Spin the bottle: The climate-action mayor misses the point on drinking water

Seattle's tap water is the "gold standard," says Greg Nickels. Really? No, not really. It could be a lot better.
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Seattle's report to residents about drinking-water quality.

Seattle's tap water is the "gold standard," says Greg Nickels. Really? No, not really. It could be a lot better.

Environmentalism in America's cities began long before Earth Day 1970. A century earlier, urban dwellers began to demand that municipal leaders provide the first essential of any populous city: pure, safe, affordable and abundant drinking water.

Before 1915, young Seattle had an aqueduct from the pristine Cedar River, in-town storage reservoirs on high ground at Volunteer Park and in neighborhoods like Beacon Hill and Maple Leaf, and hundreds of miles of iron pipe to bring good water under the streets to homes across the city. Today, Seattle's water system serves 1.3 million people in the city and suburbs.

In 1986, Congress enacted activists' suggestions for a new federal law requiring every community water system every year to deliver to every customer a mailing called the "consumer confidence report." It would show actual laboratory test results on what was being delivered to their taps. Citizens armed with knowledge would make their officials accountable for pure and safe water.

Two weeks ago, this year's consumer confidence report for Seattle, published by Seattle Public Utilities and titled Drinking Water Quality Report 2007: A Report to the Community [1.1 MB PDF], appeared in Seattle mailboxes. It's signed by Mayor Greg Nickels and is overflowing with stock photos — a water-quenching youth, water-toting senior bicyclists, and, on some incongruous logic, a thumbs-up towheaded kid underwater in a swimming pool. On the cover, a halo-crowned Space Needle towers over the water jets of Seattle Center's landmark fountain in the Liberace Style. A good picture, the brochure designers must say, is worth three words. Water is happy. Happy is water.

The microprint of the actual drinking water lab results was all but invisible. Who knows whether 60 or 200 or even 1,000 real people tried to read the tiny numbers? Without the help of a sister-in-law water chemist armed with a Ph.D. and a magnifying glass, who could decode what the numbers said? By contrast, there are cities, like Tacoma [4.3 MB PDF] and Bellingham [4.5 MB PDF] and dozens of others around the country, that use these reports to tell citizens how their water systems work, not just to send them water advertising.

One week later, Mayor Nickels held his latest fighting-global-warming press event to put his own spin on the new Seattle report. By swearing off bottled water in plastic pints in favor of drinking Seattle's "gold standard" water from the tap, fellow citizens could join in battling climate change. Some 5,400 tons of greenhouse gases a year could be saved by not manufacturing all those pint bottles and hauling them around in trucks to the stores, the recycling centers, and the landfills. About the same amount as we would save if we took four of every 10,000 cars in the central Puget Sound region off the road.

Everybody wants to cut greenhouse gases, but did the mayor's press event divert city water consumers from important messages tucked in the tiny print inside the glitzy flyer in the mailbox? Indeed. Whatever the virtues of the water drawn from Seattle's well-protected watersheds, by the time the water gets to your tap, chemical constituents gathered along on the way tell the story that there is still hard work ahead for the water system before the mayor can claim the "gold standard" for water.

Seattle adds chemicals, chlorine for one, to keep disease-causing bacteria out of the water. So do water treatment systems all over the world, and that's why modern municipal water systems everywhere are regarded as one of history's most important public health advance.

The chlorine levels found by the lab in Seattle's pipes are not out of line with other systems around the country. But the higher ranges of the samples are above the system's own ideal target and high enough for many to taste. This won't surprise the people who do complain that Seattle's water sometimes has a chlorine taste! There are, however, negative side effects from chlorine, as it seems with so many things taken for our good health. In addition to killing bacteria, chlorine acts on natural materials in the water to create by-product compounds tagged as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acid. Water and public health experts generally agree that the lower the level of these byproducts, the better. That's because some of them are suspected of contributing to cancer and birth-defect risks. There are federal regulatory standards. Seattle passes. But Seattle's average levels reported from the labs to residents two weeks ago are higher than last year's results in, for example, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and many, many other cities.

These results are no accident and no mystery. They are directly attributable to the fact that Seattle, unlike all but a handful of other major cities, still stores much of its daily supplies of water in open-air neighborhood reservoirs, some dating to the earliest years of the system. And Seattle sends water to homes across much of the city through hundreds of miles of heirloom iron pipelines encrusted with decades of mineral and organic deposits. Both attributes of Seattle's still-in-use old water system increase the amount of chlorine that must be added to the water to assure its safety from bacteria.

Seattle Public Utilities is not neglecting the need for fixes, but the work is far from done. Mayor Nickels has supported covering or taking out of service the old open-air reservoirs. Anyway, it's the law, as the state Department of Health insisted on in a decade-old agreement. The Magnolia and Lincoln reservoirs are done. Beacon and Myrtle are under way. The West Seattle reservoir fix is just starting. The City Council will soon be asked to move up the start of the work at Maple Leaf to 2009, rather than 2011. When that project is completed, big decisions can be made about how to proceed with the granddaddy open reservoir at Volunteer Park. If progress continues, with another $150 million of ratepayer-funded investment the needed program for the reservoirs could be completed by 2015.

Old encrusted cast iron pipes — 700 miles of them — under the streets are a different matter. SPU is trying to ease the need for ratepayer dollars by squeezing every reasonable year of service out of old pipes. As the pipes, like the streets themselves, get older, we save today in the short run by putting off costs. But the bill will unavoidably come due tomorrow. Today, major programs to clean as many of the old pipes as possible and replace the rest aren't funded. It's the story of public infrastructure everywhere. Every homeowner faces the same dilemma. Can we face the pain of fixing the roof this year? Or shall we run for luck and try to get through another winter?

Meanwhile, the drinking water labs will, like this year, report results to Seattle residents that are not as good as they should be or as they surely will be when the work is done.

Good drinking water for all citizens is every city's most fundamental environmental responsibility. Drinking tap water in Seattle is absolutely the right idea. Leaders should do it and so should we. The water is safe. It's cheap. It's wet. And the last place we should probably spend the household budget is on bottled water — which, by the way, is no public health bonanza. We need, instead, to put our political will and our money into the improvements SPU must carry out to keep the promise that water will be cheap and safe for everyone in every neighborhood for years to come. That's the right message for the environment, public health, and quality of life that the mayor in a sustainable city should have taken from the consumer confidence report.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Doug MacDonald

Douglas MacDonald

Doug MacDonald is a pedestrian activist who once served as the Secretary of Transportation for Washington state.