Northern Virginia and Washington D.C. are growing in population rapidly and as more people move into the area, a question that is asked more and more frequently is – what is the quality of my drinking water?
Individuals and families are naturally concerned with their health and drinking water is an important element of maintaining good health.
Unfortunately, the quality of the water in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. is very poor and is getting worse. Contaminants, bacteria, minerals and chemicals in tap water are masked with heavy doses of chlorine and tap water, in addition to being unhealthy, tastes and smells terrible.
Regulation from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not eliminate contamination but merely sets maximum levels of contaminants that can enter the human body and cause long term damage.
Well water is also contaminated but there is no Federal or state agency that regulates well water.
What is the Story With Tap Water?
Tap water is municipal water that is usually pumped from nearby rivers and then processed to meet EPA guidelines. The processing is usually done through a waste water treatment plant with heavy amounts of chlorine added to kill remaining bacteria that processing does not catch. It is important to note that EPA guidelines are just that – they establish minimum amounts of allowed contamination that may eventually be harmful to both adults and children.
In Northern Virginia and Washington D.C. the drinking water is pumped mainly out of the Potomac River and at least one waste treatment plant.
Contaminants that may be present in this source water include:
Microbial contaminants, such as viruses and bacteria, which may come from sewage treatment plants, septic systems, agricultural livestock operations, and wildlife.
Inorganic contaminants, such as salts and metals, which can be naturally-occurring or result from urban storm water runoff, industrial or domestic waste water discharges, oil and gas production, mining, or farming.
Contaminants also include pesticides and herbicides, which may come from a variety of sources such as agriculture, urban storm water runoff, and residential uses.
In addition contaminants may include organic chemical contaminants, including synthetic and volatile organic chemicals, which are by-products of industrial processes and petroleum production, and can also come from gas stations, urban storm water runoff and septic systems.
Radioactive contaminants, which can be naturally occurring or be the result of oil and gas production and mining activities also affect local tap water.
What is the source of water in Northern Virginia and Washington D.C.?
The water in the Potomac River, Anacostia River, and Rock Creek flows into the District from outside jurisdictions. For example, the Potomac River begins in West Virginia, while the Anacostia River begins in Maryland. The quality of water in Northern Virginia and the District is thus affected by activities throughout the watershed.
Storm water runoff from commercial, industrial, residential and agricultural sites, point source pollutants from wastewater treatment plants and industrial discharges, and combined sewer overflows from as far away as West Virginia and Pennsylvania all contribute to the quality of water in the District and Northern Virginia.
What About Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO’s)
CSO’s frequently occur when natural events like flooding overcome the capacity
of waste treatment plants and raw sewage is pumped back into the water source like the Potomac River.
During periods of significant rainfall, the capacity of a combined sewer may be exceeded. When this occurs, regulators are designed to let the excess flow, which is a mixture of storm water and sanitary wastes, to be discharged directly to the Anacostia River, Rock Creek, the Potomac River, or tributary waters. This excess flow is called Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO).
Release of this excess flow is necessary to prevent flooding in homes, basements, businesses, and streets but it adds bacteria and contaminants as potential threats to tap water.
Since a portion of the tap water comes from sewerage treatment plants CSO’s can adversely affect the quality of our receiving waters in a number of ways:
CSO’s contain material which contributes to high bacteria levels in the receiving waters. Organic material in CSO’s can contribute to low dissolved oxygen levels, which can contribute to a potential for fish stress or fish kills, especially in summer months; and, debris in CSO’s such as plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups (otherwise known as “floatables”) contribute to poor aesthetics.
How Safe For Drinking is Well Water?
Well water, a popular alternative to tap water particularly in Northern Virginia is subject to the same ground water contaminants, chemical discharge waste and organic waste as tap water but is not regulated by any Federal or state agency in any way.
In addition to emitting foul sulphur odors and sediment from the water Northern Virginia well water contains significant amounts of iron in the rock in some areas, particularly the Piedmont and Blue Ridge, resulting in iron “staining.” Sulfide in ground water is also found in parts of the Valley and Ridge where coal or natural gas is present produces an obnoxious odor.
Ground water that is a source of well water also can be contaminated by human activities. Bacteria from septic systems, and nitrate from both septic systems and fertilizer applications, are among the most common contaminants. Since well water is not subject to regulation, the potability and suitability for drinking, of a private well is the responsibility of the homeowner and many private wells are contaminated.