Water Quality


Judged by almost any metric, water is the most precious of Earth‘s resources. It is an essential element in the maintenance of life on this planet. Only a few days without the consumption of water is enough to kill a person and the availability of clean drinking water is a  necessity for the survival of humanity. A polluted supply can create a plethora of problems for those without access to proper water infrastructure, making the quality of drinking water a critical factor for the healthiness of communities across the globe.

The irreplaceable role played by water became an object of a recent study by the Form VI Environmental Science class. Water quality can vary wildly depending on location within this country, with the most egregious example of Flint, Michigan, but our intent with the study was not to compile a list of the “worst offenders” but rather to look into the unique situations of a selection of major cities. The class examined the quality of tap water in St. Louis and compared it to what is known about the water quality in five other major American cities. A summary of the class’s key findings can be found below.

St. Louis’s tap water is regarded as quite safe and clean. No violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act were detected from Oct. 31, 2018, to Dec. 31, 2021, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s ECHO database. The area’s clean water is drawn mostly from the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, supplied in a daily quantity of 150 million gallons from two local purification plants. There is some lead contamination, largely stemming from the city’s continued usage of lead service pipes. Preferably there would be no traces of any such contaminants within a given supply, yet the small amount of lead found in St. Louis’ water does not breach any federal regulations or safety standards. St. Louis enjoys an enviable supply of high-quality water, with it even being claimed as having the “Best Tasting City Water in America” through a blind taste test of over 90 cities conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 2007. 

Chicago boasts a supply of safe-to-drink tap water that is regarded as good-tasting, similar to St. Louis. But similar to St. Louis is a concern over lead contamination. A study performed by the Chicago Tribune found that 30% of sample tap water from 2,797 Chicagoan homes had levels of lead contamination higher than 5 ppb. Certain locations in the city were discovered to be severely polluted, such as the case of two outdoor drinking fountains with lead containment levels of 75 and 50 ppb, well over the EPA’s action level of 15 ppb. While these last two extreme cases are not indicative of Chicago’s overall water quality, they nevertheless represent a larger issue with lead pollution than is found in St. Louis. 

New York City claims to have some of the best tap water in the country, with some even being so bold to call it the “champagne of tap water.” The Catskill and Delaware watersheds in upstate New York provide more than 90% of the city’s water supply, the remainder coming from the Croton watershed. The pristine watershed water of New York City means that it is one of few municipalities not required by law to filter its own water. According to a report by the Environmental Working Group, 6 cancerogenous contaminants above health guidelines were found in the supply of New York City’s water system, though all below EPA regulations. As in any setting, there are water quality discrepancies, with some neighborhoods possessing more contaminated water than others. Older houses still equipped with lead pipes in the city have caused high concentrations of lead in the local water supply. Though on the whole, New York City has a level of water quality that is very impressive considering the size and age of the city. 

Seattle is another city with clean tap water but the way the water reaches the city is quite different. Seattle’s tap water is screened from the Cedar River watershed then sent on to the Lake Youngs Reservoir. Resting in the open reservoir, the water is subjected to a chlorination system that utilizes ozone, chlorine, and ultraviolet light to kill naturally occurring bacteria and protozoa in the supply. After such measures are taken, the water is distributed to Seattle residents and it is a testament to the effectiveness of open reservoirs. 

Melted snow from the Northern Sierra Mountains and East Sierra Mountains gives the city of Los Angeles an ample supply of clean water, transported through a network of aqueducts. LA’s tap water is considered to be generally safe, as its water utility organization has never committed a violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. However, an estimated 370,000 Californians rely on drinking water that may contain high levels of the chemical contaminants arsenic, nitrate, or hexavalent chromium. While this situation has “spooked” many Angelenos into primarily relying upon bottled water for their drinking needs, their city’s tap water is seen as safe under SDWA guidelines and EPA limits. 

Finally, our investigation looked at Miami. According to the EPA, Miami’s tap water is safe to drink yet poses risks such as pollution from microplastics and leaching from pipes. Groundwater sources account for 90% of Miami’s tap water, as well as for Florida in general. The Miami area gets most of its drinking water from the local Biscayne Aquifer and groundwater has a potential risk of being contaminated by numerous sources. Power plants, landfills, hazardous waste locations, and agricultural farms all have the potential of emitting impurities in the ground and ultimately into the water supply. At three regional water treatment plants operated by the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Authority the water is softened (a process entailing disinfection with chlorine and ammonia to form chloramine), filtered, and fluoridated before being stored in underground reservoirs and tanks. According to an Environmental Working Group report, two contaminants above health guidelines were found in Miami’s water, yet such are still below the legal limit set by the EPA. Since Miami’s tap water comes from the ground it can be brackish and become yellowish when mixed with chlorine, yet the wide usage of popular water filters such as TAPP 2 help to clean up the tap water and guarantee a better taste for Miami residents. 

In conclusion, the unique situations of each city studied helped us to appreciate the various methods employed to deliver clean water to urban residents that are specifically designed to manipulate the surrounding environment. Environmental Science students were also made familiar with EPA regulations and federal legislation such as the Safe Drinking Water Act, giving us insight into American environmental policies that affect us all.