“Where Do You Get that Living Water?”
Understanding the Risks to Water Quality
Julie Peller

We have lots of water on this planet, but two big problems come with it in the modern era. First, very little of that water is fresh water, so many people struggle with water scarcity. The United Nations estimates that about four billion people—nearly two-thirds of the world’s population—experience severe water scarcity at least one month per year. Those of us who live near the Great Lakes typically don’t have this problem—after all, the Great Lakes account for 84 percent of North America’s surface fresh water, and a significant portion of the global surface fresh water supply. But we do struggle with the second big problem, which is just as concerning as the first. Our problem is how to ensure the quality of our fresh water.

I love the Great Lakes and I’m a chemist, so these two things have led me to study water quality. The water quality in the Great Lakes depends on many factors. Any pollutant in the Great Lakes Watershed (the area that drains into the lakes) can be carried through local creeks, streams, and rivers into one of the lakes. Even pollutants in the air can make their way into the lakes via rain. Protecting water quality is not a simple task.

When we hear about Lake Michigan beaches being closed due to contamination, it is because some entities in some locations—the National Park Service at the Indiana Dunes, for instance—regularly test for bacteria in the lake. Bacteria levels—E. coli levels specifically—can rise because of storm drain runoff, sewage overflows, animal waste, or boat discharge. Whatever the case, beachgoers know not to go in the water when they see the red flag posted. It means that E. coli levels are high, and swimmers are likely to get sick. 

We need to monitor biological contaminants, but we also need to recognize that many other harmful contaminants—chemical contaminants—endanger our lakes and are not being monitored in a long-term, scientifically rigorous way. With a larger population of people using more materials, many more chemical contaminants enter surface water. Different places generate different chemical pollutants. All are rapidly dispersed and diluted when they enter the large lakes.

Science tells us the current input of pollutants is concerning, and the recent proposed rollbacks for the EPA’s Clean Water Act will worsen the situation. Last summer, ArcelorMittal’s major spill of ammonia and cyanide into Lake Michigan near the Indiana Dunes killed thousands of fish and exposed beachgoers to toxic chemicals that may have long-term health effects. It’s a particularly poignant example of what can happen when we don’t carefully safeguard the quality of our water. If we don’t have meaningful legal penalties and oversight for those who disregard pollution limits, we endanger the health of our beaches, our water, our wildlife, our families, and ourselves.

But even when we’re talking about normal, “acceptable” levels of pollutants in our water, we have serious problems. In northwest Indiana, the chemical pollutants of concern include pesticides and agricultural nutrients, pharmaceuticals, industry-related heavy metals, and plastics. Farmers use pesticides and nutrients, but Americans in general are obsessed with having a green, weed-free lawn. Lots of people use these chemicals to achieve that goal. While it’s fine to use them on occasion, people need to recognize that when they are taking every step possible to keep their lawn green, they are polluting the watershed.

Pharmaceuticals are a second category of pollutants. Between 2002 and 2018, pharmaceutical sales in the United States increased from $195 billion to $482 billion. Usually only a small percentage of pharmaceuticals is metabolized, leaving much of the medication we take to pass through our bodies and into our waterways, thus becoming a significant source of pollution.

Toxic metals—lead in particular—are a third concerning pollutant in our waterways, and these metals typically come from industry. Unfortunately, heavy metals tend to stay heavy. They do not change in the way other pollution will, given enough time and space. Airborne particulates from local steel mills and other industrial sites carry metal pollutants and may rain out into the lake.

Plastics are the fourth major pollutant category. It doesn’t take long for even a casual observer to see that plastics pollute our waterways. Perhaps you’ve read about the mountains of plastic that have ended up in the oceans, or you’ve seen pictures of dying or dead animals that have consumed massive amounts of the stuff. Sadly, even when we’re paying attention we only see a small percentage of all the plastic pollution.

I’m currently working with a team of researchers that’s studying the presence and effect of synthetic microfibers that come from clothing, blankets, stuffed animals, carpeting, and the like. When we think about plastic we don’t usually think about fabric. But polyester, nylon, and fleece are very common and they are plastics. We wear plastic clothes, and they shed tremendously. Laundry wastewater is a significant source of synthetic microfibers, and this type of water contamination should absolutely concern us.

Members of our team, which includes undergraduate chemistry students, collect samples (about a coffee cup’s amount) of laundry wastewater, then filter it and look under a microscope to count the fibers. We have found that the Valparaiso wastewater treatment plant removes about 97 percent of synthetic microfibers from laundry wastewater. That sounds impressive, but that still leaves a lot of synthetic microfibers in treated water. Our team determined that about 4 billion microfibers enter Lake Michigan through Salt Creek daily. Wastewater treatment plants typically ship the sediment they collect to farms to be used as fertilizer. We don’t know how many synthetic microfibers make their way into that sediment, nor do we know how these microfibers affect the plants that farmers grow and the food they produce.

