On World Water Day, Let's Work to Protect Texas' Drinking Water

Photo by James Moran

In many parts of Texas, we expect that when we turn on our taps, we’ll have access to abundant, safe and clean drinking water. In fact, many people think of contaminated drinking water as a problem that happens to other people in other parts of the world.

The recent crisis in Flint, Michigan, forced us as a nation to realize that these problems can also crop up close to home. As we celebrate World Water Day today, let’s consider a few of the threats to our drinking water right here at home — and what we can do about them.

Our aging infrastructure has been getting the most attention recently, but there are many other threats to our drinking water, from stormwater and urban runoff pollution and to corporate agribusinesses.

Since the time of Roman aqueducts, water infrastructure has been a hallmark of advanced civilization. Yet we have let our public drinking water systems crumble in neglect. The EPA now estimates that communities face a $384 billion backlog to repair drinking water infrastructure across the country.

Here in Texas, the City of Keller in Tarrant County, just submitted an initial application to the Texas Water Development Board for $12 million in low-interest loan through the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT) to replace aging asbestos-cement piping that is more than four decades old. Not only do these pipes pose a public health threat, with the potential to contaminate the drinking water with asbestos to the 42,000 people that rely on the system, but also results 514 acre-feet of water, enough to supply more than 500 families of five for an entire year.

Even worse, a new report released last week by the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit, non-partisan environmental group, found that drinking water systems that serve more than 51,000 people across 34 Texas communities had exceeded Safe Drinking Water standards for arsenic.

As if dangerous chemicals like asbestos and arsenic weren’t enough, corporate agricultural pollution is also threatening drinking water here in Texas and across the country. In northeast Texas, a chicken processing plant operated by Pilgrim’s Pride (now owned by the Brazilian firm JBS) is the largest source of nitrogen pollution that has contributed to water quality problems in in Lake o’ the Pines. The lake — a prime recreational resource for the region — has suffered in recent years from fish kills, algae blooms and beach closures.

And recently, the threat of urban runoff and stormwater pollution has gotten more attention, especially in regions of Texas that are prone to flooding. In urban areas, including the greater Dallas region, impervious surfaces such as parking lots and roadways serve as swift conduits for runoff containing litter, toxins and heavy metals and other dangerous substances. While these pollutants come from a variety of sources all across the region, it ultimately ends up in our drinking water sources.

Litter, toxins and pathogens not only damage our waterways and blight scenic areas but also are dangerous to the health of humans and animals that rely on the waterways. That’s why we will be pushing for tougher pollution controls in new permits for regions across the state, including Houston and Dallas, and working to support a strong new EPA rule that would require increase stormwater pollution controls for cities with 100,000 residents or fewer.

We believe all Texans deserve safe drinking water. We know what it will take to achieve this vision. First, we need to restore or repair the public infrastructure that brings water to our taps. Second, we must protect the rivers, streams and aquifers from which we draw our water, both from pollution and from unnecessary and wasteful withdraws. Third, we need to require cities to reduce stormwater pollution by implementing green infrastructure and common sense low impact development. And finally, the public must have the right to know about water pollution — with robust monitoring of our waterways, regular testing from our taps and standards that truly protect public health.

It will it take political will to build on this progress. So on this World Water Day, let us vow to keep drinking water on the forefront of our minds even long after stories of Flint have left the front pages of our papers.

Sara E. Smith

Staff attorney for Environment Texas

@Sara_in_ATX

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