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Friday, November 12, 2010
After spending two years working to develop water and wastewater infrastructure in Mali, I have been back in New York for two months and have learned to see the place that I call home in a brand new light. People often ask me how I am adjusting back to America, and if I don’t have time for a real conversation I tell them “It’s really cold!” or “I really enjoy going to the supermarket!” But if you have the time to listen, I would like to share with you how after everything I’ve seen and done in the most underdeveloped corners of Africa, being back in America is in some ways quite unsettling – I would be dishonest if I didn’t tell you that I am thoroughly disappointed with my local tribe and clan.
In Mali I lived amongst a society of isolated, impoverished, unlettered farmers who have spent the past however-many millennia suffering and dying from completely preventable giardia and dysentery. I would go to a Minianka family’s house and see that they arranged their compost pile full of donkey manure only a few meters from the uncovered well from which they drew all of their drinking water, or that they had dug their well on one side of a mud-brick wall and that on the other side of that wall the neighboring family had built a latrine. I will admit that in moments of weakness I sometimes succumbed to pejorative views of the local culture – I thought that my community’s nonchalance, disinterest and at times visceral resistance to modern methods of sanitation were exclusive to the Minianka tribe. I would share these frustrations in letters to my friends back home and they would express their disbelief; one wrote back “My dog and your cat understand that they shouldn’t shit in their drinking water – how is it that these people haven’t figured out such a basic instinct of animal survival?”
Now that I’m back in America I can rest assured that the people of my home country aren’t simply pulling down their pants and defecating in the streets like many did in Sanadougou, and just about everyone in New York can tap water from groundwater wells or municipal water grids with indoor plumbing systems in the comfort of their kitchens. But apparently even in the supposedly-developed West, in the wealthiest corners of the wealthiest states in the wealthiest country in the history of human civilization, even my fellow tribesmen have yet to act on the basic truth that my friend’s dog and my cat grasped so well.
This rude awakening came to my attention when I visited my friend at her home here in South Salem, New York and asked for a drink of water – and she proceeded to take a bottle of Poland Spring out of the refrigerator.
“That’s not necessary – I prefer tap water.”
“No, actually it is necessary.” my friend explained, “Our tap water is unpotable!”
I was dumbfounded. “You mean to tell me that I just spent two years working to bring potable drinking water to an obscure tribe in a remote corner of Africa – but here in New York we can’t drink the water?”
“I’m afraid so. Give it a taste.”
I filled a glass with water from the sink, took a sip and spit it out in disgust. “This water is so salty it tastes like contact lens solution!”
“That’s because our chloride levels are off the charts! I’m pretty sure that it’s because in 2008 the Town of Lewisboro discontinued the use of sodium chloride to de-ice the roads during the winter, so beginning in the winter of 2008-2009 they started using magnesium chloride under the reasoning that it is less harmful to the environment. However, magnesium chloride is only half as effective in reducing ice as sodium chloride – so they had to use twice as much.”
She pointed out the window, “If you see right there – that’s our well, and it’s only a few meters away from the road. So when the snow and ice melt, much of the magnesium chloride flows downhill as runoff and then percolates down to the groundwater – the groundwater our well pumps up as our drinking water. Our chloride levels went through the roof – that’s why our water is so salty! ”
My friend explained that she started going to the supermarket to buy bottled water in bulk – but she needed to transport such an unwieldy mass of water every week, soon she found herself having to go to the supermarket every three or four days that she and her husband realized that they needed a more practical long-run solution. They signed up for Nestlé Waters to deliver five 5-gallon bottles of Poland Spring to their door every month for $39.95. Even though they are paying taxes to the Town of Lewisboro to ensure clean water – and de-ice the roads – they also to pay $479.40 every year to Nestlé Waters in recurring water expenses.
My friends in South Salem have to use Poland Spring not just every time that they want to drink a cup of water, but every time they make a pot of coffee and every time they cook spaghetti and every time they brush their teeth. Their dishwasher was leaving white saline residues on their dishes, it was corroding their stainless steel knives – and dishwashers can only operate with tap water, so if they didn't buy a water softener they would have to do their dishes by hand with Poland Spring.
