A recent study revealed Oklahoma and Texas as hotbeds for violations of federal clean drinking water regulations.
As if Oklahoma didn’t have enough problems on its plate, it will now have to add potentially unclean water to the menu. A study published last month from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tracked violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act over the past 35 years and identified two states in particular that have struggled to maintain standards for clean drinking water: Texas and Oklahoma.
The study revealed that between 2004 and 2015, more than a dozen Oklahoma counties, all of them rural, recorded between 25 and 50 violations. As a point of reference, Genesee, the county containing Flint, Michigan, had just five violations over the same span. Several of the most egregiously offending Oklahoma water systems belong to counties directly adjacent to Tulsa, including Osage, Pawnee and Wagoner.
Maura Allaire, one of the lead authors of the study, spoke about trends connecting the offending communities, calling them “smaller communities flying under the radar.” She added that addressing the problem could be a matter of money and resources: “They’re struggling to maintain their aging infrastructure, and they’re struggling to keep up with the latest water treatment techniques.”
It seems evident, at least with regard to the extensive issues in Oklahoma and Texas specifically, that there is
more to the story than a simple lack of funds. There must be something to explain the disparity between the trouble spots in the two states and other similarly impoverished, rural counties across the nation.
TU professor Marsha Howard, who researches deadly amoebas in lakes and rivers throughout the southern states, believes that the scorching heat of Oklahoma’s summers could have something to do with it.
“It has a lot to do with temperatures,” she said. “One of the issues that I noted was what they call DBPs, disinfection byproducts. As a result of the increase of organic matter [in the water] in the summer, with rising levels of protozoa, E. coli and other bacteria, they have to increase disinfection, and then there are more byproducts as a result of that in the water. And that apparently is one of the things that is listed as a violation.”
She insisted, however, that this sort of violation is far from the worst that a community could deal with when it comes to its drinking water. In the past several years, she studied cases of amoebas found in New Orleans’s tap water, a result of employees falsifying chlorination reports and failing to properly sanitize the water supply.
“If the worst thing we’re primarily seeing in the state of Oklahoma is the disinfection byproducts,” she said, “I’m okay with that. That means they are disinfecting the water, and I’d rather see that than the high coliform [a type of bacteria] counts. So our high levels of disinfection are a good thing. We might have funny-tasting water sometimes, but that’s what we pay for having safe water.”
Still, the full extent of the problems facing the water supply, both in Oklahoma and around the country, remains uncertain. Since state governments are usually in charge of maintaining federal water quality standards, bureaucracy and incompetency can affect their implementation. In other cases, budgetary cutbacks can force local municipalities to focus on only certain types of contaminants, which in turn results in underreporting of other factors of safety and cleanliness. Dr. Kristi Pullen Fedinick of the Natural Resources Defense Council has said that a “huge amount” of such underreporting is known to the scientific community to exist on a national scale.
To combat this, Howard believes that some degree of involvement from D.C. may be necessary. “I know people are concerned with big government and not having them involved in our lives,” she said, “but I don’t see any other way around having regulations for things of this nature.”
Oklahoma’s own Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has expressed public concern for the quality of America’s drinking water and has recently announced his desire to begin a war on lead. It remains to be seen whether the EPA will be able to make any visible impact, especially given the Trump administration’s insistence on making across-the-board budget cuts to environmental programs.