Over the span of just a few generations, we’ve become extremely reliant on plastics. I do a plastic survey with my Intro to Chemistry classes. Until you really stop to look, it’s hard to recognize how much plastic we use and encounter every day. There’s more of it than ever before, and plastics don’t break down—they just compile. I recently took a walk along Lake Michigan, and I came across a dune that had been exposed by the recent high-water levels. Tucked far under the surface I found many pieces of plastic—plastic that had probably been there for years, and will remain on earth for much longer.

Have you thought about who monitors your water, or what particular contaminants affect your water? Say you have a little creek near your home. How often is it tested, and what should it be tested for? If you live near a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (a CAFO) or near an industrial park, how does that affect your water? When I am around local streams and ponds, sometimes I can only see a couple inches below the surface. Is this something to worry about? To really know the answers to these questions, we need surface water monitoring.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) is responsible for watershed monitoring in the state. The department has divided Indiana into nine water management basins and uses a “rotating basin approach” for its water monitoring strategy. That means just one basin is monitored each year over a nine-year period. Is it satisfactory to monitor a particular watershed and its surface water just once every nine years? I’ve yet to find someone who says, “Yeah, that’s great!”  Most citizens don’t know about this, and it’s something we all need to know. The rotating basin approach is an indicator of how understaffed and underfunded—and perhaps undervalued—this agency is.

IDEM does what it can with limited resources. But both the department and everyday Hoosiers need to think about innovative strategies for water quality monitoring. Partners may be one such strategy, as long as they have the education and training to assist with monitoring in a scientifically rigorous way. The Hoosier Riverwatch organization encourages volunteers to help with simple monitoring tasks, such as measuring pH levels. But as long as communities don’t know how their water is monitored, and as long as they don’t know individual citizens can come together to do something to help, few people will participate. 

A few years ago, some of my colleagues and I decided we should be doing more to help monitor the local water quality. So we secured funding from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2015 and the National Science Foundation in 2017 to partner with some local schools and nonprofits, as well as the US Geological Survey. With the help of some wonderful middle school teachers in the nearby town of Portage, we taught eighth graders how to monitor water quality. They helped us collect samples, do testing back in our labs, and analyze our data. The project helped create community awareness and stewardship. While we would have liked for this to turn into a long-term project, we didn’t get the funding to continue past three years. I still keep my eyes open for funding opportunities, but they are few and far between, and it’s difficult to build on a project that has ended. The reality is, when the money dries up, you’re done. Water quality monitoring has to be long-term to be effective. Otherwise, we can’t know whether there has been a substantial shift in water quality over time.

Recently I came across a 2006 report from the United States Geological Survey that said there is a documented inadequacy of current water quality monitoring efforts around the United States. This was from fourteen years ago, and things have not gotten better. What’s required for effective, science-based water quality monitoring? We have to know which specific pollutants we need to monitor and quantify. We have to be strategic about our testing locations and about testing frequency. Once every nine years is probably not sufficient.

Scientists were telling us many years ago that we have to get better at this. Now, with the proposed changes to the Clean Water Act, we have the federal government essentially disregarding science and potentially endangering public health.

We all have pollutants in our bodies now. It’s in our water and in our food. We’re finding chemical pollutants in all kinds of organisms, especially aquatic ones. We need to consider chemical pollutants, not just biological ones, as a real concern. With the proper resources, we would be able to do all of this. Without the proper resources, this is an impossible job.

A reduction in surface water protections is a move in the wrong direction. If you want your dog to be able to safely drink out of a local creek, if you want your family to be able to safely drink a glass of water from the kitchen tap, then we need to treat water as the precious resource it is. We ignore this issue at our own peril.


Julie Peller is a professor of chemistry at Valparaiso University. This column was written with Heather Grennan Gary.


Works Cited

“ArcelorMittal Fish Kill.” https://www.in.gov/idem/cleanwater/2576.htm.

“Ocean Pollution.” https://www.noaa.gov/education/resource-collections/ocean-coasts-education-resources/ocean-pollution.

“Total nominal spending on medicines in the U.S. from 2002 to 2018 (in billion U.S. dollars).” https://www.statista.com/statistics/238689/us-total-expenditure-on-medicine/ Jan 29, 2020.

“Water Scarcity.” https://www.unwater.org/water-facts/scarcity/

Copyright © 2019 | Valparaiso University | Privacy Policy