Why is monitoring water quality important?

Water quality monitoring is necessary to alert us to potential risks to the water supply.  Assessing water quality helps to protect our country’s water resources and informs policymakers on the measures needed to prevent disasters.

Who monitors and assesses water quality?

Federal, state, and local agencies as well as universities, dischargers, and volunteers take part in water quality monitoring. At the federal level, the EPA, the United States Geological Survey (USGS), US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Water Quality Monitoring Council (NWQMC) cooperatively administer the Water Quality Portal (WQP). This repository integrates water quality data from over 400 state, federal, tribal, and local water management agencies.

Scheme of water quality portal (Source: EPA)

The EPA’s contribution to the portal comes from the STORET Data Warehouse. USGS’s water information is stored in its National Water Information System (NWIS) Database, which contains current and historical data from more than 1.5 million sites across the US.

The USGS also hosts the  Advisory Committee on Water Information (ACWI), which represents the “interests of water-information users and professionals in advising the Federal Government on Federal water-information programs and their effectiveness in meeting the Nation’s water-information needs.”

Additional monitoring resources are available for groundwater. Under the ACWI, the National Ground-Water Monitoring Network (NGWMN) compiles data from Federal, State, and local groundwater monitoring networks across the nation. This information is used to plan for, manage, and develop groundwater supplies for current and future demands.

A comprehensive list of water monitoring resources can be found here.

If water was being monitored, why did the Flint water crisis occur?

After the city switched the water supply to the Flint River in April 2014, residents reported foul-tasting, reddish water coming from the tap in the summer. State and federal agencies detected elevated lead levels; however, they did not share the results publicly for months. It was not until external researchers from Virginia Tech measured and reported lead concentration in the water and the children’s blood that officials took action.

According to the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, the water crisis in Flint “occurred when state-appointed emergency managers replaced local representative decision-making in Flint, removing the checks and balances and public accountability that come with public decision-making.” Michigan is one of only two states where the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exempts the Governor and Legislature from requirements to release documents and records to the public.

To prevent such disasters from happening again, compliance for transparency and accountability is needed at all levels of government.  State and city agencies should be prepared to respond to FOIA requests from citizens and outside groups.

The role of citizen scientist in water quality monitoring

The disaster at Flint demonstrated the importance of citizen engagement and the role of experts outside of government in monitoring water quality. Today, there are 350 Volunteer Monitoring Groups and 20 Volunteer Monitoring Service Providers involved with water monitoring. These efforts augment current monitoring capacity and help the public understand their water quality. Citizen science also drives the development of inexpensive water monitoring technologies.

How can I as a citizen know what is in my water?

Obtaining a water quality report or consumer confidence report (CCR) from your local water authority is the first step to understand what is in your water. These reports tell where the water comes from, what contaminants are present, and if they pose a health threat.

Additionally, you can hire a local laboratory to test the water.  The Water Systems Council has links to resources in each state to carry out these tests.

Home water testing kits are also available at hardware stores. They detect metals, including lead, copper, and iron, as well as ions like chloride, nitrates, and nitrites. They can also test for pH and the presence of bacteria and pesticides.

What are my options for home water filtration?

In recent years, home water treatment systems are becoming widely available.  To ensure strict standards of public health, the filters or treatment systems should be certified by NSF, an organization that provides product testing, inspection, and certification services for water quality and safety.  The choice of filtration system is determined by the type of contaminant you wish to remove. There are two main types of water treatment systems for the home:

Point-of-use (POU) systems treat the water at the point of use.  These systems include water pitchers, faucet filters, refrigerator filters, under-the-sink systems, and reverse osmosis (RO) systems.

Whole-house/point-of-entry (POE) systems treat the water as it enters a residence or building. In municipal water supplies, they are usually installed near the water meter. Whole-house treatment systems include UV microbiological systems, water softeners, and whole-house filters that remove chlorine, taste, odor, and particulates.