Written by: Kelley Dugan

Edited by: Ryan Schildcrout, Nick Janne, April Kriebel, and Jennifer Baker

Illustrated by: Jacquelyn Roberts

Have you ever wondered about the quality of your drinking water?

You’ve probably heard of the Flint Water Crisis in Flint, Michigan. The water crisis began on April 25, 2014, when Flint’s water supply was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River. Due to the switch, lead and other contaminants were leached from water distribution pipes into Flint’s municipal drinking water. While lead levels dropped below the federal limit in January of 2017𑁋years after the crisis began𑁋long-term effects of lead exposure and mental health impacts continue in 2022.

Illustration by Jacquelyn Roberts

So, where do we get our water from? 

Most people in the U.S. get their drinking water from community water systems (CWS)𑁋a type of public drinking water system that provides water year-round to the same population. In Michigan, these are referred to as “community water supplies,” with the Ann Arbor community water supply serving 118,017 people as of June 2021. If we look at our state overall, more than 7 million Michiganders, or roughly 70% of the state’s population, get their water from CWSs.

Who is responsible for making sure the water is safe?

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was first passed by Congress in 1974 to protect public health through the regulation of public drinking water. At the federal level, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ensures compliance with the SDWA through activities such as regular monitoring of public drinking water systems. At the state level, Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) is responsible for enforcing the SDWA.

Wouldn’t it be great if we knew the best way to ensure good water quality while spending the least amount of money and resources?

A study in the September issue of the journal Environmental Science & Technology provides a comprehensive, large-scale analysis of how U.S. drinking water quality varies by location and over time. Five researchers from the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin, studied SDWA health-based violations of CWSs in the contiguous U.S. from 1990-2020, heavily drawing on the Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS) database. This means that rather than monitoring water quality themselves, they analyzed 38 drivers of variation in drinking water quality, including climate, water source, and population density using existing data. In this study “drivers” are potential ways water quality is affected; the most important drivers are those that were found to correlate highly with a given water quality violation.

A primary finding of the researchers’ investigation was that different types of water quality violations were most heavily influenced by different drivers. For example, two of the specific health-based violations the researchers analyzed were violations of the disinfectant and disinfection byproducts rules (DBPRs) and acceptable levels of arsenic. Using mathematical modeling, the researchers determined that of the top ten drivers for these violations, only two were consistent𑁋water source and system size. In other words, the drivers of decreased water quality varied with the type of water quality violation.

Since the drivers of different types of water quality violations are different, the solutions to address these issues must also be context-specific. The researchers argue that their findings can help identify potential trade-offs in addressing different rule violations (e.g., increasing disinfection use to decrease one type of violation can increase DBPR violations) and inform targeted investing in drinking water infrastructure (e.g., treatment systems). Their work provides an overview of trends in drinking water quality, while acknowledging that interventions must be specific to the water system they are designed for.

Are water challenges a thing of the past?

Ensuring access to safe drinking water is an ongoing challenge involving many factors including monitoring water quality, and investing in infrastructure. The water system in Jackson, Mississippi, a city with a population of more than 150,000 people, has had issues𑁋such as clogged pipes and equipment failures𑁋for years as its water system deteriorates. During the last week of August of 2022, residents were left without access to safe drinking water when Jackson’s primary water treatment facility failed after storm flooding. Jackson, Mississippi, is not alone. Benton Harbor, Michigan; Houston, Texas; Las Vegas, New Mexico; Honolulu, Hawaii; and Baltimore, Maryland, are all cities facing challenges related to water quality as of September of 2022. The water crisis in Flint is not a thing of the past for many folks and residents in cities across the U.S. cannot  access safe drinking water. Through research on drivers of water quality violations like the study described here, we can most effectively direct resources to help resolve water quality violations and lower barriers so everyone has access to safe drinking water.

How much do you know about your water?

Find out more about your water in Michigan:


Kelley Dugan is a graduate student in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan. Her research and career interests lie in complex problem-solving approaches and socially engaged design with the aim of creating sustainable practices and outcomes. Before graduate school, Kelley worked as a product development engineer for two years. She enjoys reading fiction and professional development books, trying new vegan recipes, and practicing yoga in her free time.

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