Newsbrief Archive

Water Currents News - November 2015

US Water Quality Is Good but There’s Much Room for Improvement​

Water quality in the US compares favorably with all other industrial countries but, in truth, this is a global problem. It can vary greatly from region to region, but there are major issues virtually everywhere.

Here in America, industrial agriculture, contamination from pharmaceuticals and personal care products, chemical dumping and aging infrastructure are among the many sources of pollution that are affecting water supplies.

In a recent report, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) cited three major components necessary for high water quality: 

  1. Lakes, streams, reservoirs and wells must be protected from pollution
  2. Pipes must be sound and well-maintained
  3. Modern treatment facilities are a must


Water Pollution Overview

The EPA has reported that a large majority of our natural waterways–many of which provide our drinking water–are “impaired,” meaning that they are “too polluted or otherwise degraded to meet the state water quality standards.”

For example, a 2015 EPA study found that 19.5 percent of assessed lakes, reservoirs, ponds were impaired when it came to providing public drinking water and 43.5 percent did not meet quality standards for “fish, shellfish and wildlife protection and propagation.”

Similar results were obtained for assessed rivers, streams, bays and other natural sources that provide drinking water and sustain wildlife.

For coastal shorelines and ocean waters, which don’t provide drinking water, the impairment levels were shockingly high. The coastal shoreline impairment level for “aquatic life harvesting (fishing)” was 93.3 percent, with mercury cited as the top pollution source.
According to the study, the Great Lakes shoreline was 98.2 percent impaired.

Industrial Agriculture

Industrial agriculture, with a strong reliance on chemical fertilizers, is one of the leading polluters. Nitrates from heavily fertilized fields can leach into groundwater, contaminating local water supplies.

Industrial livestock farms are another major source of pollution. These farms store manure and other farm waste in large tanks that frequently leak, rupture or overflow. Because livestock animals are fed antibiotics and other chemicals, their waste contains toxic materials.

Although industrial farms use the manure as fertilizer, there is usually far more animal waste than is needed. When it rains, the animal waste runs off into local water systems, causing serious pollution problems.


Pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) are another significant source of water pollution. Studies have revealed that certain drugs, antibiotics and steroids in particular, have dangerous concentrations in our water supply. These pharmaceuticals are excreted in urine and find their way into the water system.

In addition, chemicals from soaps, shampoos, lotions, detergents and other household products are draining into the system. Water treatment plants are not currently equipped to filter out these contaminants.

Aging Infrastructure

Like natural gas and electrical utilities, water utilities are facing a serious issue with water distribution lines. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gave the country’s drinking water infrastructure a grade of D.

Some of the water pipes currently in use date back to the 1860s. The report noted that “much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life.”

The amount of failing pipelines and equipment seems to support the above premise. According to the American Water Works Association, there are an estimated 240,000 water-main breaks per year in the US.

Full replacement and repair of the water distribution system has been estimated at more than $1 trillion and another $1 trillion would be needed to modernize wastewater treatment infrastructure.

What’s Next?

There are several cities that are doing a good job in protecting the local water supply. In particular, the NRDC study cites Seattle, Boston, San Francisco and Denver as providing clean, healthy water for residents and businesses.

But, the report says, “many other cities have a long way to go.”

According to many experts, a sustainable solution to the problem, however, is most likely going to require legislation and many years. 

Education about preventing water pollution is a big step in the right direction. Water conservation, which alleviates some of the strain on the system, is another area that can improve water quality. In your efforts to create awareness, promote water quality, and change behaviors, consider the following educational resources:

  • Water: A Vital Resource Brochure (#43050)
  • Water Quality Slideguide (#84110)
  • Water and Your World (#37130)


For information on water quality educational resources, contact us at 800-428-5837, email, or visit