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April 21, 2023

Ask the Expert: What’s wrong with the world’s water?

The theme of Earth Day 2023, which is Saturday, April 22, is “Invest in our Planet.” Joan Rose, one of the world’s leading experts in water research, discusses local and global water problems and what investments could help turn the tide.


What’s wrong with our water?


Globally, we have a water and sanitation crisis, and the challenges are immense.  


Wastewater pollution is degrading rivers all over the world. Pathogen risks are increasing, and nutrients, mainly nitrogen and phosphorus, are impacting coastlines and shorelines all over the world. Nutrient pollution in fresh water will cause algal blooms and make these waters unsuitable for drinking or recreation. And contaminants such as PFAS can be expected to continue to emerge. 


In addition, climate change and weather instability will cause water and food shortages as well as natural disasters, which impact life and property. The funds to improve water and wastewater infrastructure in particular have not been appropriated. This lack of investment, primarily in lower-income communities, is daunting when thinking about the future.  


We have made some progress with access to safe drinking water. But our reliance on groundwaters leads to its depletion and contamination, and public and government leaders don’t appear to take notice until situations reach a crisis level. 


Additionally, wastewater treatment requires serious innovation. Nutrient and pathogen controls are minimal, and a large percentage of untreated sewage is being discharged to waters around the world.


What water problems do we have in the United States? In Michigan?


Groundwater contamination is a serious issue around the U.S. and in Michigan. Septic tanks are impacting inland lakes and groundwaters. All of this will plague recreational waters, closing more beaches and decreasing the value of the lake and river shorelines. Viruses in groundwaters also may be associated with more illnesses that typically go unrecognized.


All the pollution problems are exacerbated by climate disasters. Particularly those that cause more flooding with loss of property and life. This flooding has long-term consequences associated with more disease risks.


The drinking and wastewater infrastructure needs an upgrade. Without this investment there will be more sewage pollution of surface and groundwaters. And with all these problems, the safety of our drinking water will rely on how well it’s treated.  


As individuals, what can we do about it?


We should all know more about our own drinking water and wastewater systems and pay attention to water programs and projects, including stormwater, wastewater and drinking water.     


We all can look for ways to get involved with protection of the water environment. This includes joining local coalitions and watershed groups, national or global nonprofits. American Rivers, The Nature Conservancy and Water for People all do amazing work. 


What are the top five things you want people to know about water availability and quality?

  1. Climate change and weather-related events are going to cause more flooding and increase water contamination. More extremes like droughts and weather events will become the norm.
  2. Water quality testing is needed, and we should all ask our state and federal representatives to support improved water surveillance programs, particularly for groundwater.
  3. We have a large population of people in our rural and recreational communities that are at increased risk due to water pollution associated with septic tanks, lakes and groundwater.    
  4. Michigan has one of the best laboratory networks using new advanced technology to monitor beaches, surface water and groundwaters. This capacity will help support information for better protection and restoration of waters in the Great Lakes.
  5. Applying a “one water-one health” approach to protect our environment and our health using nature-based solutions will advance water quantity and quality.

By: Kim Ward and Joan Rose

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