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March 22, World Water Day, doesn’t have the name recognition of Earth Day, but it’s definitely gotten more attention this year.  In 2009, Back2Tap ran brief campaign to tie into World Water Day, but it didn’t really gather much momentum.  This year, several like-minded groups have made World Water Day a major milestone.  Tapped, a documentary movie about the bottled water industry, kicked off its cross country tour to 30 cities in 30 days yesterday.  Claiming that one day is not enough, the Tapped tour is celebrating World Water Week this week.  Food and Water Watch ran a Take Back the Tap Virtual Facebook March yesterday.

So why all the excitement about water this year?  Maybe it was watching the tortuous process of supplying clean drinking water to millions of displaced people in Haiti.  Maybe it was the growing realization that bottled water is wasteful and the money spent on it could be used more wisely.  Maybe it was all the articles reminding us that we have to work harder to protect water quality, even in the United States. 

It probably wasn’t because of this little known prediction: by 2030 two-thirds of the world will lack access to clean drinking water.  In light of all this, Back2Tap remains committed to donating 5% of our profits to help supply schools in need with clean water, through the Cental Asia Institute and to raising awareness about this issue.

If you are following the series on Toxic Waters by Charles Duhigg in the New York Times, his latest article is more encouraging.  A recent EPA news release says that the EPA is going to undertake a re-evaluation of its previous rulings on atrazine.  This could lead to stricter regulations, ie. lower acceptable levels allowed in our tap water.   Ah, this is what I was saying could happen if the issue was raised!  I’m not sure if there is any connection between peoples reaction to the Toxic Water series and this EPA decision, but it certainly gives you reason to believe the EPA is listening.  

The New York Times series “Toxic Waters” written by Charles Duhigg presents a disturbing view of our drinking water quality in the USA.  The first article about herbicides (atrazine in particular) points out that it is time to strengthen some of the federal drinking water standards in light of new research.  You can read more about it in my earlier Earthsense blog entitled “Don’t give up on tap water.”  The second article in this series is about industrial waste, particularly in the coal-mining region of West Virginia.   Basically, Duhigg says the 1972 Clean Water Act was largely successful at stopping the rampant pollution of our rivers, lakes, and streams, but over the last 10 years it has not been well enforced by the EPA or states.  Consequently, our water quality is going downhill again.  His third article is about agricultural runoff which is a type of non-point source pollution (it doesn’t come out of a pipe).  Most of this runoff is not regulated by the Federal government, and it is not well regulated by local governments.  Disposing of huge quantities of manure by spraying it on nearby fields has led to bacteria and parasites in local water bodies and drinking water wells in heavily agricultural areas.

Before you panic and revert to bottled water, you might want to follow the advice of the New York Times on-line article “How safe is your tap water?”  First visit the EPA drinking water quality reports that are available on-line to check out the quality of water in your town.  Then, find out the names of the polluters that are located near you, by visiting the interactive database of water pollution records for the United States that was amassed by The New York Times.  If you are one of the small percentage of people who have impaired drinking water from your private well or your public water system, your next best step would be to use some sort water filtration at home while you lobby your legislators for cleaner water.  Don’t assume that bottled water is any safer, by the way.  It is regulated by the FDA, an even more poorly funded and staffed governmental agency.

There is a positive side to the story.   The EPA reports that 92% of the population served by community water systems had no reported health-based violations.   There’s also hope that investigative articles like these will pressure the EPA and states to improve enforcement of the Clean Water Act laws that were wisely enacted to protect us all those years ago.  Finally, Lisa Jackson, the new head of EPA has acknowledged these problems and says she will address them.   The more people who raise these issues with regulators and politicians, the better chance we have of achieving meaningful improvements so that everybody in the United States will be able to drink their tap water and enjoy recreation in our water bodies without fear of getting sick.

Here is a win-win: invest in green jobs and upgrade our water infrastructure (the water lines and treatment facilities).  Looking For a Green Job? Grab Your Rain Boots explains that about $6 billion of the stimulus package money is targeted for water projects.  This is good for the economy in the short term because it will employ people and good for our pocketbooks in the long run because it will keep the cost of our drinking water down.  The alternative, bottled water, costs as much as 1000 times more than tap water!  Americans spent $66 billion on bottled water in 2007.  This prudent investment in local water-related projects is urgently needed to maintain the quality of our tap water

Can you imagine a day when we have to buy bottled water because our water lines are too leaky, our water plants are too outdated to provide clean drinking water, and our sewage isn’t treated thoroughly before being discharged to our rivers, lakes, and oceans?   We’re going to end up there if we don’t invest this money and even more in our water infrastructure.   Look what happened in New Orleans when they didn’t upgrade the levees that engineers said were inadequate?  Global warming was not the primary cause of the Katrina catastrophe; lack of investment to upgrade the levees allowed them to be breached and the city to be flooded so badly.  It was a man-made disaster.  Let’s listen to what the engineers are saying about our water systems! 

In the long run, these water-related projects will be a lot cheaper and less wasteful than relying on bottled water for our drinking water needs.  These are green jobs we’ll be drinking to in the future!

People often ask me which is safer – bottled water or tap water?  It may surprise you to learn that bottled water is not necessarily cleaner than tap water.  In spite of pervasive marketing  messages suggesting that it is better for you, it isn’t always.   Bottled water is regulated by the FDA and testing requirements are not as stringent as for tap water.   Spring water is the least thoroughly regulated water on the market. 

Tap water, on the other hand, is strictly regulated by the EPA.  Public access to detailed drinking water quality reports is manditory.   If you’d like to find out more about the water quality in your community, you can visit the Safewater page on the EPA website and click over to the Local Drinking Water Quality page and search by your zip code. 

If you want to find out what’s in your bottled water, forget it – it’s apparently none of your business!

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