How do we keep lead out of our water?

Posted at 4:07 PM, Mar 22, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-22 16:42:32-04

WASHINGTON -- The United States does not have a major water problem -- it has several major water problems.

That was the realization Jeffery Lape, the deputy director of science and technology at the Environmental Protection Agency, made after meeting with officials from several states over the past year.

California is in the midst of an historic drought. Rivers in the Pacific Northwest have become hotter, harming salmon populations. Cities around the country are facing the same problems as Flint, Michigan: contaminated water and deteriorating distribution systems.

So Lape gathered groups from across the country Tuesday for the White House Water Summit in Washington. Scientists, politicians and environmental advocates from all corners of the country came to discuss the challenges they face and to brainstorm possible solutions.

“This event -- it’s probably the first ever of its kind,” Lape said.

Melinda Kruyer, director of Confluence, which helps to develop solutions in sustainable water use in the Cincinnati area, attended the summit.

“We heard about a call to action from the White House, and after reaching out and a series of interviews, we were selected to come to Washington,” Kruyer said.

The EPA founded Confluence in January 2011 to help bind together businesses, government, research institutions and other organizations to identify issues and develop the efficient, inexpensive programs to keep water clean in the Ohio Valley area, including Cincinnati, Dayton, Northern Kentucky and Southern Indiana.

In addition to coordinating among businesses that use water, the group seeks to identify and support businesses that develop clean-water technology. Like many of the people who gathered at the summit, Kruyer said more funding is needed to update water systems.

“We’re seeing challenges that we’ve never seen before – algae toxins and lead in the water – at degrees we didn’t realize,” Kruyer said. “We need funding to implement the solutions to those problems.”

The EPA pledged $35 million in grants this year, and another $1 billion in private capital has been pledged, according to a White House press release.

Lead in the water is an issue for many older cities; and an algae bloom in Lake Erie created an enormous water problem for Toledo.

Ohio is certainly not alone in its water troubles. More than two dozen politicians, scientists and advocates spoke at the water summit, and their problems were as diverse as their place of origin.

Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community near Phoenix, talked about his reservation’s need for water. Hope Culpit, of the Southeast Rural Community Assistance program, told the crowd that some families in the South rely on buckets for water.

Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., said the nation had “failed miserably” to maintain its “criminally underfunded” water supply.

Kruyer said the speaker who had the most profound impact was Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich. His district includes Flint.

Kildee repeated the details that have now become familiar: The city is deteriorating, its population is poor and information about the water system was so old it was stored on index cards. Kildee blamed the Michigan government and said austerity measures had prevented Flint from fixing its water system.

But for Kruyer, the most moving thing Kildee said was a story of a child living in Flint. The girl told a local journalist that she was afraid she would never be smart, because drinking lead hurts the brain.

“It’s one thing to talk about these challenges on paper,” Kruyer said. “When you hear about that the girl, it breaks your heart. It puts a human face on all this.”

The program in Cincinnati is one of several the EPA started around the country. Kruyer briefly spoke with Michael Murphy of the New England Water Innovation Network after the summit concluded.

“We’re all regional, but there’s a lot we can learn from one another,” Murphy said. “How to create revenue for a cluster group, best practices in marketing … what we’re doing in Boston, we have a lot of assets that we can share.”