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Your Drinking Water TPO is TOPs

Posted by Stephanie A. Smith, Ph.D. on Sun, Jun 30, 2013 @ 10:46 AM

My business partner has told me he never dismisses a business idea as crazy until he hears the whole story, because 25 years ago he would have called the business concept of bottled water crazy, and look how well that turned out.  Bottled water is kinda crazy, when one considers that in the U.S. we enjoy access to clean, practically free drinking water.  We take it so for granted that we use it to flush our toilets.

This is possible because drinking water hazards like harmful algal blooms (HABs) are silently mitigated by an army of underappreciated, often underpaid and always under the radar people called treatment plant operators, or TPOs.  A drinking water TPO makes sure that the water entering their plant from the original source is made safe to drink, through a series of treatment steps that vary from plant to plant.  The incoming water source, according to the U.S. EPA, is a surface water reservoir (e.g. lakes and rivers) for about 20% of community water systems.  The other 80% utilize groundwater sources.  However, the surface water reservoirs serve over 70% of the 300.2 million people that utilize a community water system,* which is most people that live in small towns, cities, and large municipalities.

Surface reservoirs are highly susceptible to HABs, and in 2009 the EPA reported that over 50% of all U.S. lakes and reservoirs were eutrophic or hypereutrophic, meaning they exist in nutrient-rich conditions that foster HABs.  That’s up from about 10% 30 years earlier, so the trend is troubling.  From the TPO’s perspective, one problem HABs present is that the biological material has to be removed from the water, and it has to be disposed of (not cheap!).  Furthermore, HAB algae release compounds that can be toxic to the skin, liver, and nervous system, as well as compounds which, while not harmful, affect the taste and odor of drinking water.  Your TPO takes care of those problems, too.

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I have met a dozen or so TPOs in person, and they all care deeply about their communities, are well educated, and come up with some ingenious approaches for combating HABs in drinking water reservoirs, often on a shoestring budget.  But this is getting harder to do every year, as there are more HAB-affected reservoirs than ever before, HABs are more intense than they used to be, and they can persist longer. We need to support the efforts of these TPOs by supporting the development and installment of new treatment technologies that will be required to combat the ever-increasing problem of HABs, and by making sure that our local governments are appropriately supporting their ongoing efforts.  By supporting drinking water TPOs, we support our own safety and privilege to access clean drinking water…that’s not in a bottle.

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