New weather, old pipes challenge nation's water supply

February 16, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO -- The difficult separation of drinking water and sewage may face more challenges than its aging infrastructure can withstand as unpredictable weather conditions produce floods that beset the nation, a Michigan State University water expert says.

The nation needs better ways to monitor the safety of drinking water, Joan Rose, MSU's Nowlin Chair in water research, told the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting Friday. Her talk, "Drinking Water and Health: Forecasting Pathogen Risks in the Great Lakes," focused on ways to identify health threats before an outbreak.

"Outbreaks of waterborne illness are like the plane crashes of the water industry," Rose said. "They're the big events that get people's attention. But there are other things going on. Beneath the big outbreak, we could have 5 percent of people getting sick and it wouldn't even be reported. It can be below our radar screen but a sign of trouble.

"We don't have time just to wait for the plane crashes, because our infrastructure is going to take a long time to fix. We need to pay attention to our infrastructure, and were not doing it."

Rose's Great Lakes work is part of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration effort to develop forecasts of water quality problems for lakes, rivers and streams. She said much of her Great Lakes work is focused on a water resources system that puts its faith more in water treatment than watershed protection for providing safe water. Focusing solely on treatment, she says, puts the water systems in peril from both overwhelming weather events and contaminants that resist conventional treatment.

The recipe for disaster is there, including intake points for drinking water are not consistently shielded from the sewage that periodically spills into surface waters; there is inadequate monitoring of the rivers, lakes and streams that provide drinking water and the quality of the treated drinking water; and there are signs that the water and sewer pipes are getting old.

Much of the United States - particularly in the Great Lakes and the Northeast - has combined sewer systems, in which sewage is carried to treatment facilities, but can overflow into rivers and lakes during storms.

Add climate change to the recipe, which already has brought significantly higher rainfall to some parts of the country, and Rose said, "This means more people in danger of getting sick, and likely more people are getting sick already."

In the summer of 2004, 1,450 people reported being ill in a resort community in northern Ohio with campylobacter, norovirus, giardia and salmonella. That summer was marked by rainfall that was 150 percent above the 50-year average.

Rose said an overflow of sewage into Lake Erie ultimately had an impact on groundwater. Both wastewater management, rainfall and lake events were predictors of the potential risk.

Rose also will give a talk Sunday on "Collaborating for Quality in Science-Based Risk Assessment" to propose models for coping with crises in water management before they result in illness.

"You don't want this to happen in your community," Rose said. "Why can't we identify these communities, especially those vulnerable to high-risk storm and rain events? It's a no-brainer, but we just get complacent about it."
For photos, links and full coverage of MSU at AAAS, see

NOTE: Joan Rose can be reached Feb. 15-19 at AAAS on her cell phone at (517) 614-1860. Sue Nichols can be reached on her cell phone at (517) 282-1093.

Michigan State University

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