Photo by Lillian Bernstein

water in development

By Meghan McGorry

Water, as we all know, is something that’s imperative for our survival. From keeping all living things hydrated, to keeping things clean, or even to keeping our own houses running, water is something that keeps us all occupants of planet Earth. Our planet is about 71%  water, which is about the same percentage of water that makes up the human body. In short, water is really important, and everyone needs it. But how does the water we use for our showers, sinks, and even our sprinkler systems get where it needs to be? And how exactly can we tell if the water we’re putting into our bodies is safe to consume? Let’s start off with the basics.

Water can be divided into groundwater and surface water. Groundwater is located just beneath the Earth’s surface, and is the product of rainwater or other precipitation slowly moving through the soil and down towards rock material. Surface water is typically found in lakes, streams, reservoirs, or creeks that it’s usually used in public water sources. This means that in general, surface water is more likely to be contaminated by pollution and runoff. This type of water is not typically funnelled back into our municipal water systems, and it is usually found in lakes and rivers. Both of these types of waters can be and are used for drinking water, if they are treated properly, but groundwater is usually preferred for consumption for a few good reasons. Surface water diminishes faster than groundwater (which makes the latter more valuable during times of drought). Groundwater is also often less expensive to treat because of the lack of pollution it comes in contact with. Wells can also be used to tap into groundwater, whereas surface water usually remains more common in streams and lakes. So… how exactly does that filtered water get into our houses?

While every township or city may have different policies regulating their water these systems are typically  divided into three groups: the public system, the public sanitary sewer system, and the storm sewer. “The public water system provides clean water to residents and businesses for consumption,” said Greg Adams, the Municipal Planner for South Whitehall Township.  “The public sanitary sewer system conveys waste (including water and some stormwater) from residences, businesses, and some stormwater systems to the Allentown Sewer Plant for processing. The stormwater system takes stormwater runoff and does a number of things with it. Some goes into the sanitary sewer system, some is detained for a period (to avoid a large pulse of stormwater hitting the system all at once during a rain event) and then allowed to continue on through natural watercourses, and some is captured onsite and infiltrated through the ground into the water table (much like would occur naturally).” He also made sure to differentiate between public water systems and private water systems (such as wells), which are “owned by individuals or companies to provide drinking water to the property owner or customers, or septic systems and the like to handle sanitary sewerage on-site.”

Groundwater and surface water can often be contaminated with the same pollutants. This pollution can occur when contaminants are flushed from the land itself, and they often end up being deposited in the groundwater. While it’s true that urbanization is not the only concern with the pollution of water systems, it’s something that is becoming increasingly common (or was, before the COVID-19 pandemic) as the economy continues to thrive and the population grows. The graphic below shows a few examples of what could contribute to water contamination in a given township:

Does this mean that all industrialization is bad? Absolutely not. But it brings certain questions into light about the cleanliness of the environment one is living in. For example, South Whitehall (whose water supplies I talked about above), is considering putting in a huge new development (Ridge Farms) on farmland. While this development will bring new housing, it may also bring additional waste to the township’s water supply.

Urbanization can lead to increased demand for water as people start to migrate more and more to one area. Development like this can put tension on local water capacity, since there are now so many more people attempting to access the water supplies. As the amount of people in one area grows suddenly due to urbanization, so does the demand for water, and unfortunately, so does the amount of pollution.

The average American produces around 4.51 pounds of waste a day, which is around 1,646 pounds of trash produced per person per year. A small amount of this trash is sent to recycling centers, and some is sent to landfills, but a lot of it makes its way back into our oceans and water supplies. This can happen through improper disposal of consumer goods (usually single use items, like plastic forks or solo cups). An example of this would be people disposing of garbage on highways, near waterways, or in open spaces. On another note, the Ridge Farms Development in South Whitehall township is going to have around 780 new homes, including twin homes (age and non-age restrictive), single family homes, age-restricted single homes, apartments, and retail buildings. Even if just one person lived in each apartment in the development, that would create about 1,616,160 pounds of additional waste for South Whitehall Township in a single year. And that’s not even calculating the waste coming from the development’s shopping outlets and restaurants.

These statistics are indeed hypothetical, but it can be hard to try to change industrialization once it’s happened. Talking about urbanization’s environmental implications beforehand could only benefit the citizens that could be impacted. In fact, while most Americans have access to safe drinking water, potentially harmful contaminants—from arsenic to copper to lead—have been found in the tap water of every single state in the nation (NRDC). But how is it possible to prevent a problem like water pollution when it seems like such a huge issue to tackle? First things first: don’t be afraid to start small. You can check your own township’s water records and cleanliness at by just typing in your zip code into the search bar. For example, South Whitehall Township has a total of 17 total contaminants in the tap water (10 of which exceed Health Guidelines). While some of these contaminants are at their “legal limit,” that doesn’t necessarily mean that the water is safe to use and consume. The federal government’s legal limits are not health-protective. A new tap water standard has not been set by the EPA for over 20 years, and most of the pre-existing standards are over forty years old. To put this into perspective, that means (potentially) that your town’s water guidelines have not been updated since the Berlin Wall fell .

Gathering all the facts about your area and keeping yourself informed is one of the biggest steps you can take to ensure your water’s cleanliness. Taking action by contacting your local officials could also potentially be very beneficial. They are the ones who have a say in questions of water quality in a specific state or township. While they may not be able to solve the issue completely, these officials may be able to petition your city hall, state legislature, or even Congress to listen to concerns of citizens who have questions about their water safety.  There are also certain water filters, such as activated carbon, reverse osmosis, and ion exchange that can be used to clean the water you’re consuming. These filters can be used to get rid of any chemicals or harmful substances (such as bromoform, chloroform, chromium, nitrate, radium, etc.) that may be contaminating your tap.

Meghan McGorry is a theater and media & communication double major at Muhlenberg College, and works as a social media specialist for different hotel chains in her free time. When she’s not writing about MS4 water systems, you can usually find Meghan either playing the guitar, or making dream boards on Pinterest. If she could travel back to one period in time, it would definitely be the 1950’s- she’d love to go to an Elvis concert!

Hannah Schmitt is a 2020 graduate of Muhlenberg College. Having spent years nodding along to her sister, a water resources engineer, while she talked about her work, Hannah decided to delve deeper into that world and explore stormwater management in the Lehigh Valley. Looking to pursue a career in acting, Hannah doubts she’ll ever perform in a play about stormwater management.