The tap water is so salty here in this neighborhood that it can only be used for bathing, washing clothes, flushing the toilet and irrigating the lawn and garden. Though in all fairness, perhaps the drinking water supply in South Salem is not as bad as the foul wells my erstwhile neighbors drank from in Sanadougou in that at least it isn’t soiled with fecal matter. But that’s a lot more than they can say in Amherst, Massachusetts…
I recently drove up to my old college town to say hello to some old friends, including my Professor Jessica Wolpaw Reyes. If there is anyone in America who understands the value of clean water, it would be Professor Reyes; she is an economist specializing in the niche subjects of environmental economics, the economics of water and health and how these subjects intertwine. In fact, she has been making waves with a seminal paper in which she linked the levels of lead in the drinking water to crime rates. Her latest research is concerned with the adverse health effects of plastic packaging of food and beverages.
When I arrived at the Reyes’ household, I was surprised to watch my Professor open up the fridge and serve her kids from a plastic jug of Poland Spring. “Isn’t the conclusion of your next paper that we should stop drinking plastic-bottled water?”
“Yes, it is pretty terrible and I would certainly prefer not to, but my choices are limited. The town just discovered E. coli and fecal coliform in the drinking water, so unless I am going to boil or chlorinate every last drop of tap water we use to drink and cook and clean the dishes – which is quite impractical, frankly – I have no choice but to buy bottled. As much as drinking from plastic bottles might cause some forms of disease in the long run, at least it won’t cause immediate gastroenteritis…”
“… So you’re telling me that the municipal drinking water supply is contaminated with fecal matter – here in Amherst, Massachusetts…?”
“That’s precisely what I’m telling you. If you thought that these problems were exclusive to Africa, then you have a lot to learn about the sorry state of water policy in America.”
It turns out that the presence of E. coli and coliform in the Amherst water supply was probably fostered by three successive water main breaks over the course of October. Since these breaks were located fairly close to the water treatment plant they leaked vast quantities of chlorinated water, and as chlorine kills bacteria and microorganisms it breaks down itself, so as the newly-chlorinated water was flowing out of the broken mains chlorine levels in the later segments of the municipal water grid dropped to such low concentrations that E. coli and fecal coliform cultures could flourish unabated.
Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, the quality of water provided by a given plumbing system is only as reliable as its weakest pipe. All there needs to be is one single pipe which over the years (or only months) of chemical or physical duress has degraded to such a degree that it can no longer withstand the pressure of the water being pumped through it; eventually cracks form and the pipe will begin to leak. The pressure at the end of a hydraulic system is contingent on there being a constant volume of water inside, so if water is coming out at multiple apertures, pressure will drop accordingly. If there’s just a tiny little trickle at the end of a remote line, water pressure will reduce somewhat and water quality will decline – but in the grand scheme of things that’s not so terrible. What’s terrible is when a plumbing system has cracked in so many places or there’s one break so big that water is gushing out in such massive volumes that the pressure of the hydraulic system plummets so low that it becomes negative.
Negative pressure means that instead of pushing out the hydraulic system will be sucking in – usually air, which leads to rust buildup. This is what happened with the solar water pump-to-tap system we renovated in Sanadougou; the pipes were so damaged that water pressure was usually so insufficient that one could hardly get any water from the taps, and when the water did come it was so discolored and bad-tasting that no one wanted to drink it. If a plumbing system marked by leaking pipes and negative pressure were surrounded by nothing but air, it would probably be contaminated with only iron, manganese and iron bacteria – which is certainly bad, but it’s not the superlative worst thing that could happen to the water supply.
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any kind of water that I would be less enthusiastic about drinking than water contaminated with fecal matter. Writing from personal experience, take it from me that E. coli, coliform, giardia cysts and amoebas rank among the bottom of things that you ever want to down in your water glass. Okay… Vibrio cholerae would be worse – though I have no personal experience with cholera to serve as a reference point… Mercury, selenium, plutonium would be much worse – but these kinds of high-tech pollution are fairly complicated, and to be frank we Americans are nowhere near close to mastering even the basics of sanitation so for now I’ll just stick to the fundamentals; e.g. how to keep shit out of our drinking water supply.
