Frank Bernheisel: The View From Here
Frank Bernheisel
Frank Bernheisel
Posted 02.19.16
Just Outside Washington


I recently received this e-mail about water quality from my friend Dan. Not along ago he retired from a 38-year career at the U.S. Geological Survey and provides this first-hand perspective.

Just so you know, Frank, my last three years at the Survey were with the Water Resources Discipline. We were the largest discipline in the Geological Survey, with our funding from Congress at around $200M. We then would go out to state, local, and federal agencies to "match funds" which brought in an additional $250M, so in effect our total annual budget was around $450M.

The Water Resources Discipline was roughly broken up into three major areas; Surface Water (lakes, stream, rivers-water you could see), Groundwater (water you can't see) and, yes, Water Quality. Water Quality's primary job was to monitor both surface and groundwater to ensure it was meeting EPA's standards.

We would often time be brought in as an independent and unbiased source to check the results. We were doing a lot of work on fracking when I left.

Overall, our budget had remained flat for the past decade with only minor adjustments for inflation, therefore in real dollars our budget was down considerably along with our workforce.

In the last year I was working, we were working on the 2016 budget (I think) and we were told by OMB and Congressional staffer that our Water Quality budget would be cut. I can't remember the exact percentage, but I think the number was somewhere around 20 percent. I left before the numbers were finalized, so I have no idea if this happened (often we were threatened with cuts, but then had them restored at the eleventh hour).Thought you might be interested.


Safe drinking water, toxic lead levels, and slashing safety spending

In the late 1800s many communities in the U.S. installed lead pipes for drinking water. The pipes mainly ran from the water main under the street into people's houses. The lead pipes were more expensive than iron or wood but lasted much longer (they were cost effective).

As early as 1900 concerns about the impacts of lead on human health were raised. In 1931, the Lead Industries Association (ILA) published Useful Information About Lead, which advised that "the best material in a water service, though it may be slightly more expensive at first, is really an economy, and the best material is usually lead."

The exception, it notes, is when the water is very soft, or of swampy or peaty origin, that lead should not be used, but under those conditions other metals are also soluble, so lead may be used by adding a little sodium silicate solution to the water, as is done occasionally -- or using tin-lined lead pipe.

Moving on, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) Section 1417(a)(1) required that after June 19, 1986 only ,lead free" pipe, solder or flux could be used in the installation or repair of any plumbing in residential or non-residential facility providing water for human consumption, which is connected to a Public Water System. Although Congress banned lead water pipes thirty years ago, between 3.3 million and 10 million homes built before then remain. As the LIA warned, they could leach lead into tap water by a change in water chemistry or by jostling during repair.

The anti-regulation industry and the "government is the problem" folks have been attacking EPA for years. Adjusted for inflation, the $100 million annual budget of the EPA's drinking water office has fallen 15 percent since 2006, resulting in a more than 10 percent reduction of its staff.

Also, in 2013, the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (53,000 systems) said federal officials had slashed drinking-water grants, 17 states had cut drinking-water budgets by more than 20 percent, and 27 states had cut spending on full-time employees. "The cumulative effect of the resource gap has serious implications for states' ability to protect public health," the group stated.

The problems this approach caused are not confined to Flint, Michigan.

In 2001, after Washington, DC, changed how it treated drinking water, lead in tap water at thousands of homes spiked as much as twenty times the federally approved level. Residents did not find out for three years. Finally, DC Water and Sewer Authority ripped out and replaced lead water pipes feeding 17,600 homes at a cost of $93 million. This did not fully solve the lead problem because some home owners refused to make the piping changes in their homes.

In 2011, the water authority in Brick Township, population 75,000, in Ocean County, NJ, tested tap water in a small sample of homes for lead, as required by EPA. It discovered two homes in which the level exceeded the agency's limit of 15 parts per billion, well short of the number that required remedial steps. But in the next mandated test, three years later, it found that 16 of 34 homes exceeded the limit -- one of them by a dozen times. This was the result of increased use of road salt in recent winters, which raised chloride levels in the Metedeconk River from which Brick draws its water. The chloride corroded aged lead pipes running to older homes, leaching lead into tap water.

Mayor Karen Weaver of Flint, MI said Tuesday she needs $55 million to remove lead pipes in the city, and she is asking that Gov. Rick Snyder partner with her to get the funds. The estimate was developed by the Flint public works staff and experts from the Lansing Board of Water and Light. The Lansing board had over the last twelve years removed lead pipes from 13,500 homes in Michigan's capital. However, the estimate could be low because Flint has about 40,000 single family homes and at $3,000 per replacement the cost would be $120 million, if all need new pipes.

Flint switched from Detroit's water system last year to the Flint River, which has very corrosive water, as part of a cost-cutting move while under the state's emergency financial management. Officials had estimated the cash-strapped city would save about $5 million in less than two years because of the change. Gov. Snyder announced on October 8 that he had a plan to provide the $12 million required to switch Flint back to the Detroit system and a week late, water started flowing again from Detroit to Flint.

The Centers for Disease Control reported in its 2004 Morbidity Mortality Weekly Review, based on 23,000 blood tests in Washington, DC:

No safe blood level has been identified and all sources of lead exposure for children should be controlled or eliminated. Lead concentrations in drinking water should be below the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency's action level of fifteen parts per billion.