The collective consciousness of the United States water industry holds several historic crises as motivating moments of failure. Prominent examples of these negative events include the lead crises of Flint and Washington, DC as well as the Milwaukee cryptosporidiosis outbreak and the Toledo harmful algal bloom. These events are painful yet helpful reminders of the reliance of public health on potable water supply. However, in rural areas, similar health-based violations are much more frequent, less well known, and not at the forefront of our minds.
Data demonstrate that the incidence of health-based water quality violations in rural areas is significantly higher than in urban areas. One of the primary causes is the inherent difficulty rural systems face adapting to more stringent regulations. For example, promulgation of the Stage II Disinfection Byproduct Rule (DBP) in 2013 led to a dramatic increase in rural system violation rate. Small, rural systems may lack the carrying capacity to reach full compliance due to the financial strain from a declining population and economic base.
A similar situation may now be occurring with emerging contaminants such as 1,4 dioxane (14D) and perfluorinated compounds. New York State was recently the first state to produce an enforceable 14D limit in drinking water. One of the few proven approaches for 14D treatment is to use an advanced oxidation process (AOP). This approach is effective; however, it typically requires ozone in combination with UV-light or hydrogen peroxide. Adaptation of AOPs by small, rural systems is low, likely attributable to the inherently complex auxiliary systems required for hydroxyl radical formation. This presents a unique challenge to rural systems in New York State that will soon be subjected to well-intended 14D regulation without appropriate tools for meeting compliance.
New approaches are required specifically for small systems that are appropriate in the carrying capacity context of these communities
A one-size-fits all approach to water treatment technology ignores the unique challenges in small, rural systems. Rather than just scaling down technology that works well in large urban systems, new approaches are required specifically for small systems that are appropriate in the carrying capacity context of these communities. Potential alternative oxidation technologies that may be especially attractive to small systems are being developed such as chlorine-based AOPs, ferrate, and electrochemical advanced oxidation processes (eAOPs). eAOPs utilize specialized electrodes that oxidize or reduce contaminants without the need for other chemical inputs. Similarly, ferrate can be used in a combination with sulfite to generate several radicals from shelf stable chemicals. These technologies promise a “plug and play” approach to advanced treatment without significant increases in operational complexity.
Small systems also require attention from the water industry beyond treatment. Water system staff need ongoing support to leverage monitoring data and maintain existing infrastructure — two challenge areas exacerbated by climate change. Government and other resources exist for small systems; however, they are often limited and seemingly inaccessible. State funding declined by a third during the enactment of the Stage 1 and 2 DBP rules. Cloud-based software solutions with virtual support and data analytics-machine learning offer hopeful alternatives in this area.
These new tools in development may help close the rural water gap, but increased commitment and attention is still required. Legendary NCAA Basketball Coach John R. Wooden said that “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen”. While water system crises in large urban areas rightfully capture attention, increased attention on the problems of small systems is needed. Ensuring a safe drinking water supply regardless of geography or other socioeconomic considerations is certainly a big goal, worthy of earnest pursuit. In order to achieve it focus on the little things—small rural water systems—is essential.