National Drinking Water Clearinghouse
West Virginia University
PO Box 6893
Morgantown, WV

News and Notes (Winter 2004 )

Untapped Aquifers: Boon or Bane?

Recently discovered aquifers in South America and Africa could help water shortages in coming years. Unless the aquifers are used wisely, hydrologists warn, they could be exhausted fairly quickly. They could also become fuel for a series of international water wars.

Writing in the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) June 2003 Civil Engineering magazine, Greg Brouwer describes “an immense plume of freshwater beneath the surface of the Earth occupies 40,000 km3 under Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina. Known as the Guarani aquifer, this largely untapped resource contains enough water to meet the drinking water demands of the entire planet for the next 200 years.”

Another aquifer, the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System in northern Africa, may contain as much as 550,000 km3 of water. Currently, Libya is pumping 70 million cubic meters from the aquifer each year through one of the world’s largest groundwater systems. But, given that water takes an estimated 7,000 years to pass through the aquifer, recharge is a major concern.

“It’s absolutely critical for people to realize that since there is no recharging, the resource is not being replenished,” says Shammy Puri, chair of the Transboundary Aquifer Resource Management working group (part of the International Association of Hydrogeologists) in the ASCE article. “In some cases, people could use the resources to get over a shortage in the next five years, but they might run into difficulty in later periods.” International guidelines for accessing and sharing this water must also be established, Puri maintains.

To learn more about the International Association of Hydrogeologists, visit their Web site at To learn more about the ASCE, write to 1801 Alexander Bell Drive, Reston, VA 20191-4400 or call (800) 548-2723 or visit their Web site at

States Invest in the Environment
Despite well-publicized budget problems over the last few years, states’ spending for environmental programs has declined only slightly. According to the Council of State Governments in their summer 2003 newsletter The Environmental Communiqué of the States, “environmental and natural resource spending by the states show that despite a decline in state spending from the previous year, there is a continued state commitment to environmental protection.”

In 2003, states budgeted a combined $15.1 billion for environmental programs, down slightly from the $15.4 billion spent in 2002. The downside, according to the report, is that while the 2002 and 2003 levels are the highest ever in terms of dollars allocated, they are down as a percentage of total state budgets: from a high of 1.73 percent in 1991 to the current level of approximately 1.4 percent, “the lowest in 17 years of observation.”

Water issues—including water resources, water quality, drinking water, and marine/coastal programs—dominated state environmental spending at more than $4.6 billion. This was lower than the late 1980s and early 1990s when expenditures often exceeded $5 billion (adjusted to 2003 dollars).

Waste issues—including hazardous waste, solid waste, and nuclear waste—fared worse, dropping from a high of more than $4 billion in 1999 to $2.6 billion in 2003 (again, in 2003 dollars).

Federal support remains an integral component of environmental budgets. “As recently as 1999,” the report states, “the federal portion was as low as 24.5 percent, but it has increased each year since then, and during fiscal 2003, 33.1 percent of the states’ environmental budget is from federal sources.”

For more information about this report, write to the Council of State Governments at 2760 Research Park Drive, P.O. Box 11910, Lexington, KY 40578-1910; call (859) 244-8000; or visit their Web site

New Compound May Aid Mercury Cleanup
Mercury in drinking water is a bad thing. Removing mercury from drinking water is a tricky and costly proposition. But a new compound created by scientists at the University of California-Riverside may offer a solution.

Lead by Engineering Professor Wilfred Chen, scientists genetically modified bacteria to create a new molecule by adding the muscle protein elastin to the original bacterial protein. When heated, the new form tends to clump, allowing the resulting compound to be extracted.

When the scientists added the extracted compound to tainted water, it bound the mercury. Then, when the temperature was raised to 35°C, the complex clumped into aggregates that were easily separated in a centrifuge. Their findings—published in Environmental Science & Technology (ES&T)—show that the new material reduces mercury to concentrations permitted in drinking water. Further, its remedial action wasn’t hindered by other heavy metals during extensive testing.

According to Chen, using extracted compounds rather than intact bacterial cells, mitigates any risks associated with genetically-modified organisms being released into the environment.

More information is available on Chen’s Web site at For a pdf copy of the ES&T article, click on “publications” and scroll down to item #70.

Give the Gift of Water
Water may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about charitable giving, but three groups are out to change that.

Water for People—an organization founded by former AWWA President Ken Miller—is dedicated to supporting safe drinking water for people in developing countries. According to their Web site (, Water for People “has used water as a catalyst for change in communities throughout the world that lack access to drinking water, adequate sanitation, and hygiene education.” Last year, they helped more than 500,000 people.

