The New Year Has Started, and We Need to Change How We Address Water Issues.

Opinion | Brian Oram, Licensed Professional Geologist
Featured Water Professional

First Statement: Water is a Resource and NOT a Waste! This article is on fixing "Drinking Water Issues."

As we enter the New Year, I propose that as citizens of the United States of America and water professionals working to secure the USA's drinking water resources, we make one additional commitment this year. This commitment is to hold to this one goal: "That we as professionals do what is best for America and our fellow citizens first and work to rebuild our weakened communities based on facts, science, and using technologies that the local community can manage." 

Concerning drinking water, many of our systems, authorities, government agencies, and institutions have failed the community and the water customer. These failures have been complicated by many anthropomorphic causes, legacy decisions related to land development, variations in the Earth's Water/Energy Cycle, and poor historic land-use planning, urban design, and system engineering.  

Also, the water customer or user must do their part to hold agencies, political leadership, or authorities responsible and take personal responsibility to Get Informed. We can no longer be sheep and just water users/customers; we must start acting like water stewards. Homeowners and users have an obligation to maintain their service lines, household plumbing, fixtures, and appliances so these systems do not waste water or reduce the quality of the drinking water provided to the home. 

The drinking water infrastructure in the USA has problems. Many of these problems are related and caused by humans and the institutions we have created to manage, maintain, monitor, and regulate these systems. When seeking solutions to these problems, many, primarily bureaucrats and advocates, have blamed bigotry, intersectionality, capitalism, or climate change for explaining the root causes of the problem and have proposed solutions accordingly. If you offer a solution based on a false assumption of the cause, it is not likely you will cost-effectively address or fix the problem.  

So what are the "root causes"? (Taken from recent history, if you do not identify the root causes, you will not solve a problem, but you can make it worse in addition to wasting resources).

Based on my over 30 years of experience, many of the system failures and problems can be attributed to inadequate engineering /system design, insufficient maintenance and upkeep, unknown or unanticipated hazards (such as: "forever chemicals"), poor management, unethical decisions, false information, corruption, and human hubris thinking that we can control the water cycle and building on unstable ground in unstable ways. We were told to build foundations on solid rock (metaphorically), but we have created too much of our infrastructure on unstable sand. In the long run, the lack of credibility and trust between the user and the producer/regulatory agency will create a toxic relationship. (Since I am in my second marriage, I know how toxic relationships do not make it easy to fix anything). 

For example - My hometown was not a "Flint" because of deliberate engineering or management but instead as a by-product of flooding. I grew up in an old coal-mining town with streams that smelled like sulfur and appeared "Blood Red" from acid mine drainage. The town was flooded in the 1960s and 1970s, and because of this flooding, the wooden water mains popped out of the ground. Therefore, it was not a proactive and preventive maintenance plan with scheduled replacement that helped our city address this problem. A natural disaster, not climate change, forced the change. During the restoration of many of the homes, the lead service lines, lead piping, and corroding piping were removed. Much of this piping in homes was replaced with PVC piping with Teflon tape ("PFOS Laden Tape") or other substances that we now know can leach forever chemicals and organics, and we installed fixtures that were not always lead-free. So not so much of a lead problem, but we have other issues that have nothing to do with racism, intersectionality, or bigotry – just bad engineering design from not knowing what we did not know. Again, most of these repairs were made before the 1986 Update to the EPA regulations related to what is and is not "Lead-Free" or the development of the NSF-61 standard related to metal or organic leaching from metal or PVC pipe.

"Incidentally, Detroit also had wooden water mains, some of them almost two centuries old and still in service." (Personal Communication, Dr. Brian Redmond February 2023)." 
Learn More
History of Water Mains

Wooden Water Mains In Detroit

Not Knowing what we did not know and, therefore, not monitoring for specific contaminants is a Huge Problem for the Water Industry and is the real root cause of many of our problems!

If I am correct, the solutions that are proposed by the groups or agencies pushing equity, intersectionality, and blaming the climate will spend a lot of money, time, and resources. In the long run, we need to address the real causes and weaknesses. This blame approach will not implement long-term economically sustainable solutions for the community, build public trust or agency accountability, and will ultimately further divide and weaken the community.