Likewise, the most immediate problems of water sanitation are related to the fact that the water mains transporting potable drinking water from the treatment plant aren’t the only pieces of infrastructure that break. Just as water mains corrode and crack, so do the outflow pipes transmitting blackwater from toilets and greywater from sinks and washing machines and dishwashers to the municipal wastewater treatment plant. Or in low-density communities where wastewater is disposed via decentralized septic tanks and leach fields, a household’s sewage is jettisoned directly into the soil under the assumption that the wastewaters will be transmitted in such modest volumes that the soil will have the capacity to remove all of the impurities and the wastewaters can eventually merge with the groundwater without contamination.
However, all too often the effectiveness of a septic system is grossly overestimated or plots of land are subdivided and a neighborhood becomes exponentially denser with no commensurate improvement in wastewater infrastructure, and as the inadequate wastewater infrastructure is overused the ground becomes supersaturated with sewage.
If the water table is high and the capacity of the septic systems is insufficient for the population, then the groundwater will probably be contaminated with sewage and all of the dangerous bacteria and microorganisms that come with it.
This was precisely the case in the community built around Peach Lake in nearby North Salem. The oldest houses along the shore of Peach Lake date back from the 1900s, 1910s and 1920s when this community was just a small cluster of wealthy Manhattanites’ summer cottages – and when these oldest houses were built a century ago they were equipped with small septic tanks intended to be used only a few months every year. Though by the 1950s the sprinkling of summer cottages along Peach Lake had developed into full-blown suburban neighborhoods with more than 700 homes inhabited year round, they had grown to such a size and density that they really needed a municipal sewer system and a wastewater treatment plant – but all of the residents of this lakefront community were still disposing of their sewage with miniscule septic tanks meant to service the occasional Coolidge-era vacationer.
Lakefront communities are almost by definition situated on top of extremely high water tables – and Peach Lake was no exception – so all of their raw sewage was overloading the soils and contaminating the groundwater which in turn flowed to the lake. And eventually the pollution had built up so badly that by the 1970s Peach Lake had become a veritable cesspool; phosphorus levels were so high that algae blooms choked off the rest of the aquatic ecosystem, bacteria counts were so high that the town of North Salem had to forbid swimming and close the beaches.
If this kind of water pollution had happened to just any old pond, that would be pretty bad for the ecology of the pond and the health of the families in its immediate vicinity; however Peach Lake is not just any old pond – it’s a part of the Croton Watershed which contributes to the system of reservoirs which provide the supply of drinking water for New York City.
Consequentially speaking, the sanitary practices of my fellow New Yorkers in North Salem were really no better than those of the Haitians who are shitting upstream and drawing their drinking water downstream in the same Artibonite River. The only reason why people in the Bronx and Manhattan aren’t suffering from a cholera outbreak like there is now in Port-au-Prince is that the NYC Department of Environmental Protection operates what is one of the grandest water treatment systems ever established in the history of human civilization.
But I digress – back to water mains. A broken water main per se is such a grave threat to public health because a disruption in the supply of treated water can disrupt the chemical equilibrium throughout the rest of the entire water grid, and if chlorine levels fall like they did in Amherst this past October then the quality of the water in the main is free to return to its natural state i.e. full of bacteria. But keep in mind that if so much water is being lost that the pressure is not just low but negative, the hydraulic system is going to suck in whatever matter it can in the immediate vicinity of the break. Maybe the hydraulics will only suck in oxygen – not the end of the world. But imagine what happened when water mains inevitably broke around Peach Lake in North Salem…
Most households connected to a municipal water system are also connected to a municipal sewer system. When crews of masons and pipefitters and plumbers build one set of pipes, they usually build the other along the same routes because it is the most efficient method of construction. Hence it would be more than fair to say that most water pipes are built in the same neighborhoods as each other – usually they are built one on top of the other. Without proper maintenance, water pipes break. Without proper maintenance, sewer pipes break. And thus without proper maintenance, the water mains which were built to bring potable drinking water to its consumers can break and develop negative pressure and suck in raw, untreated sewage.
This scenario is more than just a hypothetical possibility; seeing that water pipes are generally laid in the same places where sewer pipes are laid – or septic systems, or storm drains or fire hydrants where dogs defecate, or fields enriched by organic fertilizer, or woods where wild animals lay their droppings – it would be fair to assume that any significant water main break is going to lead to some form of contamination of the water supply at least downstream from the aperture. This happens all the time in towns and cities far and wide in every region and climatic zone…
...from Los Angeles...