Lifewater International— ( sends volunteers, including well drillers, geologists, engineers, health care professionals, scientists, and businessmen and women, to developing countries to help find and develop reliable water supplies. “Lifewater’s volunteers train nationals in developing countries with technical skills to improve their drinking water supplies,” says their Web site. “We donate all the necessary equipment to the trained national crew and continue to provide technical and financial support until they are self-sufficient.”

Noting that water-related diseases account for 80 percent of all sickness in the world and claim approximately five million lives each year, WaterPartners International ( seeks to rectify this situation by raising funds and working directly in communities that need help. Since 1990, Water-Partners has helped 29,000 people in 59 developing countries obtain accessible, sustainable, community water supplies.

RUS Loans: Poverty Rate Unchanged; Others Down
The Rural Utilities Service (RUS) recently announced interest rates for water and wastewater loans. RUS interest rates are issued quarterly at three different levels: the poverty line rate, the intermediate rate, and the market rate. Each has specific qualification criteria.

The rates, which apply to all loans issued from January 1 through March 31, 2004, are:
poverty line: 4.5 percent (unchanged from the previous quarter);
intermediate: 4.5 percent (down 0.25 percent from the previous quarter); and
market: 4.625 percent (down 0.375 percent from the previous quarter).

RUS loans are administered through state Rural Development offices, which can provide specific information concerning RUS loan requirements and application procedures.

For the phone number of your state Rural Development office, contact the National Drinking Water Clearinghouse at (304) 293-4191. The list is also available on the RUS Web site at

Cities Rated, Drinking Water Supply at Risk
Deteriorating water works, pollution, and outdated treatment technology are combining to deliver drinking water that might pose health risks to many residents in 19 of America’s largest cities, according to a report issued today. Bush administration proposals to weaken the Clean Water Act and other laws would exacerbate these risks, the study warned. What’s On Tap? Grading Drinking Water in U.S. Cities, a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), reviewed tap water quality in 19 municipalities, focusing on the effects of aging infrastructure and source water pollution.

The report rated three problem areas—water quality and compliance, source water protection, and right-to-know compliance—on a scale of excellent, good, fair, poor, and failing for 2000 and 2001. For water quality in 2001, only Chicago rated excellent, five cities rated good, eight rated fair, and five rated poor. None failed.
“Most Americans take it for granted that their tap water is pure, and their water infrastructure is safe,” said Erik Olson, the report’s principal author. “Our report shows that they shouldn’t.”

The report found apparent or confirmed violations of enforceable tap water rules in five cities over the two years reviewed (Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Fresno, and Phoenix), and violations of non-enforceable “action levels” or “health advisories” in many other cities. The report authors concluded that infrastructure and other water supply problems in these and other municipalities might pose health risks to some residents.

Although the report does not advise residents to stop drinking tap water, it cited medical experts who suggest that pregnant women and parents of infants consult with health care providers. Echoing recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NRDC also urged that people who have serious immune system problems (such as those on chemotherapy or people with HIV/AIDS) consult with health care providers regarding the safety of their tap water.

“Clean drinking water has been one of the major public health triumphs of the past 100 years,” said Dr. David Ozonoff, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health. “We’ve figured out how to build very efficient water delivery systems. But these systems can either provide safe drinking water or deliver poisons and harmful organisms into every home, school, and workplace. One misstep can lead to disaster, so we must vigorously protect our watersheds and use the best technology to purify our tap water.”

The report also evaluated efforts to protect lakes, streams, and groundwater serving as drinking water sources. Seattle has adopted excellent protection measures; four cities had good protection; four had fair protection; seven had poor protection; and Fresno failed.

Additionally, the study reviewed each of the cities’ mandated right-to-know reports, which are designed to inform residents about water system problems. Although NRDC found some informative reports, their opinion was that many were little more than public relations efforts that downplayed key information about contaminants and the problems they cause. No city received an excellent rating. NRDC rated eight good, six fair, three poor, and two—Newark and Phoenix—failed.

To protect drinking water, the report recommended that states and cities upgrade drinking water treatment facilities, invest in water conservation measures, and replace or update pipes and water distribution system components. The report also recommended that state and municipal authorities adopt standards and purchase land or easements that restrict land use to safeguard water to protect watersheds and areas above aquifers draining into water supplies.

For more information about the report, visit NRDC’s Web site at

Keeping the Customer Satisfied
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency commissioned the Gallup Organization to assess: (1) general drinking water consumer knowledge; (2) water use behavior; (3) public confidence with information sources; and (4) value placed on right-to-know efforts. Findings from the survey, published in August 2003, found “Americans recognize the importance of receiving information on aspects of their drinking water and value being informed.” Specific finds from the Gallup survey include:
• 94 percent of respondents were able to identify whether they were on a community water system (CWS) or private well
• 74 percent purchase bottled water with 20 percent indicating that they drink bottled water exclusively
• 37 percent use a home filtering device
• 29 percent read the annual consumer confidence report sent by their CWS. Of those who read their CCRs, 71 percent were satisfied with the information they received
• 71 percent said they were either “confident” or “very confident” about the quality and safety of their tap water.

