By Roland Wall
Senior Director for Environmental Initiatives
As part of our popular Town Square series on environmental issues, the Academy last week hosted a panel of experts for an informative discussion and spirited Q and A about water quality in Philadelphia. “What’s in Our Water?” featured Philadelphia’s new Water Commissioner Deborah McCarty and others and was prompted by recent reports of dangerous levels of lead in drinking water in Flint, Mich.
The presentations were reassuring on the specific issue of lead, but the discussion also came with some cautions. While the city has taken substantial steps to avoid the kinds of problems dogging Flint, easy access to water can never be taken for granted.
Safe drinking water relies on complex infrastructures for source water, distribution systems, treatment facilities, scientific expertise, and government action. In Flint, both technical and administrative errors resulted in largely avoidable lead contamination.
At the Town Square on May 3, Commissioner McCarty laid out the reasons why Philadelphia is very different from Flint, in terms of drinking water management. The panelists agreed that although lead in water must be taken very seriously, the potential risk in Philadelphia is being carefully managed.
All of the panelists also agreed, however, that guaranteeing safe and reliable service is an ongoing task. In particular, they all noted that protecting the source of the water – streams, rivers, reservoirs, and groundwater – is just as important as the treatment the water receives before it gets to homes and businesses.
This challenge especially resonates here at the Academy, where we have been working for more than 70 years to understand and protect the health of rivers and streams. One such effort is the Academy’s involvement in the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, a multi-year, multi-million dollar project involving dozens of partners and sponsored by the William Penn Foundation. We are working together to ensure the water quality for 15 million people who rely on the Delaware for their drinking water.
In this country we are extremely fortunate that water is readily available in most homes. Near-universal access to safe, clean water was one of our country’s great achievements of the last century. Nonetheless, as Flint and other locations have shown, when there are problems with public water systems, society is impacted at the deepest levels.
At the Academy we consider protecting the source of drinking water to be one of our most important efforts. With science and analysis, we are able to support the work being done across the region and help maintain a safe, reliable system of water, from its origin in the stream to the faucet in your kitchen.
To read more about the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, visit our website.