I moved back to Georgia at the end of June 2016. Since that time, I have been through four — yes, really — water “crises” in Milledgeville in which it was unsafe to drink the water or shower in it. Last week, we had algae blooming in the water source, which isn’t harmful to drink, but tastes and smells bad. On Tuesday morning, after returning from a short trip out of town, my water turned shades of green (cold) and orange-ish brown (hot) before clearing up. I’ve yet to drink water from the tap at my house. Would you?
It could be nothing. It could be something. Either way, it looks gross, and I’d rather be safe than sorry. Therefore, I exclusively drink and cook with bottled water. (In case anyone’s wondering, the cats also exclusively drink bottled water. And yes, it crushes my soul a little to use that much plastic, but I buy gallons or larger and recycle the empty containers.) I get a little nervous every time I shower or wash a load of clothes that the water will turn either that green or orange-ish brown halfway in, but I’ve been lucky so far.
So, when WABE published a story that Georgia was fifth in the United States for drinking water violations, I wasn’t surprised. The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), the group that published the study, asserts that most of the state’s violations happen in rural areas or small towns, but a little bit of research found problems in Atlanta within the last five years, so it seems community size is actually irrelevant.
For example, in January, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on lead in drinking water at Atlanta Public Schools. A pending case before the Georgia Court of Appeals alleges that workers in Atlanta used the same equipment on clean water systems used for sewer systems, exposing millions of people to all the icky things one might find in a sewer in their tap water.
Overall, Georgia ranked eighth for most instances of excessive lead in drinking water (more than 40 parts per billion) with 81 recorded occurrences between the years 2011-2015. Our state also has one of the highest concentrations of polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs, in water, which most often occurs in watersheds near military bases, industrial plants, and wastewater treatment facilities. The 2017 Infrastructure Report Card by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave our drinking water infrastructure a C+, and they gave our wastewater systems a C.
Probably the most troubling piece of information from the study by NRDC was how few of the public utilities who commit the water safety violations are cited, and nationwide, only 3.3 percent face financial penalties for infractions of the Safe Water Drinking Act. I didn’t readily find the breakdown of this statistic for Georgia in the study.
Clearly, we have water system issues. The solution isn’t rocket science: Systems need to be upgraded or replaced, and oversight agencies need to have the personnel to investigate violations and enforce compliance. This takes funding, and that’s a problem.
The federal government has funded grants for many years for water treatment improvement in rural areas through the Department of Agriculture. More recently, states have been given revolving funds through the Environmental Protection Agency, but with its current level of funding, The River Network estimates there is $100 billion more in need than assistance available nationwide for just this year. In Georgia, ASCE identified a $93 billion drinking water infrastructure need over the next 20 years. That could leave localities in the driver’s seat. Residents of Milledgeville and Baldwin County, for example, voted in March to continue SPLOST for an additional six years, with one of the projects being to replace our over 100 year-old water treatment plant. (Hallelujah.)
Not every community is going to fund its SPLOST, though, and not every community with a SPLOST is going to use that money for drinking water improvements. CNN reported this week that President Trump is still considering a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, but in it, water projects have “low priority.” On the plus side, the EPA, which was facing deep cuts in the President’s proposed budget, was largely spared by the recent budget compromise (good through September). But even Trump’s proposed budget had slightly increased the funding for the agency’s revolving funds program — though it had simultaneously planned to eliminate the Department of Agriculture’s grant program for rural area water system improvements.
Given the focus in Georgia right now on I-85 and I-20 in the Atlanta metro area, infrastructure is a hot topic. But like at the federal level, the focus isn’t on water. The 2018 state budget does allow existing Department of Natural Resources funds to go toward water-related projects and planning, but no additional funds were appropriated for them. Roads are important, especially for the economic health of our state. However, clean water is essential. This issue is hopefully something we’ll consider more in the coming months and perhaps find solutions before the next legislative session in January.