...to Staten Island...
...to Bleeker Street...
I cannot emphasize enough that every time a water main breaks like this – even when it doesn’t rupture with such sensationalist bravado – it carries grave implications for public health. A broken water main isn’t like a pothole in the street; it’s not a nuisance that we can just deal with until the next scheduled maintenance. Every time that a water main breaks, at least the portion of municipal drinking water supply downstream from that main should be considered as though it is contaminated with sewage. When you see a water main break in the United States of America, that means that everybody who depends on this system for drinking water is now at risk for the sort of waterborne diseases that you would expect to see in some Third World country – because when our massive water systems malfunction we might as well be drinking from some fetid hole in the ground. Every time that a water main breaks it is in all probability not just a freak occurrence – it is most likely an indication that the entire water and wastewater infrastructure upon which that populations depends is old and decrepit and that it has probably been grossly neglected and shortchanged of tens of billions of dollars and however many decades of necessary repairs.
So think of the ramifications that decrepit infrastructure led to in a small town like Amherst or North Salem and try to imagine how those problems could intensify and cascade in a much larger, more densely-populated metropolitan area of multiple millions of people. A good case study would be to see what happened this last May when a 10-foot wide underground water main connecting the Quabbin Reservoir to the municipal water system serving Boston and its suburbs ruptured in Weston, Massachusetts. To call this a “leak” would be an understatement – the broken main was dumping 8 million gallons of water into the Charles River every hour for 8 hours until the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority was able to shut the valve and cap the flow.
Governor Deval Patrick issued a state of emergency and boil water orders for over 2 million people in 30 communities; “This water is not safe for drinking” he declared. Mayor Thomas Menino also issued a state of emergency in Boston, alerted residents about the boil water order through the city’s reverse-911 system, distributed fliers and sent police officers to the streets declaring the boil water orders with bullhorns.
Unlike in Amherst where a boil water order was an inconvenience, in a densely-populated metropolitan area the size of Boston this was a full-fledged public crisis. Even if the city and the state issue boil water orders, this is not an option for the hundreds of thousands of Boston residents who don’t have functioning stoves or students who aren’t allowed to have hot plates in their dormitories. Not only private households but businesses were not able to function without immediate access to tap water; for restaurants, hotels, movie theaters and baseball stadiums that need water as an input in the food and beverages they sell, which have to be able to serve food and beverages at a certain temperature in large quantities, boiling water was simply impractical. The only way that people could go about their daily life was by stockpiling bottled water.
But the fact of the matter is that the free market in commodified bottles of water – in all of its efficient glory – has proved unable to meet the demand for potable drinking water. Living off of bottled water might be feasible in a small town like South Salem or even a large town like Amherst, but only because these are communities where the majority of residents are either college students whose respective schools provided for bottled water supplies in their dining halls and dormitories or they have cars and can drive down the road to a shopping center. Even if the local Stop N’ Shop is sold out of Poland Spring, those with cars can just drive to the supermarket in the next town over beyond the boil water order zone. Though in a city like Boston where the majority of residents don’t have cars and the T doesn’t go anywhere beyond where the boil water order was in effect, the stocks of bottled water sold to supplement the municipal tap system were too modest to supply the entire metropolitan population of 2 million. Stores were even sold out of sparkling water! Bostonians had to resort to brushing their teeth with seltzer! Bottled water was in such short supply that Governor Patrick had to call up the Massachusetts National Guard to deliver emergency drinking water supplies.
Bottled water has its virtues; it’s convenient, it carries the dependability of any brand-name consumer item, and it’s cheaper in the short run than investing in the durable infrastructure necessary to make tap water potable. Professor Reyes – as much as she’s against it – drank Poland Spring for the duration of Amherst’s boil water advisory. Some households – like my friends in South Salem – have given up on tap water entirely and have been drinking bottled water exclusively for years now. But as individuals and moreover as a society, we really cannot afford to rely on bottled water for our long term needs. I’m not even addressing the environmental costs of generating so much unnecessary plastic waste; to subscribe to Nestlé Water’s home delivery services, one has to pay a deposit of $20 for the dispenser – $22 for the stainless steel model, one has to pay the continued subscription costs of $32.96 for three, $39.95 for four, or $46.80 for five 5-gallon bottles of Poland Spring delivered to your doorstep every month. A year’s supply of home-delivered Poland Spring for a family of four would cost $581.60 – plus taxes. For a family with two professional-salaried breadwinners, $581.60 isn’t going to break the bank. But for a middle class family that makes $50,000 a year, the $581 of bottled water would add up to 1.7 percent of their total household budget – that’s a significant sum of money. In comparison, the Bush tax cuts of 2001 saved a family making $50,000 per an average of $1,825 each year.
