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Water, water everywhere, but is it safe to drink?


Introduction to a series


GHENT – Leonardo da Vinci knew; he said, “Water is the driving force of all nature.” Likewise, in 2002 the United Nations declared that every human has the right to safe and affordable water.

Water is essential to the functioning of our bodily systems. It carries nutrients and oxygen to the cells, flushes bacteria from the bladder, aids the digestive system, normalizes blood pressure, cushions joints, regulates body temperature and protects organs and tissues. It is the foundation of agriculture and essential to manufacture.

On average, Americans drink one to two quarts of water every day, according to the EPA. Harvard Medical School advises that four to six cups of water is sufficient if a person also consumes water through coffee, tea, juice, fruits and vegetables.

Recent events in Poughkeepsie (summer 2023 – one in ten children had elevated lead levels), Newburgh (the city’s main water source was found to be contaminated with toxic PFAs) and Hoosick Falls (toxic levels of PFAs were found in the town’s main water source and in private wells) prompt the questions: how safe is the water in Columbia County? What are the risks? What is government doing? What can individuals do?

A variety of federal and state laws regulate drinking water quality in water systems serving different population levels against certain specific contaminants. These days, water treatment generally removes most bacteria and several dozen regulated contaminants.

Depending on the contaminant and system size, testing and reporting for regulated pollutants is mandated.

However, the law only regulates a small number of contaminants, often allows unsafe levels of even regulated pollutants to pass muster and identifies and regulates hazards belatedly. In addition, some water treatment also creates hazards, and private wells are unregulated and, generally, only tested on installation or when a property transfers.

The principal systems regulated by law are public water systems, publicly or privately owned, that pipe water to 25 or more people or 15 or more service connections at least 60 days/year; community water systems, that serve people year-round in their homes; and non-community water systems that do not serve the same people year-round; these include schools, offices, factories, mobile home parks and campgrounds.

According to the 2018 Natural Resources Inventory for Columbia County, “groundwater supplies nearly all the drinking water for the county’s residents and businesses, except for those in the City of Hudson.” The public water supplies for the villages of Chatham, Kinderhook, Philmont and Valatie are sourced from groundwater wells. Hudson obtains its water from a surface water reservoir fed by the Taghkanic Creek.

In Columbia County groundwater is susceptible to contamination in the county from a variety of sources that include failing or inadequate septic systems, the air itself, run-off of agricultural products and surface run-off from roads and disposal sites.

What are the most significant contaminants faced in the county? The list includes: arsenic, which is naturally occurring; by-products of the water disinfection process itself; lead, which leaches from lead pipes; nitrites, a by-product of inorganic fertilizers and animal manure in agricultural areas; PFAs, a class of “emerging” and “forever” contaminants resulting from a host of manufacturing uses, that are now considered ubiquitous (98% of the U.S. population has detectable levels in their blood); microplastics, the tiny threads that enter the water system in innumerable ways from clothes-washing to tire degradation to plastic bottles; and pharmaceuticals, that flush through the human system and into the water supply or are dumped.

Later articles will address these pollutants, governmental regulations and measures being taken (or not) to address them.

But, as M. Elias Dueker, associate professor of Environmental and Urban Studies at Bard, points out, water quality is both “an intensely local issue,” about which every citizen should be informed, and one as to which many solutions are holistic. “We should ask ourselves why we live in a world where these contaminants are in the water at all? Since we can’t afford to fix the problems at the level of every treatment plant, we need to think about different patterns of regulation and consumption that address the issues upfront.”

Finally, and arching over all other consideration, is the question of how the changing climate will affect our water supply and systems.

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