40 Years of Progress

Recently, I was thinking about the 1970s. Among other things, this decade brought us great classic rock music, bell-bottomed pants, and the computer game Pong.

I was thinking about the 1970s because that is when I started my career in the drinking water industry, and later this month I will be retiring after 42 years in the drinking water field — nine at the USEPA, and 33 at American Water. I have taken this time to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’ve come in terms of drinking water quality, reliability and sustainability.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, largely in response to numerous catastrophic environmental events, such as the Cuyahoga River catching on fire from the high levels of pollutants in the river. The 1970’s also saw catastrophes like pollutants seeping up from the ground at Love Canal.

The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, and the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) in 1974. Prior to the SDWA, there was only limited Federal oversight of drinking water quality in the US.  The only Federal regulation prior to the SDWA was something called the “Interstate Carrier Program” – the only public water systems covered by Federal oversight were those that provided water to transportation vehicles that crossed state lines, for instance, buses, trains, and planes.  (When is the last time you took a drink from the rest room on the bus??).

In its first version, the SDWA regulated coliform bacteria, turbidity, 9 inorganics, and 6 pesticides. The lead standard was over three times higher than it is today.  The original turbidity standard was more than three times what it is today.  Inorganics such as silver and selenium were among the first contaminants regulated by the SDWA; these may not have posed the highest risk or had high occurrence, but they could be measured in the lab.

Over the years, the US has encountered various new and unexpected threats.   Contaminants we had never heard of before.  Trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene.  Giardia lamblia.  Cryptosporidium.  Wait, say that again…. Cryp – to – spor – id – ium.  What is that?  (And there was no Google or Wikipedia to easily find out).   And we also learned that sometimes, well-intended practices had unintended consequences – asbestos and lead were once used in piping materials, chlorination kills bacteria but can result in trihalomethane formation.

The US water industry made great strides in meeting each of these challenges. Not perfectly and not completely, but great progress has been made in protecting public health.

The US water industry still faces many significant challenges in the future. The infrastructure is aging.  Changing climate threatens the resiliency of our water and wastewater systems.  We can now measure contaminants down to the parts per trillion level – what are the health effects of contaminants at these microscopic levels?

But if the last 40 years is an indicator, we’ll make great progress in meeting these challenges. We’ll use structured, risk-based decision-making.   We’ll use new technologies to make our systems “smarter”.  It will take money, expertise, and commitment.  If we continue to invest and innovate, we can continue provide safe and reliable drinking water service.

Looking back at the 1970s through the 40 year rear view mirror, it’s interesting how our technology, policies and priorities have evolved, and for the most part, improved.

One thing hasn’t changed though – the 1970’s classic rock is still really great.