My Case Against Municipal Water

THE WATER COMPANY ARRIVES

Last fall, we saw our local water company plow down woods along our road, Curtis Pike, clearing a 20 foot swath of land to lay water main. We watched as the pipe snaked down across neighbors’ land until a cluster of trucks loaded with pipe came to our driveway. In their hand was an easement for us to sign to give permission to cut through our woods. Presently, we do not have municipal water so you may say that’s a great thing; sign the easement and you will now have access to an abundance of clean water: all you want, any time. But of course, it’s more complicated than that.

MUNICIPAL WATER IS NOT BAD

I first came to Kentucky in the late 1980’s living among the coal fields of the mountains of Floyd County. Most waterways there were clotted with trash, streams sometimes ran orange and oily, pipes ran straight from toilets to the creek, and wells ran dry or became contaminated from coal mining. The fortunate had access to municipal water or yet untainted wells. The others learned to tolerate the dirtied water or bought water from the store but not in the beverage aisle as is common today. It was among the household cleaners next to the mops and sponges; a jug of distilled water kept there for clothes’ irons. We were not a bottled water culture then. To me, as to most city dwelling people of my generation, paying money for grocery store water seemed as ridiculous as buying bottled air. It was an unquestioned assumption that clean water always abundantly flowed from the tap. Turning on an Eastern Kentucky faucet and having brown, sulfur fuming water run out was a shocking revelation. So, I get it. I understand how necessary municipal water can be.

BUT IT HAS ITS PROBLEMS

 When your primary water sources are being fouled by mining and raw sewage, municipal water and sewer makes sense. But given other choices, municipally treated water is not necessarily the better. Let’s take a look at the water that flows from most taps in Madison County.

The county draws its water from the Kentucky River whose headwaters are in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky with all the mining run-off, industrial waste discharge, agriculture run-off and faulty septic systems. According to the Kentucky Division of Water, there are hundreds of contaminants  found in Kentucky’s waterways each year. Many contaminants are filtered out but there is a growing list of those that find their way past the treatment plant and into our household water. The Environmental Protection Agency lists dozens found in municipal drinking water that include not only chemicals from residential and industrial wastewater but also a whole host of pharmaceutical drugs as well.

Not only is our drinking water polluted by toxins in run-off and wastewater but they can be tainted by the water treatment itself. Chlorine and other chemicals used for treatment can break down to chlorate, bromate, chlorine dioxide and others.  According to the E.P.A., over-exposure to water treatment disinfectants and their by-products can cause cancer, anemia, blood disorders, reproductive difficulties or damage to the nervous system, liver or kidneys.

Besides the host of chemicals needed to treat groundwater, it also takes a notable amount of electricity to supply, purify, distribute and treat water and wastewater. According to  data from a 2006 report for the U.S. Department of Energy, nearly 2 percent of the total U.S. power generated or 58 million Mgwh is needed to supply public water and waste water treatment.(U.S. Department of Energy“Water Demands of Energy Resources”) In Madison County, we get our electricity from coal-fired plants whose by-products in both the mining (heavy metals) and burning processes (acid rain, mercury) pollute our waterways. Isn’t it ironic that in order to make water from the Kentucky River safe for drinking using chemicals and coal-fired electricity, we must also contaminate it?

NOW CONSIDER OUR WATER SUPPLY

We collect rain water off our roofs into 1500 gallon cisterns. The bulk of possible contaminants from the air (largely from coal-fired power plants) and roof are most concentrated in the first several gallons of rainfall and these are directed away from our water storage. We twice filter the collected water before we use it for cooking and drinking. The waste water from our sinks and shower is used to water our food gardens.  We do not have flush toilets but compost our humanure instead. By conserving and recycling water we limit our household water use to just 30 gallons of water a day and about 40 if you add our clothes washing in our community house. Madison County Health Department estimates that a household our size uses an average of ten times that amount at around 480 gallons per day.

For most of the year, our water supply is ample. But for the past several years, we have hit some real dry spells during the late summer and early fall enduring weeks without rain. We need about an inch of rain every 3 weeks to keep us supplied with enough water for cooking, drinking and washing so a month or more without significant rainfall depletes even a water conserving household’s supply. We addressed the shortage by installing three 2000 gallon cisterns that collect water off our barn roof. We now have a back-up supply for next year’s dry times as well as a reserve of water for fire protection.

Like those who are on municipal water, through rainwater collection, we, too, have an abundance of clean water: all we need, any time. In our situation there is no personal or public health advantage or personal convenience to municipal water. Municipal water, for us, only has disadvantages: exposure to a host of chemicals and increased burning of fossil fuels.

