Pennsylvania’s precarious water supply

Down the drain

Courtesy morguefile

By Thomas Y. Au

With 83,000 miles of rivers and streams and 3,900 lakes, ponds, and reservoirs in Pennsylvania,it’s easy to take water for granted. But between acid mine drainage, industrial toxins, agricultural runoff, wastewater discharge, new development, and drought, the quality and quantity of our state’s water supplies are under serious stress.

This was particularly apparent during the drought of 2002 when reservoirs and wells were drawn down to critical levels, forcing the Governor to declare a drought emergency for 24 Pennsylvania counties. During the drought, mandatory restrictions were imposed, including water rationing, boil-water advisories, and restrictions on watering lawns, gardens and fields.  .

Even during times of plentiful rainfall, the problems of water quality and quantity remain as population growth and economic development have created greater demands on water supplies.

Many water utilities, like those in State College and suburban Harrisburg, rely on the limited resources found in groundwater aquifers, which must be regularly recharged by rain and surface infiltration. Overuse can quickly deplete the groundwater making these aquifers particularly vulnerable to droughts. Other suppliers, such as the city of Harrisburg, rely heavily on surface reservoirs and watersheds that can be contaminated by industrial, agricultural, and residential discharges. Extensive contamination may make water resources unusable. And salt water infiltration of river estuaries, due to drought or rising sea levels, makes it necessary for water agencies in Pennsylvania’s southeastern corner to closely monitor the “salt front” in the Delaware River.

Fortunately, there are a number of positive steps that each of us can take to relieve the stress on water systems:

Conserve: Water conservation is the most effective way of stretching water supplies.  Less water used equals less stress to water ecosystems.

Reuse: Gray water (non-sewage water) can be reused in agricultural irrigation, industrial processes, landscaping, and golf courses. Reuse saves fresh water for drinking, cooking, and bathing.

Reduce: Cut back on the application of fertilizers and weed killers to reduce runoff into groundwater and surface waters. This is especially important in Lancaster and other agricultural counties where high concentrations of nitrates and other fertilizers have been found in wells.

Preserve: Protect watershed lands and headwater streams. Although water companies have been selling supposedly “surplus” watershed properties, it is vital to protect these lands from development. Recent scientific studies show that headwaters have a great impact on downstream water quality. 

Advocate: Locate the source of your water and find out what threats may endanger it.  Ask your supplier how it protects your water quality. Urge your Congressman to enact the Clean Water Restoration Act to protect wetlands and headwater streams.

Thomas Au is the chair of the Chapter's conservation committee as well as a co-chair of the water committee.

Published November 2007