The loss of our water supply is not just a risk in dry areas where there is a very limited supply of water and water must be rationed during droughts (e.g., in California today). Losing access to potable water can happen anywhere. Last winter 300,000 residents of Charleston, West Virginia were told not to drink or bathe in their water. This past summer 400,000 Toledo, OH residents were told the same thing about their water coming from Lake Erie (http://www.weather.com/health/what-you-need-know-about-microcystin-toledos-water-toxin-20140804). The irony of course is that there was plenty of water in these moist areas of the country. Water quantity is not the problem in the East. Water quality is.
The WV problem was the result of a 5000 gallon chemical spill which contaminated the Elk River. This could happen anywhere if tanks are not inspected, monitored and where secondary containment is not adequate. The level of attention paid to these safety steps varies widely across the country and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. It is not something that should be taken for granted.
The public water supply in Toledo comes from Lake Erie. Water tests performed this summer in Toledo found high levels of the toxin microcystin in the water. This algae can make people sick, so the residents of Toledo found themselves rushing to the stores to stock up on bottled water. The supplies of this much more expensive source of drinking water quickly vanished.
Now this is not new for Lake Erie – it has a long history of water quality issues. In fact, it was considered the dead sea of America back in the 1960s. But a lot of money was spent to clean it up and common sense regulations dramatically reduced the toxins that were dumped into it. Then it became a success story.
However that has all changed over the past decade. An increasing amount of fertilizer from farms and backyards is being washed into Lake Erie and into the streams and lakes all across the U.S. The phosphates are causing algal blooms in many areas. It is showing up as a problem in Lake Erie because it is one of the shallower Great Lakes, but the potential for this type of contamination is widespread.
To prevent more of these types of water quality emergencies, we must all cut back on the fertilizers that we use. Yes, the farmers have the biggest challenge in reducing runoff of phosphorus and nitrogen, but anyone with a backyard needs to reduce fertilizer use as well. There are so many over-fertilized backyards in America, that this has become an increasing problem in many areas. So be sure to test your soils before applying more nutrients to your lawns.
To combat this growing problem, each of us needs to reduce the chemicals we use on our lawns and we need to slow down stormwater runoff. Building a rain garden to capture stormwater and allowing it to filter into the ground is a very effective step for getting our hydrologic cycle healthy again. The more water that is captured and allowed to filter into the ground to recharge our groundwater tables and our streams, the better off we all will be.
In addition to personal action, we do need to push our elected officials to take actions to encourage better management of our valuable water supplies. Clean water is important to us all, and as our population increases, we will need to take much stronger steps to ensure we are not all rushing to the stores to buy water packaged in plastic.