My approach is simple but different. In my teaching and work, I use what I call the POT Method, stands for Prepare, Observe, and Translate. This is the scientific method applied to water and engineering projects. This approach is what we need to do to move forward as a community regarding water-related infrastructure, water quality, and the environment. To apply this method to a problem such as a "Lead Issue" or when developing a communication plan," the first step is to Prepare.

Prepare - "Time to Learn/ Listen and Get the Facts"

In Preparation, we must compile the history and understand how and why the system problem developed. In data analysis, this may be called completing a data gap analysis, or when applied to an event or problem, this is compiling a timeline or history. During this process, we attempt to learn what is known and what is unknown and understand how the system or problem developed and the who, what, where, and why. 

During this stage, there is NO finger-pointing! There are questions and potential answers, and we do not look for scapegoats, like climate change or unconscious bias, when the real problem is related to subsidence, sinkhole formation, unethical behavior, fraud, or an engineering failure because of a poorly located or designed system. It is critical that eyes and minds must be open to all potential causes. During this phase, we speak to the customer or user to see how they experience and describe the situation or problem. 

This information is then compiled and presented to the public with ALL of the supporting documents and presented in a manner that the public can review, ask questions, and have their trusted experts examine the data and findings. This approach can also integrate observational or anecdotal information (data) from the community into the open process.

Observations - "Seeing is Believing, and Listening is Key"

Based on the Preparation, it is likely that several hypotheses or assumptions would be developed on how the problem developed and what the timeline of events related to specific actions or the lack of action was. With the "fact chain or timeline in hand," critical questions can be asked, such as: Were there any warning signs or symptoms of the problem? Did the sampling plan or approach cause us to miss a problem? Were users' observations overlooked because they did not utilize industry jargon or an assumed narrative? Were users' reports misunderstood or overlooked? Was the public properly informed? How did the management or maintenance teams respond?

During this stage, a pilot or "test" problem that engages the customers and the public would be completed to gain insights into how the customer individually experienced the system problems or failures. The information would be presented through a case study approach. How did a system problem manifest as a problem for the user? How was the problem presented to the public? Was the problem a nuisance communicated as a "Health Crisis" or something else? The goal of this phase is to help link observational and monitoring data from the management and maintenance teams with the problems experienced by the users or customers.  

For example, I was contacted by an older couple who was having drinking water problems. For her, the issues were staining, films, coating, dingy laundry and clothing, and a lot of wasted time trying to make the bathroom sink look clean. For him, when he added ice made from his refrigerator ice maker to his bourbon, the bourdon tasted terrible. The problems were the same, i.e., "Metals, Corrosion, and Manganese," but their experiences differed. Personal experiences and feelings matter, but these feelings are not facts. They are data and can be used to help the public understand and describe a problem and help management understand the users.

Translate - "Tell The Whole True Story"

If the first two steps are done correctly, the information gained can be translated into a message, history, or fact-based story that the user and customer can understand, communicate, verify, and trust. 

In Translation, we can not follow the ethics of "ends justifies the means," "cherry pick the facts to fit a narrative," or leave out part of the story because it makes someone or something look bad. The analysis must be fact-based, ethical, honest, and written and presented in a manner the public and user can understand and use. The goal is to help link observational problems with possible likely cause(s), encourage the user to utilize a specific call to action based on being informed, and lay the foundation for future guidance on interim actions or solutions. These potential future actions by the water company or Authority may include but are not limited to: flushing water lines, issuing a boiling water advisory, issuing a do not drink advisory, issuing a do not use advisory, and they may provide an alternative water source. To learn more about these advisories, here: Healthy Drinking Water and Healthy Homes – Communicating to the Public: What is a Drinking Water Advisory? 