MUNICIPAL WATER THREATENS FORESTED WOODLAND

When we planned our intentional community, we designated areas that would be disturbed and areas that would not. In the disturbed zone, we clustered our houses around our common house and barn, placing gardens and recreation areas in the area as well. Fruit trees and vegetable gardens are watered by our waste wash water in two greywater gardens. About three acres are forested hillside and we reforested two more acres of pasture. We planted the trees as a carbon offset to our new buildings, to establish a natural habitat for wildlife, and for harvesting firewood. We have been carefully tending the reforested areas, regularly mowing weeds that can choke out the slow-growing oaks. Just this summer, the faster growing locust and poplar have established themselves enough to nurse along their smaller, slower growing neighbors and we no longer had to mow.

When Kirksville Water Association asked for an easement through the established forest on the hillside, we asked if there was an alternative. There was. They could run the main line on the already disturbed area along the county road easement. It was just easier and faster to cut a straight line through our woods rather than following the curve of the road. So, denying them an easement came easily because there was a good substitute that satisfied the community’s need. Not only did it spare our woods but it also re-graded the roadside drainage ditch that had a tendency to overflow in a heavy rain.

OUR DILEMMA

  Once the main line was in, two of our neighbors approached us about running household water lines across our land using their access easement that crossed both the established and newly forested areas. This presented us with a much more difficult moral and ethical struggle. Our neighbors had good reason to want municipal water. Although they did their best to conserve, they still needed to spend half a day each week transporting water by pickup truck to meet their household needs. A year ago, they hired a drilling company to dig a well but never hit water. Making a fuss about them using the easement could appear we were stubbornly denying them a basic need.

We prayed and discussed this at length. Were we imposing our “high ideals” on our neighbors? We firmly believe open access to clean water is a basic human right but, through rain water collection, we all have open access. The real difference is access to an ample supply. Our biggest water savers, composting toilets,  take a substantial amount of commitment and without them, it would be difficult for our neighbors to get by on rainwater collection alone.

We also wondered if the mere presence of municipal water on our land could, in the future, lead to us being required to hook onto municipal utilities as well. Since we had allowed the land to be disturbed would it be difficult to later argue a case that we have a standing practice of preservation of undisturbed land?  If we were forced to hook into municipal sewer, as is the requirement for northern Madison County, we would lose our greywater garden and the flush toilet waiver that is dependent on it. Our orchard and vegetable gardens would lose their regular irrigation of water and nutrients that organic waste water provides and our ability to produce food would be threatened.

And of course there was our relationship to the trees, the sentinels of the old forest and the babes of the new woods, and their importance to the soil stabilization, water filtration and struggling ecosystem of that hillside. The only way to get water up to their houses would be to plow through these protected areas

Luckily, this ends well. We managed to negotiate a compromise when we included a third neighbor that had just built a new house along the back of our and our neighbor’s land. The three neighbors agreed to share costs and run their water lines together through a much smaller swath of forest and across our neighbor’s pasture. Most of the line ran through already disturbed land, the new forest was protected and there was one cut through the woods rather than three.

IF NOT MUNICIPAL WATER AND WASTEWATER TREATMENT, THEN WHAT?

For water conserving households like ours, a cistern serves all our water needs but, as with our neighbors, it’s difficult to supply an entire household with multiple flush toilets with rainwater alone. If rainwater can not be the entire water supply, it could satisfy some of the household water needs. A 2000 gallon cistern easily fits under a porch and could supply some or all of the water needed to flush toilets.  To encourage rainwater harvesting the city of  Portland, Oregon has developed  a permit for flushing toilets in homes or businesses with collected rainwater.  Think of the savings of water, electricity and cost to the taxpayer if housing in new developments integrated cisterns.

Wastewater treatment options in Madison County seem to be either failing packaging plants, failing septic systems or new municipal waste water treatment plants. The National Environment Services Center at West Virginia University offers many more viable alternatives. They are a dedicated research institute that has a vast database on alternative treatment options especially for sparsely populated rural areas such as ours. Once again, by encouraging new developments to incorporate properly maintained and monitored on-site, cluster and neighborhood systems, the county and its taxpayers can reap environmental and financial savings.

AS WE PONDER GREEN BUILDING CODES

In Madison County, we must consider the environmental impact of water treatment. There are many good alternatives to large, expensive centralized systems that provide access to enough clean water to satisfy homeowners needs. The groundwork has been laid by other municipalities and there are many helpful organizations to make it easy for both the homeowner and county officials to adopt these technologies. With little effort, implementing alternative water treatment technologies will reap benefits to our environment, to our health and our pocketbooks. As we consider developing a residential green building code, sustainable water management must be a key component.

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About greenbuildingcodes

I live on a ridge top in the Curtis Pike Intentional Community in Madison County Kentucky. For the past year and a half, we have been working with our county planning and zoning board to encourage the development and expansion of sustainable building projects in Madison County.
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One Response to My Case Against Municipal Water

  1. Joanna says:

    Fantastic summary!

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