Bacteria Water

The Checkup: Climate Change can affect your drinking water’s quality

Climate change has a profound impact on the way we live. It’s having an impact on our water, for example. Most people associate climate change with more rainfall in certain places and droughts elsewhere. Did you know that climate changes can also make water unsafe to use?

Lizzy McGrevy of Side Effects Public Media, Side Effects Public Media’s community engagement specialist spoke with Health Reporter Elizabeth Gabriel in order to answer the question: “How does climate change affect our water quality?”


This transcription has been edited to improve length, clarity and style.

McGrevy : I’ve heard that in the United States, waterborne pathogens are responsible for over 100,000 hospitalizations each year. Can you explain how climate change affects this?

Elizabeth Gabriel There are several main ways that climate change affects water quality. First, increased rainfall is a result of extreme weather. Water runoff occurs when there is more rainwater than can be absorbed by the soil. In cities with fewer grassy areas and less rain, excess water can collect pollutants, including dog poop, as it runs down streets. In cities with outdated sewer systems, toilet water can accumulate along with the runoff. All of these contaminants end up in the water reservoirs we depend on.

Temperature increases is the second way that climate change affects water quality. Warm weather is conducive to harmful bacteria such as E. coli. This is a problem for rivers and streams, but it’s even worse for lakes and reservoirs. Not only is the water unfit to drink, but it’s also difficult to refine.


McGrevy : Could you explain a bit more how this change in the water quality makes people sick?

Gabriel :Sometimes, people experience symptoms that are similar to food poisoning – such as vomiting and diarrhea.

Algal blooms have also increased due to warmer temperatures. Algal blooms are harmless, but their toxins are not. Some dogs have become sick or died after drinking the water.

In Toledo, Ohio for instance, over 100 people became ill about a decade back when tap water contained algae.

Many people believe that boiling water makes it safer, but in reality, it can actually make algal blooms worse.


McGrevy : Does it help to know that the water in my tap goes through different treatment systems?

Gabriel:Even when there is a high concentration of these toxic organisms in the water, depending on where you live, water companies treat it before they start to produce actual toxins. Professor Gabriel Filippelli of environmental science at Indiana University said that people should be concerned about water which is not required to be tested in their county or state.

Fillippelli stated that “there are many people who have wells, and no one tests the water until you do.” “And homeowners with wells rarely test their water regularly.” If the water is contaminated by bacteria or other harmful substances, you may be drinking well water without knowing.


McGrevy: All life forms – including humans, animals and plants – need water. What do we do to protect our precious sources of water from climate change.

Gabriel : We live both in Indianapolis, and as you can seethere is a lot going on. A lot of it has to do with the sewer system.

Citizens Energy Group is responsible for a nearly 20-year-old sewer system upgrade project. The DigIndy Tunnel System is the name of this project. Although the project hasn’t been completed yet, they claim that it has already reduced harmful pollutants entering waterways. Some researchers claim that despite the fact that it is brand-new, it will not meet expectations.

According to them, engineers calculated the size of tunnels based on data from recent rainfall. Filippelli, at Indiana University, doesn’t believe the new tunnels will be sustainable because engineers did not account for possible changes due to climate.

Fillippelli stated that climate change had already increased flooding in the past 20 years by 15%. According to our modelling, we expect that the trend will continue and that rainfall levels may increase by another 15% in the next twenty years.

Citizens Energy, however, denies that these claims are true. According to the consent decree Citizens Energy signed with the Environmental Protection Agency, they are required to build a system of tunnels that can store 250 million gallons per rain event. Mike Miller, manager of the DigIndy tunnel system, stated that changes made to the plans in the past should have allowed the tunnels to hold 280-290 millions gallons.

Miller stated that “unless the EPA issued new regulations that require us to build beyond our commitments, we will continue monitoring and modifying and meeting that criteria.”

Miller stated that they will continue monitoring the tunnels after they are completed by the end next year. Miller said that they have already begun some monitoring by comparing the collection rates of the tunnels to data from 2022-2023. They currently do not have any plans to build or update new tunnels after the current DigIndy Project.


McGrevy : Some efforts have been made to press states and the federal governments into implementing policies on climate change. Does it work?

Gabriel : Since the Biden Administration took office, billions of dollars have been spent to try and fix water sources in nature preserves as well as urban areas. This includes improving water efficiency and climate resilient. Some republican-led state have fought against federal efforts for municipal water supply cleaning.

The Clean Water Act helped clean water sources throughout the United States for decades by setting standards of water quality and regulating pollution discharges into waterbodies. Sackett v. EPA ruling changed that last year. The Supreme Court changed the definition of a “water of the United States” under the Clean Water Act. Developers can now avoid permits and regulations, and states do not have to clean as many water sources.

Burke Griggs is a law professor at Washburn University, Kansas. He said Des Moines in Iowa can be used as a case study. The city of Des Moines, Iowa sued large pork and meat processing facilities and nearby farms for allowing contaminated water to flow downstream.

You’re located downstream of 200 farms, all of which pollute the river. Griggs stated that most of the farms were exempted from the Clean Water Act. How do you hold these people accountable?

The federal government has supremacy over state law, according to the Constitution. It’s hard for states to regulate themselves.


McGrevy : From what you say, it seems that the water quality issues will not go away. Climate change will make them worse, but because politics is so polarizing, it’s harder to solve these problems. What can we do as individuals to protect our water resources?

Gabriel: Griggs says people must recognize the importance civic and political engagement in water issues. There is also environmental justice. For example, many older water systems that have lead pipes are located in Black and Brown communities. With gentrification, climate change and other factors, even more wealthy communities are affected by poor water quality.

Small actions on a daily basis can have a significant impact. For example, picking up dog poop which is a major source of E.coli. When changing the oil in their cars, people should be cautious so that oil does not leak onto another person’s lawn. Not fertilizing your yard also helps. If you have to, make sure that it won’t rain in the next few days. If you don’t, rainwater will wash the chemicals down our storm drains into the water system.


McGrevy : Thanks for the wonderful information.


Please contact us if you have questions about the healthcare system in Canada, questions that you are too embarrassed to ask your doctor or any other health-related questions. At your next checkup, we’ll have more information on health. Keep yourself safe.

WFYI news now The checkup by Side Effects Public Media, a regular audio program that airs in the WFYI daily podcast and on radio.


Contact WFYI’s health reporter Elizabeth Gabriel at [email protected].


Side Effects Public Media, a collaboration of health reporters based in Indianapolis at WFYI. We work with NPR stations in the Midwest, including KBIA, KCUR, Ideastream, Iowa Public Radio and WFPL.