With news that California has left half a billion dollars in safe-water funding unspent, there is one solution the state can offer.
The Bee's April 24 editorial "Water funds go unspent, even with tainted taps" rightly points to regulatory reforms that make great sense. But community and individual empowerment can also be a major help. And the systems behind such empowerment can actually help lead the way to the future of how we all think about clean water.
Typically, we think of conventional and expensive municipal treatment plants when there are contamination concerns. These plants are part of the solution, but they are not the whole solution.
Another part of the answer is what is typically called POU/POE systems point-of-use/point-of- entry treatment at or close to the faucet. These systems are devices that fight contamination right before it comes out into our drinking glasses or even as water enters a building. Another way to think of them is as the "final barrier" treatment done after water has gone through municipal plants and the system of public pipes.
Approved POE/POU water treatment systems are a safe and effective answer for many communities now, especially where central treatment is not economically feasible. More communities should be allowed to pursue this option.
Currently in California, only communities with fewer than 200 service connections are allowed this option under emergency regulations set by the Department of Public Health. This solution should be made available to larger communities, as other states have done, such as Arizona, Nevada and Idaho.
We know these systems can work, because we have seen examples.
In 2005, NSF International, an independent, nonprofit company that administers health and safety programs, conducted a thorough study on a centrally managed point-of-use strategy implemented in the community of Grimes, in Colusa County. In that town, nearly all the residents agreed to the installation of point-of-use systems in their homes. The conclusion: A final barrier system cost less than half the projected cost for central treatment.
Homeowners who faced elevated levels of arsenic had appropriate systems placed in their residences. Through rigorous analysis, researchers were able to calculate the cost of such systems against estimates for a central treatment plant. Central treatment would have cost more than $24 per month, according to the NSF International report. Depending on the level of monitoring and sampling, the point-of-use system was estimated at between $11.46 and $18 per month. The systems were successful and cost-effective.
Arizona leads the nation with its successful point-of-use program, and Idaho has at least 33 public water systems with point-of-use or point-of-entry treatment to address arsenic, uranium, fluoride and nitrate. New Hampshire also has 15 public water systems with point-of-use devices and two systems with point-of-entry devices for arsenic compliance.
What's more, robust testing and certification for safety and effectiveness of these devices exists, through independent and thorough processes.
By giving residents and communities the flexibility to address immediate concerns, the state will take a major step toward finding the comprehensive solution it needs.
In addition to expanding the use of community-based systems, homeowners should be aware that they can find independently certified water treatment products to fit their individual needs right now. For example, at wqa.org, you can find out about devices that have been tested and certified according to respected independent standards.
There is another compelling reason why final barrier treatment should be looked at more closely by policymakers and consumers.
The larger reality that we need to face as a society is that crumbling infrastructure will make it more and more important for people to put protection right in their homes.
It is a little known fact, but the truth is that only 1 percent of all municipal water is consumed by humans. The other 99 percent flushes toilets, waters lawns and supports cleaning, commercial and industrial processes. With the emergence of issues such as pharmaceutical and endocrine disrupters, our old paradigm for water treatment will be challenged beyond its limits.
In all likelihood, the future scheme for treating water will be to treat it once at the central plant to a level that will ensure the immediate health of the general population. Then, we will treat that portion of the municipal water that is intended for human consumption that 1 percent with the final barrier in our homes.
California can help lead the way by promoting the use of more final-barrier systems. After all, clean, safe water is a basic human right. It is up to all of us to make it a reality.
Dave Haataja is executive director of the Water Quality Association.