For a complete copy of the report, write to the EPA Office of Water, (4101M) 1200 Pennsylva-nia Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20460 and request EPA 816-K-03-005. You may also e-mail them at or download the article at sumer/pdf/survey_gallup_customersatisfaction2003.pdf.

Preventing Nonpoint Source Pollution
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed a list of “Ten Simple Steps You Can Take to Prevent Nonpoint Source Pollution (NPS).”
1. Have your septic tank pumped and system inspected regularly.
2. Use fertilizers sparingly and sweep up driveways, sidewalks, and roads.
3. Never dump anything down storm drains.
4. Revegetate or mulch disturbed soil as soon as possible.
5. Clean up spills of vehicle fluids or household chemicals and properly dispose of cleanup materials.
6. Minimize pesticide use and learn about integrated pest management.
7. Direct roof drains away from paved surfaces and bare soil.
8. Take your car to a car wash instead of washing it in the driveway.
9. Check your car for leaks and recycle motor oil.
10. Pick up after your pet.

Also known as “people pollution,” NPS pollution is, according to EPA, “generated by individuals, rather than by factories. It can be resolved by the corrective actions of individuals, rather than through huge end-of-pipe spending campaigns.” To learn more about NPS pollution, visit the EPA Web site at

Water Demand Growing, Consequences Severe
A General Accounting Office (GAO) report released July 2003 noted that the demand on the nation’s water supply is intensifying. And even if drought does not occur, most states expect freshwater shortages within the next decade that may “have severe economic, environmental, and social impacts.”

Although the impending costs are difficult to estimate, the GAO said eight previous shortages in the last 20 years each resulted in $1 billion or more in losses. In the summer of 1998, a drought that ranged from Texas to the Carolinas cost an estimated $6 to $9 billion for agriculture and ranching businesses.

According to the report, “current trends indicate that demands on the nation’s water resources are growing. While the nation’s capacity for storing surface water is limited, and groundwater is being depleted, demands for freshwater are growing as the population increases, and pressures increase to keep water in-stream for fisheries, wildlife habitat, recreation, and scenic enjoyment.”

GAO officials surveyed state water managers and found 36 states expect water shortages within the next 10 years. Under drought conditions, 46 states expect shortages in the next decade. “Water shortages can also result in environmental losses,” the GAO said. “For example, diminished flows into the Florida Everglades have resulted in significantly reduced habitat for the wildlife population and a 90 percent reduction in the population of wading birds.”

The most recent comprehensive, national water availability and use assessment was conducted in 1978, the GAO report said. In that assessment, the U.S. Water Resources Council found parts of the nation had inadequate water supplies and growing demand, resulting in water shortages and user conflicts.

The most recent forecast of water use—but not availability—is a 1999 Department of Agriculture (USDA) report. That report projected a rise in water withdrawals of only seven percent, despite a 41 percent increase in the nation’s population since the last census.

“Yet, the forecast also warns of the tenuous nature of such projections,” the GAO said. “For example, if the most important and uncertain assumptions used in USDA’s projection, such as irrigated acreage, fail to decrease as assumed, water use may be substantially above the estimate.”

Trends, such as declining groundwater and rising population, “indicate that the freshwater supply is reaching its limits in some locations, while freshwater demand is increasing. Specifically, the building of new, large reservoir projects has tapered off, limiting the amount of surface-water storage, and the storage that exists is threatened by age and sedimentation. “Significant groundwater depletion has already occurred in many areas of the country,” noted the report. “In some cases, the depletion has permanently reduced an aquifer’s storage capacity or allowed saltwater to intrude into freshwater sources. Tremendous population growth, driving increases in the use of the public water supply is anticipated in the western and southern states, areas that are already taxing existing supplies.

“Demand to leave water in streams for environmental, recreational, and water quality purposes add to supply concerns. Finally, some experts expect that climate change will affect water supply conditions in all regions of the country, either through increased demands associated with higher temperatures or changes in supply because of new precipitation or runoff patterns.” Water managers told GAO that they would like to see the federal government do five things:
1. provide more financial assistance to plan and construct water storage and distribution;
2. collect more water data in more locations to help states determine how much is available;
3. give states flexibility in how they comply with or administer federal environmental laws;
4. improve coordination of federal agencies’ work with states on water and increase technical assistance to states; and
5. consult more with states on how federal agencies use their own water rights.

To download a copy of the GAO report, visit their Web site at