the water treatment plant. In many cases during rainfall or snow melts, the volume of water and runoff flowing into the main sewer pipe is greater than the capacity of the pipe to the water treatment facility. When this happens, the toxic runoff from the rain and hazardous sanitary lines causes an “overflow” to occur, in which the excess wastewater in the pipe must be discharged into nearby waterways or lakes or ponds. This is known as a combined sewer overflow.
The water that does make it to the water treatment plant, in times of rainfall or not, gets harder and harder to treat every year. The EPA has set standards to limit the amounts of a mere 81 chemicals found in our water, however it is estimated that there are over 60,000 known chemicals used within the United States. And so, with the toxic laden water being delivered to treatment plants, they treat the water with methods of flocculation, coagulation, disinfection, to get the water within “drinking water limits” set by the EPA.
Ironically, the extent of the treatment done on our water is really more of finding a “fine balance” between meeting the lowest standards possibly set by the EPA, while being able to provide enough water to the biggest users of the same water:thermoelectric power and irrigation. That is why we shower with the same water that we water our lawns with.
Again, you drink your environment.
Rural Water Sources + Farmland
In more remote environments, in contrast to cities, water used by homeowners and farms may get their water from wells, or springs. In general, these types of water sources can be much cleaner and see much less contamination than their municipal counterparts. However, this is not always the case, and these sources can have their own sets of issues to lookout for.
As for well water, wells can be drilled as far down as 1,000 feet below the ground to tap into groundwater aquifers. Chemicals from nearby sewage facilities, and chemical runoff from fertilizers in soil, such as nitrates and pesticides can all leach into the ground and make their way to local well water sources. Other commonly found contaminants in well water are perchlorates from rocket fuel, and volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) such as gasoline and petroleum products. Well water and Spring fed water sources also bear the risk of biological contamination from bacteria from septic systems, and fungi and viruses.
In dry climates where droughts are more commonplace, water from wells can also become extremely salinic. High salinity in well water is caused when the water table of the soil drops over time and salt begins to accumulate.
Farmers today are commonly faced with a two-fold issue: Not only are many farmers across the globe facing shortages of water available for farming, the little water they have available to them in marginal quality is becoming increasingly poor in quality (high salt levels, high levels of nitrates and heavy metals) and is degrading their soils. This in turn leads farmers to use unconventional sources of water for their farming – including wastewater sources. Wastewater is seen by some farmers as being an attractive option because of its high nutrient content. However, this leads to a severe loading of bacteria and chemical contaminants found in plants, and then of course in the workplace of farmworkers.
Now we drink & eat our environment!
Although we may all be different people, and live in different regions and parts of the world, it is very important that we know that we do have one thing in common: we all share the same water.
The water cycle is supremely complex, and it only scratches the surface on the conversation of water quality and how our region’s define our water quality – but the more educated we are on the cycle, and how our entire planet is interconnected by it, the better it will be for all of us and the world. And of course, our water!