My cousins Bob and Jane in Stamford, Connecticut have had chronic water problems with the water in their house that is pumped from their 50-year-old well; the water is turbid and acidic and it is full of high levels of iron, iron bacteria, manganese, nitrates and chlorides. They technically can drink their tap water – it is potable – but the water looks opaque, it tastes terrible, the chlorides are corroding the pipes and Bob’s doctor thinks that the high iron levels might be the cause of his blood pressure problems. So for 21 years they have been subscribing to Poland Spring’s home delivery services for the total cumulative cost of more than $12,000.
But recently Bob and Jane decided that enough was enough and they are now hiring plumbers to install a brand new well storage unit for $1,800 and a water softener for $2,800. “Wells were never meant to last forever – to just keep putting and putting this off is sheer insanity!” Bob explains, “It’s costing me an arm and a leg, but compared to what bottled water costs these investments are actually quite reasonable.”
We as a people have to start approaching our national crisis of inadequate water infrastructure the same way as my cousins Bob and Jane addressed the problem with their well and realize that it’s not a matter of paying or not paying. The choice we have to make is whether we are going to pay indefinitely for the damage caused by dilapidated water systems and tremendously expensive band-aids – or whether we are going to address the root of the problem and invest in durable water infrastructure so we can have clean drinking water now and save money and improve our economy in the long run.
Back to North Salem, after decades of environmental consultations and town meetings and board resolutions the communities around Peach Lake are finally getting the wastewater infrastructure that they need. Last year Congressman John Hall was able to secure $7 million of funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to pay for the construction of neighborhood sewage collection systems, a pump station and a treatment plant.
“Funding clean water infrastructure is a smart investment that will help protect public health and create long term value for years to come. This project will create local jobs and reduce the burden on local property taxpayers” Congressman Hall explained, “When I cast my vote earlier this year for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, this is exactly the kind of investment that I knew we needed in the Hudson Valley.”
We need to implement this kind progressive clean water agenda on a national scale. Our water infrastructure is falling apart because much of it dates back from before the Roosevelt administration – the Theodore Roosevelt administration. Especially in older cities like Boston, New York, St. Louis and Chicago many of the water mains and sewer pipes date from the Civil War era. Almost everywhere we need to step up monitoring, maintenance and basic repairs, but in many places after more than a hundred years of use and neglected maintenance the infrastructure has degraded so badly that it is beyond the point of no return. Here in Westchester County, much of the Croton Watershed which provides New York City’s drinking water supply dates back to its original construction in 1842 – in some places, the population of Manhattan’s drinking water is still transported via wooden aqueducts. Assuming that technology might have improved after a hundred years or so, the mere upkeep of antediluvian infrastructure will not suffice for our present needs. If we are to have a functioning society and economy we have to build significant swaths of our grids anew and lay brand new water mains and sewer pipes and construct treatment plants utilizing modern 21st century technology.
There are some members of Congress and elements of this administration who do understand the gravity of our inadequate water systems and who have begun to take action to finally invest in the modern infrastructure that we need. Though experts on these matters are contending that the Obama administration’s actions thusfar have been a good start – but nowhere near enough to repair, replace and modernize all of our corroded water mains, decrepit sewers and obsolete treatment plants. In 2002 the Environmental Protection Agency released a report estimating that the United States will have to spend as much as $390 billion over two decades simply to replace outdated wastewater infrastructure systems and replace them with new ones. In 2008 the Agency reported that the nation’s publicly-owned water treatment plants alone needed roughly $202.5 billion worth of investment. The American Society of Civil Engineers goes even further and estimates that in order to simply maintain our current levels of sanitation and drinking water quality we will need to invest $255 billion in our water and wastewater infrastructure – $109 billion more than currently-projected outlays – just over the course of the next five years. These numbers might sound staggering, but when you consider that over the past decade Congress has allocated $751 billion in emergency spending measures to fund the war in Iraq and $336 billion for the war in Afghanistan, an additional $109 billion in emergency spending to fund critical investments in our water and wastewater infrastructure in America actually seems quite modest.
