August 2, 2012
By Roxi Aslan
The history of drinking water is one that is very interesting. As water is fundamental for human life, obtaining drinkable water has always been a goal of any civilization that has been in existence. Originally, humans obtained water from their nearby rivers and springs but as populations expanded, this goal became a greater challenge. These challenges had to be met with great engineering feats such as the first aqueducts and cisterns that the Romans built in regions such as Istanbul and Nimes. However, once the water was obtained, it was not until the 11th century that a physician began to understand the concept of water-borne pathogens and therefore that water should be altered before drinking it in order to prevent illness.
With technological advancements developing very slowly, thousands of people died from sicknesses caused by filthy drinking water and only a century after the microscope was created in 1595 and microbes were first discovered were we able to begin to improve human health. With the subsequent development of sand filtration methods and chlorine treatments that eliminate water-borne pathogens and therefore diseases, water quality has now become an important part of state and federal policies. Today, Los Angeles has the world’s largest filtration plant in which ozone is used as a disinfectant to treat up to 600 million gallons of water per day.
However, drinking water issues still remain. As populations continue to expand and we engage in practices such as obtaining our food from confined animal feeding operations, contamination of our drinking water supply with chemicals from fertilizers and pathogens from sewage has been growing. With crowded conditions in a city like Los Angeles, failures and spills at treatment facilities are likely. At the Hyperion wastewater treatment plant that we visited this week, it wasn’t until 1980 and $1.4 billion dollars later that we were able to stop the discharging of 25 million pounds of wastewater solids per month into the Santa Monica Bay. For less-developed countries, such funding is not possible.
Therefore, focus on source water protection is an effective and necessary way of reducing these high treatment costs and ensuring safe drinking water. Only fairly recently though has this concept been put into action through policies such as the United States’ Safe Drinking Water Act of 1996. After events like the 1996 contamination of drinking water supplies in Santa Monica with MTBE, a gasoline additive that causes health problems, actions have been developed to reduce potential sources of contamination and the use of such chemicals have been greatly decreased. While measures that have been taken to protect our source water have been successful, pollution and contamination will have to be constantly monitored as our populations continue to grow even more.
About the author: Roxi Aslan is a junior biology major with a minor in environmental studies in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences. Roxi plans on pursuing a career in marine biomedical research and hopes to use her science diving skills acquired in a Guam and Palau field course to do so.