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A hidden cost of clean water

This article caught my eye recently: some 1.6 trillion gallons of water underneath Nevada – 16 years worth of the state's Colorado River withdrawals – have been determined to be functionally useless, made radioactive by decades of nuclear weapons testing.  The cost of treating water would be prohibitively expensive, well more than the $48 billion utiliities and municipalities potentially would have earned from selling it. 

Fortunately for the Chicago region, we don't face the same scale of toxicity issues, but we do face some.  Groundwater, particularly from deep aquifers (water reserves that lie some 500 feet or more below the ground), naturally contains many elements harmful to human health.  Some of these, most notably radium, are radioactive. 

The good news is that public and private water utilities have proven techniques and technologies for removing these elements from water supplies ... the bad news is that as we continue to mine our deep aquifers (which are capped by solid rock and recharge very, very slowly), we pull water from deeper and deeper in the ground.  That's exactly where these harmful elements are.  So the cost of treating water to extract these elements – and the related costs of disposing of them – will increase over time. 

We have many options for slowing this process down.  We can use water more efficiently, reduce loss from old pipes, explore rainwater harvesting or greywater reuse, switch to a different supply, employ rate structures that encourage conservation, and try to return water to the aquifers. Many of these options are discussed in the forthcoming regional water supply plan

As the cost of providing healthy water increases, more of these practices will be deployed ... in theory.  The other part of the bad news is that these costs often are not accounted for in water rates.  Many communities and utilities borrow federal and state money to build and maintain the necessary infrastructure and systems to remove these elements, consistent with the requirements of the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act.  Taxpayer money is used to repay ensuing debt, diverting income, property and sales tax revenues from other possible uses.  

The data below show Illinois' municipalities' loan requests for contaminant removal from FY08 – FY09, as well as projects with a construction start date in 2009.  We're talking real money, well over $100 million.


# of projects

# of H20 suppliers

Federal/state loan amount requested





Radium (Ra)






Barium (Ba)






Iron (Fe)






Arsenic (As)






Manganese (Mn)





Because the cost of repaying these loans often is not reflected in water rates, consumers have insufficient incentive to conserve water or explore new supplies.  And as tax revenues are diverted to deal with this issue, fire departments, schools and other taxpayer concerns will have lower operating budgets then they should.  Until rates give consumers a clear picture of the value of water and the real costs of providing it, we'll continue to waste more than just water.  We'll keep wasting money too. 

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