As the 112th Congress convenes in January and begins what is certain to be a long, drawn-out budget showdown, lawmakers would be wise to heed the advice of the Environmental Protection Agency and the American Society of Civil Engineers and provide for increased spending on water and wastewater infrastructure. Understandably, this is a time when public officials are going to have to make tough choices between tax cuts, military bases, schools and roads – and water and wastewater infrastructure might unfortunately take the cut because the very most public of public goods doesn’t have a constituency as well-organized as the Oil Lobby, the Farm Lobby or the Defense Contractor Lobby. But unlike tax cuts for millionaires or the next generation of nuclear weapons, we don’t have a choice as to whether or not we are going to pay for our water systems.
We can choose to pay to maintain and repair and modernize our infrastructure now when it’s merely expensive, or we can choose to pay for our infrastructure later after all of our sewage treatment plants have collapsed and all of our drinking water systems are contaminated with fecal matter and all of our infrastructure is so unsalvageable that we have to replace everything from scratch – then it’s going to be really¸ really, really expensive. Paying for adequate maintenance is an incredibly more frugal policy than putting it off until we have to pay for more expensive repairs, paying for repairs is likewise more frugal than just letting systems collapse and having to pay for unnecessary new construction. I cannot emphasize enough that the rationale for investing in water infrastructure now as opposed to later is inherently conservative in nature. This goes out to all of you who can't stand wasteful spending; if we don’t invest in necessary public infrastructure, can you imagine how much more the American people would have to spend on Poland Spring home delivery? If you think that Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare are expensive now, can you imagine what the costs would be like when the American people are suffering from endemic gastroenteritis and giardia and dysentery?
Back in Sanadougou, my friends in the Minianka tribe stoically accept these waterborne diseases and the ensuing poverty and misery and death that define their lives as simple facts of life. When the Peace Corps sent me to live amongst them, my role in this foreign society was to shine a light on these problems that no one wanted to talk about, to connect the dots between the causes and the symptoms, and to show the Miniankas that if only they open their minds to change and invest the time and resources necessary to obtain clean water, then we could completely and thoroughly prevent all of this disease and stagnation from ever existing in the first place.
And now that I am back home, I think that my role in my own society might be more or less to same – though maybe it might be more complicated as my countrymen seem to think that the sheer mass of our GDP or our military might somehow set us apart from the basic facts of pathology. Indeed, we might have advanced computer technology and a developed commercial economy centuries and millennia ahead of Haiti, Kenya, Afghanistan or Bangladesh – but that doesn’t make the American people immune from the same bacteria and parasites that are keeping the various cultures of the Third World mired in disease and poverty. The presence of these contaminants in our drinking water does not have to be a fact of life, we can very easily change our practices and improve our infrastructure without sacrificing our cultural heritage and without breaking the bank, but with the same combination of obtuseness and reckless pursuit of absolute convenience, we – like the Miniankas who refuse to wash their hands with soap – act as though we are content with living amongst our own filth. I can forgive the Miniankas for their inadequate sanitation so long as they can plead ignorance to the science of disease transmission; I cannot extend that same generosity to my fellow Americans.
Do we in America really live in an incomparably advanced civilization? Are our ways in fact superior to the Germans, the Russians, the Chinese, the Indians… the Miniankas? Or are we just conceited by the intoxicating sophistry of American exceptionalism?
I think that in evaluating the relative greatness of a society, a good place to start would be to analyze the development of their sanitation practices and infrastructure. Upon this rude awakening to the realities of our water policy in America, I cannot help but share the sentiments of my late Grandpa Leon who used to shake his head and conclude, “We’re still swinging from the trees”. Though I would like to hold out hope that my people will be able to evolve in our ways – perhaps to the level of my friend’s dog or my cat – and that one day we will finally begin to keep our shit out of our drinking water.