Drinking Water — Where It Comes From

Surface water — like lakes, rivers, and reservoirs — is one major source of our drinking water. Groundwater is another. The surface water comes from precipitation, like rain and melting snow and ice. Surface water moves over land to collect in lower areas, so it can contain chemicals it absorbs along the way.


Some cities, like Los Angeles and San Diego, don’t have enough natural sources of water close by and there isn’t enough rain, so they have to import their water, and a lot of it. (This makes for some dramatic water politics at times.)

Drinking water in towns and cities is usually processed in several steps used by municipal water treatments:

  1. Coagulation and flocculation.
  2. Positively charged chemicals are added to untreated water to bind them to the water’s particles and dirt, which then settles to the bottom, which is called sedimentation.
  3. The cleaner water at the top is run through various filters to refine it further.
  4. Once this filtered water is finished, a chemical like chlorine or chloramine might be added to disinfect it further.

Though this water processing may sound simple and straightforward, sometimes it is not. The main issue with public drinking water supplies is that, as consumers, we generally don’t know that much about what is happening with our water chemistry and the processing that occurs constantly. Most of us haven’t acquired much knowledge of chemistry or the local waterways, so we are dependent on the water supplies available to us in tap water.

However, this reliance can put us at risk if the water treatment process is mismanaged, like what is happening in Flint, Michigan. “In the past 16 months, abnormally high levels of e. coli, trihamlomethanes, lead, and copper have been found in the city’s water, which comes from the local river (a dead body and an abandoned car were also found in the same river). Mays and other residents say that the city government endangered their health when it stopped buying water from Detroit last year and instead started selling residents treated water from the Flint River.”

Some people in Flint have said they are getting sick from drinking and bathing in the water supplied by the city. Obviously, if you are in an area with severe water issues, you might want to consider purchasing water on your own. Though for some people this can be an expensive alternative in terms of dollars spent, using unclean water would be a health hazard. Some bottled water is just tap water placed in plastic bottles, so you need to do your homework to find out which bottled water types are actually filtered and completely clean.

We might be shocked to find out that municipal drinking water could be that bad in 2015, when we seem to be beyond such things, but it’s true.

Flint is a mid-sized city, but a small Ohio town also has water quality issues along the same lines. “The city manager of Sebring, a small town of some 4,000 people located about 60 miles south of Cleveland, issued an advisory Thursday night warning children and pregnant women to avoid drinking the village system’s tap water after seven of 20 homes showed levels of copper and lead beyond US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards.”

Lead exposure can cause brain damage or death to a fetus, so it is very important for pregnant women to make sure they are not exposed at all.

Some problems for adults are:

  • Increased chance of illness during pregnancy
  • Harm to a fetus, including brain damage or death
  • Fertility problems in both men and women
  • High blood pressure
  • Digestive issues
  • Nerve disorders
  • Memory and concentration problems
  • Muscle and joint pain

and for children:

  • Learning disabilities resulting in a decreased intelligence (decreased IQ)
  • Attention deficit disorder
  • Behavior issues
  • Nervous system damage
  • Speech and language impairment
  • Decreased muscle growth
  • Decreased bone growth
  • Kidney damage

You might be beginning to see a theme developing here. It seems to help consumers very much to pay attention to the source of water the treatment facility is using to get its water. If it is using a local river or lake that you know is also being used to dump industrial waste or is being contaminated by runoff, you will be informed enough to consider safer water sources.

It wasn’t that long ago that a few hundred thousand Americans couldn’t use the local water because of a chemical spill in West Virginia. “Around this time last year, 300,000 residents in Charleston, West Virginia couldn’t drink or bathe in their tap water. Last January, roughly 10,000 gallons of a largely unknown chemical called ‘crude-MCHM’ had spilled into the water supply from an old, crumbling storage tank.”

Too much manure and sewage can wind up in waterways, which results in excess nitrate in them. When this chemical is in drinking water, it can be harmful to human infants and young livestock. Babies fewer than 4 months old are lacking an enzyme which deals with the nitrate and they can get a condition called “blue baby syndrome,” which means oxygen is not being transported in their bloodstreams.

There are some parts of the world where excess nitrate in the drinking water supplies makes it necessary for babies under one year old and pregnant women to use bottled water which has been filtered. Ammonia sometimes gets into water supplies from agricultural runoff, but generally it is believed to not be toxic.

Groundwater is water that accumulates naturally in underground areas that are sort of like rivers in caves and lakes. It can move through rocks and soil to collect in certain areas. There is much more water underground than on the surface in bodies of water.

Underground water can become contaminated through human activity like industrial processes that produce chemicals which leak into soil and make their way down to water supplies. Pesticides and herbicides are some examples. Another is bacterial contamination from septic tanks, which can make humans and animals sick when consumed. Some of the pathogens that can get into water supplies are E. coli, Cryptosporidium, Hepatitis A, and Giardia intestinalis.

E. coli is often harmless, but in some cases, like the ones involving food contamination, can make people sick and even cause death. Municipal water processing filters it out as it does for anything that makes drinking water unsafe. Though, some people believe fluoride could be harmful.

In areas where salt is used to melt ice and snow on roads and sidewalks in winter, excessive amounts of it in water supplies are an issue, but it is filtered out.

Many people living in rural areas get their drinking water from their own wells, so they have to monitor their water quality carefully.

It would be counterproductive to make sure you have safe, clean drinking water but put it in a bottle that contains BPA. Bisphenol A is known to have some negative health effects. “BPA was first recognized to have estrogenic activity as a synthetic drug in 1936 long before it was used to form polycarbonate plastic and resins in the early 1950s. Interest and concern about the health effects of BPA have been growing, following reports that the health effects seen in exposed animals are also on the rise in humans. These include breast and prostate cancer, regional decline in sperm counts, abnormal penile/urethra development in males, early sexual maturation in females, increasing neurobehavioral problems, increasing prevalence of obesity and type 2 diabetes, and immune system effects.”

Ensure your drinking water is safe and the containers it is stored in, too.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Written by Jake Richardson

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