For the water user, you may experience a problem with the water that may include a reduction in water pressure, a change in the watercolor and appearance, a change in the water taste or smell, or a problem when the water interacts with your water appliances and household cleaning products. First, do not panic, and please do not start posting information on social media. Document the problem the best you can, such as taking a photo and collecting a sample of the water, then contact your water supplier or Authority and provide them with the facts. If necessary, contact the regulatory agency that oversees the Authority. You may want to consider an alternative drinking water source. City Water Users and Private Well Owners can also visit our portal and use our Drinking Water Self Diagnostic Tool to assist you . The KnowYourH2O team can facilitate Informational Water Testing for City Water Users and Private Water Systems. During Translation, we would discuss how best to communicate with the water provider, regulatory agency, industry professionals, and other users.

There is no place for fear-mongering, equity, intersectionality, or bigotry unless there is clear evidence that direct action was taken out of hate, envy, racism, or prejudice. Unethical behavior must not be hidden, and we can not scapegoat the problem away using comments like sea-level or climate change because when these scapegoats are used, they mask the real cause that is most likely a problem related to poor engineering planning /design, designing to the wrong standard, placing a use or activity in the wrong landscape position, some unaccounted environmental hazard, or for some forced political reason or justification.

If we are going to move forward as a community, we need more facts, less division, less tribal mentality, more empowerment, and less fear, distrust, and hate.

Aside: The Twelve Monkeys

The Twelve Monkeys

Our Biggest Problem for Water Professionals, Regulatory Agencies, and other Professionals in the Public Health field is what I like to explain using "The 12 Monkeys" which are based on the proverbial principle of “Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil.” The 12 Monkeys are at the root of political or ideological division, tribal behavior, and groupthink. They act like scientists but tend to act more like activists and individuals that do not ALWAYS hold to the facts. Do not let them control the narrative. 

Using the "French Revolution" view of political theory that established the concept of Left and Right ideologies, The 12 Monkeys can be divided into those two sides, with six monkeys on the Left and six on the Right. In its current state, the Left does not mean liberal, and the Right does not mean conservative. 

The six monkeys on each side include the following: See, Hear, and Speak (or post) All GOOD things that support their own ideology and See, Hear, and Speak (or post) ALL BAD things about the ideology of their perceived adversaries (especially on social media!). 

In environmental issues, the groups are sometimes divided into the "Radical Environmentalist" and the "Industrial Shill." 

In most cases, the activists supporting the extremes of an issue are not always correct or incorrect. They are very loud and weakly trusted by the middle, and tend to use fear, anger, and division to control the narrative. 

The KnowYourH2O Team suggests the following:

  • Do NOT be a Monkey.
  • Learn about an issue thoroughly before acting and supporting it.
  • Make statements and decisions based on facts.

If you need to form a group, we suggest individuals create their own local fact-based grassroots organizations and encourage diversity of background and opinion. If possible, ignore the offshoots of larger organizations that may not truly represent your community. We also suggest you seek information from unbiased experts and scientists, and please do not let a national activist control the narrative. Please be a sheepdog, not a sheep, a wolf, or a monkey!

In our form of representative government (Republic), we rely on elected officials to represent our individual and community interests. Please hold them accountable to your community, facts, and science; if they are not good stewards, please replace them.

Recommendation - "Be a Fact Based Professional - Be a Scientist"

To the water professional, be an ethical professional, a good scientist, and try to "Be the Solution" for your community. Be honest with your community when you're not sure of the solution; at no time use fear to create action. If you are using fear, misinformation, and half-truths, you cannot see the large piece of wood, i.e., plank, in your own eye.

How can we help? We have created the KnowYourH2O Web Portal as a fact-based educational resource for communities and professionals. We strive always to be impartial and free from the influence of the "12 Monkeys."

Recommended Reading

Sustainable Urban Development

The Sustainable Urban Development Reader (Routledge Urban Reader Series)


Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters

Global Warming-Alarmists, Skeptics and Deniers: A Geoscientist Looks at the Science of Climate Change

The Beaches are Moving

Sea Level Rise: A Slow Tsunami on America's Shores

Hot Talk, Cold Science: Global Warming's Unfinished Debate

EPA and Misuse of Science, Models, and Data

Scare Pollution: Why and How to Fix the EPA

Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can't Predict the Future

The Deliberate Corruption of Climate Science