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4 Ways Drought Threatens U.S. Drinking Water and Aquatic Life

4 Ways Drought Threatens U.S. Drinking Water and Aquatic Life

The worst U.S. drought since 1956 has been affecting the taste, smell and appearance of tap water across the country. So far officials in places as far flung as Southern California and Connecticut claim that drought-caused water quality problems are an issue of taste and smell, not safety.

In Texas, Wichita Falls Utilities Operations Manager Daniel Nix explains that there is a difference between “potable” and “palatable.” Potable means the water is safe to drink. Palatable refers to the quality of taste and smell. Nix concedes some people are finding their tap water less than palatable.

1. Drought Worsens Sediment Runoff During Much-needed Rainfall

Parched earth does not absorb water as well soil that already contains some moisture. When summer storms cause sudden rainfall, more soils in drought stricken areas wash into rivers and streams than would have in non-drought conditions. Additional sediment can cause what’s known as turbidity problems, when particles suspended in the water give it a cloudy appearance. While unsettling, high turbidity isn’t necessarily dangerous. However, high turbidity must be reduced by a water utility. There is a Safe Drinking Water Act standard for turbidity because the condition sets utilities up for other problems, including bacterial growth within the distribution system (see points 2 and 3).

2. Warm Surface Water and Extra Sediment Encourages Algae and Bacteria Growth

Even northern lakes not known for algal blooms are seeing them this year. Lower the usual water levels, higher than usual temperatures, and extreme storm which dumped unusual amounts of sediment into Lake Superior set up conditions for extremely unusual blue-green algae, or pond-scum, growth in the lake.

Wisconsin pubic health officials are concerned that the algae “can produce cyanotoxins that remain in the lake for weeks—long after the algae bloom disperses. These toxins can pose numerous health risks for aquatic–bound life, including humans, if it comes into contact with the skin, or is ingested.

Warm water also causes bacteria growth in rivers and lakes: “While most algal and bacterial blooms are not toxic, it is nearly impossible to identify poisonous species without a laboratory analysis of a sample.”

Extra bacteria and unusual algae means water utilities and natural resource officials must add extra treatment chemicals to water supplies. Extreme chlorination is one of the complaints of residents in Darien, Connecticut, where discolored water and conflicting advice from authorities is alarming residents. A major algal bloom also hit the water supply in Southern California in July.

3. Lower Water Levels Mean Higher Contaminant Concentrations

As the quantity of water in reservoirs and lakes fall, concentrations of dissolved toxins rise. Nitrates, sulfites and any other soluble chemical dumped into waterways could be drawn into drinking water supplies at a higher ratio than normal, burdening filtration plants.

Officials in hard-hit Texas are concerned that water levels are so low that quality could “so degraded that advanced treatment measures, like reverse osmosis, would be required to produce clean supplies of sufficient quality,” said Samantha Heng, a Texas Water Development Board spokeswoman.

4. Increased Acidity of Water Ways Intensifies Toxic Effects on Wildlife

Humans are not the only creatures affected by drought-related water quality problems described above, but a recent study out of Baylor University shows gives us another reason to worry about wildlife during droughts. “As water levels drop, acidity levels of surface waterways increase. “The study found that drought conditions exacerbate the magnitudes of the natural pH shifts in the water. This is important, the researchers said, because some contaminants in the water, such as ammonia, are more toxic to aquatic life depending on the pH level.” Approximately a third of modern pesticides and many pharmaceutical drugs react this way and can “become more toxic to fish when surface pH levels are high.”

Are drought conditions affecting your local water supply? Share your story in the comments.

Related Reading

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This Drought is Opportunity to Think About Replacing Lawns

Fossil Fuels Sucking Up Our Water Amid Widespread Drought

Drought Raises Beef, Poultry Prices: Time To Go Meatless?


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10:48AM PST on Jan 21, 2013


5:18AM PST on Jan 21, 2013

We've got to be careful before using

7:44PM PDT on Aug 3, 2012

Water is what economists call an inelastic commodity - you have to have it to function, so total privatization is not appropriate. There has to be some public control of air and water, and power.

12:31AM PDT on Aug 2, 2012

Privatization of water is next in line before the water aquifers start disappearing and water wars begin. The future generations are going to have a hard time because of indifference and ignorance.

10:17PM PDT on Aug 1, 2012

thanks for the article

8:21PM PDT on Aug 1, 2012

@ Jeffrey H: Your post is quite right, George W. has also invested heavily in those companies who are buying up water rights. Pretty scary. Wanted to send you a green star but can't, your comment still deserves one though!

8:15PM PDT on Aug 1, 2012

All the more reason to oppose fracking which uses and then contaminates vast quantities of water above and below ground.

1:17PM PDT on Aug 1, 2012

I voted no, but then again petition have no space beneath to state why, I voted no.

Currently, our water is drawn from 450 feet below.

Just a mere 5 years ago it was 350 feet. It was estimated that Tucson would realize worsening water issues in 5 years, that would be now, but no. Why?

Duo to the all house fore closues, nation wide economic woes, the migration to Tucson slowed quite dramatically, thus relieving the concerns over water issues.

Only time will tell. With all the droughts and their length, all bets are off. Only time will tell, but are we ready to listen and to act accordingly. I, for one, think not.

11:17AM PDT on Aug 1, 2012

After reading this and other articles on how fragile water really is----does anyone still believe that water as a necessity of life can ever be consider a COMMODITY---- to be traded and withheld from those who simply need it like they need the air they breath, or will some predator profiteer force a new inverted reality as was tried in South America and done in South Africa demanding payment for water to simply survive. If so why is this allowed to happen. As a Canadian I truly resent any individual using their corporate status to redefine something we need and the planet needs as a resource to be bought and sold. Seems to me Russia learned a object lesson when they drained the Aral Sea to irrigate cotton fields. It remains a dead sea that continues to ruin the lives of people living nearby.

10:34AM PDT on Aug 1, 2012

Having been in the Midwest and South in the States recently and seeing the massive damage that this drought is causing, reinforces the mission of raising awareness of water conservation within the general public.

Sure they're thinking about it right now because it's "in their face" but water conservation needs to be a way of life all the time, every day, not just when it's bad.

Flying back to Western Canada and seeing how green it is here was amazing. It's exactly opposite of what is normal for this part of the world. Climate changes are real no matter what you call them or how you use them for your own agendas.

We need to change our behaviours to protect our valuable resources like water or it's not going to be pretty and I'm not talking just landscapes..."Blue Gold"? it is happening...

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