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I posted an image a few days ago about the blue-green algae that is causing problems in many of the Finger Lakes waterways (and around the country). That piece was not intended merely to point out inconsistency, but also to have folks be clear about asking themselves the following question. “When I am concerned about something, where does that concern rank among the risks to the resource I am worried about?”

In other words, if you care about water quality, wouldn’t it be reasonable to ask yourself what the most serious risks to water quality are? And no, merely identifying the risks may not tell us how best to deal with the problems, but it does put the magnitude of potential problems in perspective. So, how does the risk of fracking fluids returning from depth compare to other contaminants to our water supplies? How does the risk of treated and untreated fracking water being put into the water supply by wastewater treatment plants compare to other potential contaminants to our water supplies? And so on.

I’ve long asked students to show me a list of threats to the water they are so concerned about, and I have actually never seen anything resembling one. I usually get a bunch of fluffy paragraphs pulled from some activist website. But John Hanger (certainly no right-wing tool of the energy industry) recently linked to the following story from Pennsylvania, which of course has been well understood by environmental economists for years, but basically ignored by everyone else. Why? Because it is just so common. As an analogy, if you asked people if the government should allow an odorless, tasteless, highly explosive gas to be piped into your house, where a small leak in a pipe could cause the entire house to explode, they would surely say No Way! But then ask them if natural gas stoves should be permitted in their homes and to a man they’d all say, “Of Course.”

In any case, here is the entire Hanger post, well worth linking in its entirety.

9 Billion Gallons Of Sewer Overflows in Pittsburgh Region & $2.8 Billion Clean Up Bill Dwarfs Statewide Gas Drilling Impacts

A main goal of this blog is to help its readers prioritize the biggest threats to water quality and to understand that, though gas drilling impacts are real, they are well down the list of the most serious causes of pollution of Pennsylvania’s waters.  A must read is yesterday’s Pittsburgh Post Gazette front page story about the massive amounts of sewer overflows that reach rivers in the Pittsburgh region multiple times each year.
http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/local/region/alcosan-sewer-project-gets-little-public-input-653713/.The annual volume of untreated sewage reaching rivers and streams is reported as 9 billion gallons per year and occurs in 30 to 70 storms annually, according to the Post Gazette.  And the bill for stopping this pollution and cleaning up is a staggering $2.8 billion.

To make matters worse, the same problem of untreated sewage flowing into rivers and streams that the Pittsburgh region is confronting is found in many communities across Pennsylvania as well as in New York and other states.  While America’s sewage overflow problem dwarfs the impacts of gas drilling on water quality, it normally attracts little media attention or sustained public concern.  There are no Hollywood stars campaigning to stop these huge amounts of sewage from going into rivers.  There are no HBO movies on the problem.

Normally, this huge source of pollution that threatens public health and safety is ignored or draws a yawn.

Congratulations to the Post Gazette for not yawning and for prominently and regularly reporting on its region’s struggle with sewer overflows.  Such reporting is vital for readers to understand what are the top impacts on water and what are not.

Hanger used to work for the Pennsylvania DEC (I think) and would not be called a “skeptic.” Instead, his website contains lots and lots of useful information on real and feigned threats to our environment, and almost always cuts through the fray in its presentation. Click back a few of his posts to see his calculations on why CO2 emissions have been falling.

4 Responses to “What are the Most Serious Risks to Your Water Quality?”

  1. We spend on average $633 dollars per capita on law enforcement and criminal justice and nonetheless lock our doors when we leave the house. We have public schools, public health, public transportation, public parks. We still accept responsibility for our own education, etc., etc. Government services are a baseline.

    If in these 100-plus years, untreated runoff and overflow is still a problem, then any of several considerations may be offered. Maybe the problem is permanent and unremediable. Maybe we accept this as normal. That means that we may have lowered our expectations to the actual level of service. However, the billions spent on bottled water suggest the opposite.

    Years ago, I met an engineer from Flint. When that city’s water was contaminated with e. coli, he began concepting his own in-home water purification system. I do not know how successful he was, but today, you have your choice of several commercial products.

  2. Harry says:

    One of the great things about this blog is that I can kick back and let Mike and Mike sweat over the research and then toss in an anecdote from a hayseed like me. Then, if I am lucky, Speedmaster weighs in with a terse piece of wisdom.

  3. Alex says:

    To compare risks to water quality, or at least solutions to reduce them, in addition to the costs of cleanup, don’t we have to ask: what are the costs of sewage, what are the costs of pollution, and what are the costs of dealing with each?

  4. […] the environment come out and argue seriously that we should “crucify” the government. Seriously. This is not even close to being tongue in cheek. The US Department of Defense is probably the […]

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