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New weather, old pipes challenge nation’s water supply

Environmental Hazards: USA

February, 2007
Much of the United States – particularly in the Great Lakes and the Northeast – has combined sewer systems, in which sewage is carried to treatment facilities, but can overflow into rivers and lakes during storms. Add climate change to the recipe, which already has brought significantly higher rainfall to some parts of the country, and “This means more people in danger of getting sick, and likely more people are getting sick already.” In the summer of 2004, 1,450 people reported being ill in a resort community in northern Ohio with campylobacter, norovirus, giardia and salmonella. That summer was marked by rainfall that was 150 percent above the 50-year average. The difficult separation of drinking water and sewage may face more challenges than its aging infrastructure can withstand as unpredictable weather conditions produce floods that beset the nation. “Outbreaks of waterborne illness are like the plane crashes of the water industry. They’re the big events that get people’s attention. But there are other things going on. Beneath the big outbreak, we could have 5 percent of people getting sick and it wouldn’t even be reported." The nation needs better ways to monitor the safety of drinking water. The recipe for disaster is there, including intake points for drinking water are not consistently shielded from the sewage that periodically spills into surface waters; there is inadequate monitoring of the rivers, lakes and streams that provide drinking water and the quality of the treated drinking water; and there are signs that the water and sewer pipes are getting old.

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